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Piece of Roman Empire Unearthed from 2000-Year-Old Shipwreck

Oct 30, 2014 04:17 PM EDT

Divers have just unearthed a piece of the ancient Roman Empire from a 2,000-year-old shipwreck located in the dark depths of the Mediterranean, seemingly transporting scientists back in time.

Submerged 410 feet below sea level off the Italian coast near the Aeolian islands, far too deep to be reached by robotic technology, the wreck had gone undetected for centuries. That is, until highly trained divers with the Florida-based group called Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) used sonar and a remotely-operated submarine to detect the wreckage.

Able to descend hundreds of feet further than most divers, the GUE team stumbled upon what is believed to be the Panarea III, a 50-foot-long wooden vessel likely used as a cargo ship between the ancient cities of Rome and Carthage sometime between 218 and 210 BC. For archaeologists working with the divers, the discovery was "like reaching through a window in time," Jarrod Jablonski, one of the divers with the exploration group, told The Associated Press (AP).

"This shipwreck is a very important occasion to understand more about the daily life on the ancient ship, as well as the real dynamics of ancient trade," added Sebastiano Tusa, an Italian archaeologist who is studying the site.

Though other shipwrecks can offer such information, the Panarea III is remarkably well preserved. So far researchers have discovered terra cotta jars, used to carry wine, scattered across the ocean floors, along with olive oil and other cargo dating back to the height of the Roman Empire.

But bringing these objects to the surface for study wasn't easy. These expert divers could only work for 30 minutes at a time, the AP reports, before having to make a four-to-five hour ascent to avoid getting the bends - when increased levels of nitrogen becomes toxic to humans.

This problem is what is keeping divers from further exploring another massive shipwreck called "the Titanic of the ancient world," located off Antikythera Island in southern Greece. Divers exploring that wreck plan to return in the springtime when conditions are supposed to be better.

In the case of the Panarea III vessel, researchers hope data collected from the site can be used by the Italian government and others in the future, and could possibly shed light on who the ship belonged to. So far, the AP reports, possibilities include a wealthy Italian merchant or Claudio Marcello, who used a fleet to conquer the Italian city of Syracuse in 212 BC.

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