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Guernsey's Roman wreck

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 13:06 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

A Roman bilge pump bearingThe response to the radio series has been fantastic but, as you can see, there are a lot more than the 100 objects from the series on the website.

Over 350 museums from all over the UK have added things to the site with more joining each day. Every week, we'll try to pick an object or two out of the collection and find out a bit more about it.

This week, I talked to Dr Jason Monaghan from Guernsey Museums about the Roman bilge pump bearing found in St Peter Port harbour. The obvious question was: you've got a bilge pump but what about the rest of the boat?

We have three quarters of the bottom of the boat, a section about 18 metres long, which was found in the mouth of the bay on Christmas Day, 1982, right in the centre between the two pier-heads.

It's no coincidence that it was found on Christmas Day; it's the only day you can dive in the bay, as there are no ships moving. Divers go down looking for scallops and other shellfish. They weren't expecting to find a Roman wreck.
By a further happy coincidence, the man who discovered it was a marine biologist, Richard Keen. He reported his find straight away but it was four years before it was all recovered from the harbour. Its condition meant it had to be raised piece by piece, one of those pieces being the bilge pump.

The boat would have been held together by iron nails as long as your forearm but they had dissolved in the water and now it was being held together by the willpower of mud.

On board there were blocks of pitch made from tree-resin. They might have been trading it, or the pitch could have been for waterproofing barrels, for sealing amphora, or something else. But we know a fire sank the boat, because some of those blocks melted. The bilge pump only survives because it was preserved in this melted pitch.
The boat has been named the Asterix and is currently in the final stages of preservation at the Mary Rose Trust, in Portsmouth. The museum is now looking at how it can be returned to Guernsey.

But what would a Roman boat have been doing in Guernsey in the first place? When I think of Romans coming to these islands, I have images of tribes of natives brandishing spears at boats brimming with armoured soldiers. But Dr Monaghan reminds me that not every Roman visit was about charging ashore with sharp swords.

Guernsey has been on trade routes since 4,000 BC. For instance, we know that it was on the Iron Age, wine-trading route from the Bordeaux region, in western France.

There were no compasses and no charts at the time, so they sailed in sight of land and put ashore at night. These boats were flat-bottomed so that they could be run right up onto the beach.

The boat would have been making the run up the Atlantic coast, carrying 'cargoes of opportunity', which means picking up and trading whatever they could, and stopping at Guernsey was like pulling into a motorway service station.
So while they bought us roads, baths and horribly effective lessons in military strategy, the Romans, and others before them, were also bringing us things to make life a little easier, like wine.

This small, bronze pump helps show how we were connected with the rest of Europe through trade. And I'm sure the sailors who watched their boat burning found someone to put them up for a few nights, until they could thumb a lift from the next bunch of Italians pulling in to buy a few snacks and use the toilets.

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