Monday, August 30, 2004


Plant Pollen Pinpoints Shipwreck Origins


A Pollen Grain

By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Pollen analysis could provide ancient shipwrecks with rather reliable birth certificates, according to French research.

The study focused on pollen grains trapped in the sticky resins used to seal the joints of ship's boards and sometimes even to cover the entire hulls.

"Local pollen would become incorporated into the ship as it is being built. This can provide important clues in order to deduce the shipyard's geographical origins," Serge Muller of the University of Montpellier-2 in France told Discovery News.

According to his study, pollen analysis can show key information more reliably than timber analysis. Since the wood was often imported and may predate the ship's construction, beams have proven largely useless in pinpointing where a wreck was originally built.

Muller used his identification technique to trace the origins of three ancient wrecks located in the French Golfe du Lion: the Baie-de-l'Amitié, the Cap-Be'ar III and the Port-la-Nautique.

Baie-de-l'Amitié is a 2,000-year-old wreck that now lies 150 meters (492 feet) from the beach near Cap d'Agde in a rocky hollow at a depth of 3 meters (10 feet). Of the three wrecks, its origins turned out to be different than thought.

"The occurrence of Platanus pollen in the three resin samples of the Baie-de-l'Amitié wreck, in relation to the wood pieces, strongly suggests a shipyard localized east of southern Italy, which represents the western boundary of Platanus orientalis range," Muller writes in the current issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Muller also found pollen grains from Haplophyllum, a species which does not exist in France. The presence of this weed, seven species of which live in Europe, among which six grow in the eastern Mediterranean, "may be considered as supplementary evidence in favor of the eastern Mediterranean origin of the Baie-de-l'Amitié wreck," concluded Muller.

"Palynology (the study of plant pollens) offers innumerable opportunities to archaeologists, and has been widely used to trace the origins and history of various items. But as far as I know, this is the first time that pollen analysis has been applied to pinpoint geographical areas for ancient shipyards," Marta Mariotti of Florence University's department of vegetable biology told Discovery News.

Mariotti has recently analyzed the clay sediments from archaeological excavations in the ancient port of Pisa. The study showed that most likely the ships embedded in the clay were built just around Pisa.

Though pollen and resin analysis can offer reliable clues to trace shipwrecks' roots, there is always a risk of contamination, especially if the resin has been imported, according to Mariotti.

Muller's method will be used soon by archaeologists from the Faculté de St-Jérôme, Marseille, on other Mediterranean antique shipwrecks.

Robert Hohlfelder, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also hopes to use the technique. The archaeologist is looking for the remains of the Persian fleet that sank off Greece in 492 B.C. More than 1,000 ships, which were supposed to invade Greece, are thought to lie 100 meters (328 feet) beneath the sea.
"If we find any ships with resin as caulking, I would be delighted to see what results could be obtained by Muller's techniques. Any new scientific techniques that expand our ability to better understand archaeological data are always most welcome," Hohlfelder told Discovery News.

Link: - In Spanish


Muller, S. D. Palynological study of antique shipwrecks from the western Mediterranean Sea, France. Journal of Archaeological Science, 31, 343 - 349, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2003.09.005 (2004).

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