University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project


Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project

Tiziana Fisichella sketches artifacts before raising them for conservation and study.

Fellow Justin Leidwanger, who is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at Stanford University, is the director of the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project (MMHP). Justin was elected as a junior fellow to the Kolb Society in 2008 and graduated from the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World graduate group at Penn in 2011. Justin's research focuses primarily on the Roman maritime economy, especially shipwrecks, harbors, and transport ceramics. He balances research with strategies for underwater cultural heritage management, encompassing ethical stewardship and public involvement and collaboration in maritime archaeological investigations. With these goals in mind, Justin developed the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project, which was awarded in 2013 an inaugural Cotsen Excavation Grant from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).

Elizabeth S. Greene collects photographs for a digital photogrammetric model.

The Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project is a collaborative excavation, survey, and heritage management initiative focusing on the maritime landscape and seaborne communication off the southeast coast of Sicily, Italy. The concentration of accessible sites and their location at the intersection of the eastern and western Mediterranean facilitates inquiry into long-term structures of regional and interregional maritime exchange from the early Roman era (3rd/2nd century BC) through late antiquity (6th/7th century AD). Among the dozens of ancient shipwrecks that foundered off these shores, a large vessel of the 6th century AD stands out. The first field seasons of the MMHP undertake the excavation of this so-called “Church Wreck”, which carried prefabricated architectural elements for the construction of a late antique church alongside other cargo from the northern Aegean.

Asaf Oron prepares to lift a fragment of a decorative chancel screen panel.

This ship’s cargo, personal items, and hull remains offer a fascinating window into a particularly eventful and tumultuous period for the Mediterranean, an era marked by an increased movement of grand building materials and the construction of magnificent edifices, but also by military conquest that resulted in endemic warfare, political destabilization, and massive depopulation. All of this came under the influence of the emperor Justinian (r. AD 527–565) whose conquests briefly restored the magnitude of the Roman world and left behind a legacy that would last for over a millennium.

Sailors and divers from the Guardia di Finanza assist with the raising of artifacts.

The architectural assemblage itself is quite impressive. It demonstrates the utmost possibility of Justinian’s new empire: not only was the ship itself probably quite massive, but the cargo it carried required enormous work to quarry and carve, and the building to be adorned would stand triumphantly for the greater glory of God, his emperor, and the newly restored empire. The wreck is also a chronological marker, representing the beginning of the end: very soon the economy in the west would ebb and, perhaps, crash, and monumental architecture of the sort reflected by the shipwreck would cease to be produced for centuries. Alongside this striking cargo of marble, a load of more mundane agricultural products, together with a range of galley wares and fragmentary hull remains underscore the routine nature of maritime journeys and the fundamental changes underway in the nature of seaborne connectivity toward the end of antiquity.

Lindsay Hafen and Katie Adams draw a chancel screen panel fragment in the lab at the Palmento di Rudinì.

The Marzamemi project serves as a platform to explore such sites and a training ground for archaeologists, but also aims to preserve and interpret the physical manifestations—archaeological, environmental, ethnographic, etc.— of this fishing and agricultural town’s historical relationship to the sea through the creation of a new museum, dive trails, and other public outreach activities that embrace both natural and cultural heritage. In collaboration with the Soprintendenza del Mare and the local authorities, the project has developed conserv ation facilities at the beautifully restored 19th-century winery (Palmento di Rudinì), the site of a nascent local museum and community center. Together we utilize community archaeology and public outreach to implement site management alongside local initiatives for environmentally sustainable tourism and economic development. For more information, visit the project’s website at

Lindsay Hafen and Laura McPhie record measurements of artifacts in situ during excavation.

Elizabeth S. Greene, Asaf Oron, and Marissa Ferrante reposition and prepare a column to be raised.

Asaf Oron and Lindsay Hafen excavate in the sand near the edge of the reef.

(Thanks to Laura McPhie for assembling all the material.)

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Read more about Justin Leidwanger.

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