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3.12.04

Roman Statue Discovered Underwater in Corsica

Philip the ArabNewly discovered sculpture of Philip the ArabThere is exciting archeological news from France. As described in Dominique Costa's article (Philippe Ier l'Arabe retrouvé en Corse, December 1) in Le Figaro, a group of Roman statues has been discovered in the sea off Corsica (my translation):

"Even today, it is difficult to realize the scope of our discovery." From the interest that it is provoking among his foreign colleagues, Hervé Alfonsi knows nevertheless that he has gotten his hands on a treasure. After thirty years of underwater archeological digs, this professor of physical chemistry from Ajaccio exhumed, this past October, from a shipwreck dating from the 3rd century AD, submerged by six meters [19.68 feet] in the depths off Porticcio, marble pieces that have permitted the reconstruction of a monumental statue of the Roman Emperor Philip I ("the Arab"). Measuring two meters [6.56 feet] tall, it shows the sovereign in a martial pose: proud head, muscled torso, Roman skirt, arm raised, and a large robe falling over his leg.

"The small details have deteriorated because of their long underwater stay and the action of lithophagic organisms," explains Hervé Alfonsi, president of the Association for Underwater Archeological Research (ARASM), "but the large pieces are in a remarkably well conserved state, for the parts that were buried in the sand, in any case."

Three years ago, when the work began, Hervé Alfonsi and his volunteer divers had nothing but a bronze nail to guide them. It was this object, found by chance in an underwater exploration, which in 1990 made possible the location of the wreck, some samples of which will soon be sent to the Mediterranean Institute of Ecology and Paleoecology at the Technical University of Marseille, to undergo dating analysis. The study of tree rings in the wood should help in dating when the ship was built. Its exceptional cargo already gives witness to an important commerce in this period of antiquity.

"We brought up more than 170 kilograms [374.78 pounds] of blown glass, intended for very rich villas or baths, and discovered fragments of thirteen different types of amphoras," says Hervé Alfonsi, specifying that the latter contained wine and oil from Egypt, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. But it was two coins, struck in the image of the emperor, that have made possible the identification of the statue's profile.

Today, the marble pieces of Philip I, who wore the crown of the Caesars from 244 to 249—a reign during which this son of an Arab sheik originally from Syria had the honor of celebrating the millennium of the foundation of the Eternal City—are maintained in a small building on the air-naval base at Aspretto. The "cave," as the ARASM team calls it, presently holds more than 10,000 fragments. It is here, in a space of 30 square meters [322.92 square feet], that the pieces brought out of the water are desalinated and where the Association undertakes its reconstructions, makes photographs and drawings, keeps its materials, and welcomes researchers.

"We hardly work in ideal conditions, but the support given to us by the French Navy, by graciously offering this building for our use, is enormous, especially because it is secure," admits Hervé Alfonsi. The archeologist believes, however, that his discoveries will make sense and have value only when they can be shown to the public, in a place worthy of that name. Still, for the moment, the financial support of ARASM's partners, the territorial government of Corsica, the Ministry of Culture, and the French Federation for Underwater Studies and Sport (FFESSM) are just enough to cover the costs of sea expeditions.

Nevertheless, on December 4, weather permitting, the team will bring to the surface a second statue. A marble monolith that seems to depict, beneath a "magnificent robe," the hips of a feminine silhouette, perhaps that of Marcia Otacilia Severa, Philip I's wife. The head is missing, but one of the divers thinks that some fragments could have come from it. "It's fascinating! The wreck is still far from having given up all of its secrets. We will need another three years of excavation to try to piece the puzzle together."
There is another article, with several pictures (Découverte exceptionnelle dans les eaux corses, November 19) from TF1. ARAMS has an article (Découverte exceptionnelle à Purtichju, November 26), with a revolving film image of the statue's head and other pictures, this page of news coverage, and film clips of the underwater dig in process.

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