S. Marlier, The Gallo-Roman Barge Arles-Rhône3
The Gallo-Roman Barge Arles-Rhône 3
Sabrina Marlier Sabouraud et al. (Musée départemental Arles antique)
Discovered in 2004 in the Rhône River, in Arles, and lifted in 2011, after five years of excavation, the Arles-Rhône 3 shipwreck has already been presented in the three previous ISBSA symposiums.
After being restored, the shipwreck of this 31 metres long unique gallo-roman barge, is now exhibited within the Arles Museum of Antiquity.
In parallel with the restoration and the reassembly of the barge, a series of interdisciplinary studies and analyses, were undertaken by about twenty different specialists. The diverse studies have now been completed and allow us to reconstruct and comprehend the history of this boat.
Dating the construction and the sinking of the barge
Among the different chronological approaches available for the Arles-Rhône 3 barge (14C dating, dendrochronology, analysis of archaeological material, on-board equipment and the votive coin), it is dendrochronology that has served best in revealing the construction date of the barge. Nonetheless, it has not led to an exact date for the felling of the trees but has suggested a strong probability that the trees were cut and the boat built in the first decade of the second half of the 1st century AD.
Concerning the cause of the sinking of the barge, we have some clues indicating a sudden flood that is dated, by the radiocarbon analyses of the stratigraphy and the on-board equipment, between 66 and the beginning of the 70s AD.
The origin of the barge: the presumed construction site
While the oak used in the building of the barge came from the region of Chalon-sur-Saône (between 47 to 73 trees) and the conifer wood from the Alps or the Jura or Vosges mountains (1 or 2 trees), molecular and isotopic analyses, as well as pollen analyses undertaken on several samples of proofing material have shown that the pitch employed in construction and repairs was manufactured in the Mediterranean region. The discovery site of the wreck, the area of movement during its last voyage and the study of the on-board material, which reveals ceramics whose circulation seems limited to the lower Rhône valley, would support the theory that the barge belongs to the lower section of the Rhône, thus favouring the idea of its construction being in this geographical zone. Within this perspective, the wood would have been floated down river, a practice that is well attested since antiquity, and particularly on the Rhône, as part of an organised trade.
If a Mediterranean region construction site is probable, the hypothesis of the barge’s construction in the boatyards of Arles, which according to the testimony of Caesar (De bello civili, I, 36, 4) brought together all the necessary logistical, technical and human means to build such a boat, is tempting. The seven inscriptions that have been found marked several times on the planks of the barge would seem to correspond to an organised wood storage system suggesting a sizeable dockyard.
The Arles-Rhône 3 barge and the port city of Arles (by E. Rieth, CNRS)
One of the important questions that arises is the role of the city of Arles and its sea-river port, as a place of exchange and of technical influences, within the Rhône-Saône architectural tradition. The impressive dimensions and the structural complexity of the Arles-Rhône 3 barge demonstrate that the boatyards of Arles had a technical expertise in terms of knowledge and know-how that can only be understood in relation to past technical practices that integrated influences from Mediterranean maritime shipyards.
The Arles-Rhône 3 thus reproduced an architecture similar to vessels from long before its construction. The penetration of Roman influence into Gaule along the Rhône-Saône axis and the strategic position of Arles at the interface between Mediterranean influences in maritime construction techniques and those riverine influences from the hinterland, leads one to consider the importance of the Arles boatyards and their role in the development and diffusion upstream of the Rhône-Saône architectural tradition.
The zone of transport geography and the navigation of the barge
While the form of the Arles-Rhône 3 barge seems to fit perfectly the demands of navigation in a strong current, its limited load capacity tends to set it within a local economic circuit, circumscribed to the lower section of the Rhône. When heading downstream, the barge was carried by the current. Nonetheless, extra oars could have been used either to speed up passage or to assist in manoeuvres with the current. Depending on the state of the river, if the water was low, sounding poles could have been used.
On the other hand, navigation upstream meant fighting against the river’s strong current and the obstacles this presented. Indeed, upstream sailing was done by towing. Until the end of the 15th century, hauling on the Rhône was by manpower. As to their strength, documents from the middle ages give us the ratio of one hauler to 1.5 tons of payload. So, for the Arles-Rhône 3 barge, loaded to capacity, some twenty haulers would have been required.
A living area was provided on-board. Located to aft, it included kitchenware and tools. Around the lower section of a dolium re-used as a hearth, there were various ceramics for preparing food (kettles, a mortar) and tableware (bowls, plates) that attested to on-board cooking.
A count of this tableware determined the probable presence of three boatmen, one of who had engraved his initials (AT) on the reverse of a plate and on the neck of a jug. Some multi-use tools (billhook, hoe, flat iron) were also used by the boatmen for various chores on board.