Abstract: The Marzamemi “Church Wreck” in the Shrinking World of the Late Antique Mediterranean

Situated at the crossroads of Mediterranean shipping, the southeast corner of Sicily witnessed its share of maritime disasters. Among the dozens of ancient shipwrecks that foundered off these shores, the large vessel that sank near Marzamemi in the early 6th century AD stands out. Since 2012, investigations by a team from Stanford University and the Soprintendenza del Mare have shed light on this monumental cargo of several hundred tons of prefabricated religious architectural elements, almost certainly en route from the northern Aegean region for decoration of some new, or newly renovated, early Christian church in the recently recaptured west. This peculiar site, the so-called Marzamemi “church wreck”, serves as vivid testimony to the struggle to reintegrate—religiously, economically, and politically—the disparate fragments of the once unified Roman world. The assemblage speaks to the ambitious, if ill-fated, reconstruction program central to the Emperor Justinian’s projection of imperial power and ideology. Yet while elements of the cargo are certainly unusual, the assemblage also underscores more fundamental changes underway in the nature of seaborne connectivity and the shrinking maritime world at the end of antiquity.

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