Saturday, 3 December 2011

The ship that Fleming dug

As an archaeologist, I've long been fascinated by Ian Fleming's brushes with archaeology. He attempted, for instance, to explore the prehistoric caves of the Pyrenees with the French caver Norbert Casteret, and metal-detected the grounds of Creake Abbey in Norfolk. These would form the basis of articles for the Sunday Times. For his most exciting adventure, though, Fleming dived with Jacques-Yves Cousteau to excavate an ancient wreck in the Mediterranean off the coast of Marseilles.

In 1954, Ann Fleming noted that 'Ian was to write of Commandant Cousteau who was exploring the wreck of a Greek trading vessel off the coast. Cousteau's ship was in harbour listing to one side with its weight of amphorae and other terracotta objects strewn on the deck'. She adds that diving to the depth required was difficult for Fleming and that he suffered headaches from the pressure for days afterwards.

The wreck that Fleming explored was in fact two Roman ships, one superimposed on the other. They lay at a depth of 32-45m off the north-east point of Grand Congloué, a small island south of Marseilles. Cousteau directed the underwater excavation, financed by the Campagne Océanographiques françaises and supported by the Director of Antiquities of Marseilles, between 1952 and 1957. His floating base for the excavation was his research ship, the Calypso.

Both wrecks were trading vessels or merchantmen. The lower vessel sunk in the late 2nd century BC. It was carrying at least 450 amphorae, among them Greco-Italic and Rhodian amphorae that both contained wine. Some of the amphorae were stamped with the name of a merchant, Ti. Q. Iuventus. The ship's cargo also included some 7000 pieces of Campanian pottery, fine tableware from the Pompeii region of Italy. The upper vessel foundered on the rocks about a century later. It was dated to the 1st century BC and carried a cargo of about 1200 Italian wine amphorae (the so-called Dressel 1A type) from Campania. Stamps on the vessels show that these were being traded by members of the prominent Sestius family.

When Fleming dived down to the wrecks, he had already written Live and Let Die, and so the details of Blackbeard's treasure and James Bond's underwater activities could not have been inspired by Cousteau's excavation. However, in Moonraker (1955), as Bond gazes out into the English Channel from the Kentish coast, Fleming tells us that Julius Caesar landed there 2000 years ago, a remark that possibly reflects Fleming's recently-boosted interest in the past. And in Thunderball (1961), descriptions of Bond's scuba-diving and underwater pursuit of Largo, complete with technical details about his equipment, has an authenticity that derives from Fleming's own experiences, which doubtless included diving with Cousteau.


Amory, M (ed.), 1985 The letters of Ann Fleming, Collins Harvill
Benoit, F, 1961 L'épave du Grand Congloué a Marseille, XIVe Supplément à Gallia
Lycett, A, 1996 Ian Fleming, Phoenix
Rauh, N K, 2003 Merchants, sailors and pirates in the Roman world, Tempus

1 comment:

  1. One correction: Fleming explored the wreck in 1953, not 1954. Ann Fleming gives 1954 as the date in a note on her European travels, but this must be incorrect.