a recreated ancient wreck near Marseille © Francis Le Guen

Underwater archeology: a dive amid cops and robbers

Amphorae trading

My next port of call was Goudes, just east of Marseille – it is a tiny place nestling in a small bay, disconnected from the world and some would say, from the law of the land as well…

Pierrot Vottero © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magazine

Perched on the hillside overlooking the bay, the pretty cottages are laced with a multitude of alleys grandly called ‘avenues’. Open any door and step into the cool interior and my guess is you will find any number of archaeological remains adorning a mantelpiece or a hallway table. In the 70s, this place was known as the ‘Amphora marketplace’ for every fishing trawler or small fishing boat returning to port had more than their catch of the day stowed away. The cargo pillaged from ancient shipwrecks was sold off to the highest bidder no questions asked. I have a meeting with Monsieur Pierrot Vottero, a retired fisherman and local legend in this idyllic backwater, at his cottage. His wise, weathered face is friendly and full of humanity, but his eyes are sharp. He is affable and attentive, but guarded on some topics; certain things are not spoken about.

“I come from a fishing family,” he said. “The type of fishing family that existed back then, before quotas and pollsters. It was hard work, but we were true seamen. When fishing for sardines for example, we would leave at two o’clock in the morning. For the bouillabaisse, in the summer, when the water started to warm up, we left at four o’clock in the morning. We would come ashore at five pm to mend our nets and sell our catch. The nets were very expensive and we did everything by hand back then. We used to sell directly to the restaurants in those days. Sometimes it was hard to get paid, plus they always took the best fish! Drift nets were allowed at the time, some people made a fortune with tuna, going 40 miles offshore to catch them. We didn’t have the tools that the industry has today, but I can say without doubt that given a choice I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Fishermen of the calibre that I am describing don’t exist anymore. Today the only thing that matters is profit and there is scant respect for the sea!”

Despite his "shaky" memory , Pierrot Vottero has trouble hiding the fact that he used to be very good at finding champaign corks in the sea during his youth. They marked the spot where the amphorae were in the water © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 MagazineDespite his "shaky" memory , Pierrot Vottero has trouble hiding the fact that he used to be very good at finding champaign corks in the sea during his youth. They marked the spot where the amphorae were in the water © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magazine

Mr Vottero’s voice faded out as he stared out the window lost in thought. Was the talk about his legendary ability to spot champagne corks dancing in the waves off the mark? Champagne corks that were attached to amphorae sitting on the bottom of the seabed, tied on by divers, and dragged by the fishermen to shallow waters in discreet coves to be pulled out of the sea…? Pierrot does not remember. He does however recall discovering a wreck in Grand Congloue. Another one? A third one!

OFFSHORE, IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

“I was one of the first to fish in the ravines, on the edge of the continental shelf, at a depth of about 1’500 metres. Whiting, lobster, you name it, we caught it …

One day, we were about seven miles offshore when all of a sudden the sky went completely white in the west – I could see the storm racing towards us. I immediately turned the boat for Goudes, walls of water building up in my wake; the waves must have been 6 metres high! It was very hard to manoeuvre in the high winds, especially as we were attached to a 300 metre long net. I shouted to Jacky, my crew, to cut the net, but he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the crashing waves. The boat veered back and forth held fast by the net – we were in danger of sinking. At last we cut it lose and raced for shelter in Cassis.

 Not far from Grand Congloue, in an attempt to save the day and improve our spirits, I pulled up a pot that I had fixed to a new rock the day before. It was full of lobster and shards of amphorae!”

 This place was not far from where Cousteau carried out his research, where the diver Servanti lost his life trying to free the anchor of the research vessel Calypso… I am not a diver, but I have always thought that he must have stumbled on ‘my’ wreck. At that depth, seeing a wall of amphorae must have been very impressive. Perhaps he tried to bring one up to the surface, struggled and ran out of oxygen…?

“In those days there were still three coral divers in Goudes that thought nothing of raising a few ancient jugs to the surface when the tuna fishing was quiet. It was already illegal back then, but there were ways around that… in any case, their boat was called The Fugitive…

They often asked me where they could find ‘rocks’. I took them out to the site, about 53 metres deep. The diver went down and was back on the surface within minutes calling for his colleague to follow him to the bottom. It turns out, my ‘rock’ was an ancient wreck stuffed to the gunnels with amphorae. The third one to sink in the Grand Congloue…

I know they went back to the wreck many times and moved the amphorae bit by bit to Podestat Bay where it was shallow, so that they were easier to collect when a client placed an order. It would have been nice of them to give me a couple!

Despite his "shaky" memory , Pierrot Vottero has trouble hiding the fact that he used to be very good at finding champaign corks in the sea during his youth. They marked the spot where the amphorae were in the water © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magazine

 I found several wrecks in this way, by chance. Another one was the Canonniere, a modern steel ship that had sunk in 72 metres of water between the Grand Congloue and Sormiou. I used to throw old pots there and catch up to six kilogrammes of lobster at a time. I told a ‘friend’ about it, who told a diving club and the wreck was eventually reported to the authorities.

 Today with all the laws, no one tells anyone anything. It’s safer that way and avoids problems. Plus, I come from Genoa and we are naturally superstitious… I would never rename a boat for example, it’s bad luck.”

I asked Pierrot whether he thought there were any more ancient wrecks lying undiscovered in the area. The wrinkles around his eyes deepened as he raised his arm and swept it wide to take in the Mediterranean behind him – not a word passed his lips…

What is an ancient amphora worth on the black market today, I wondered…? To find out, I went to meet the next personality in this tale, someone who is well known in Marseille for diving close to the fringes of the law.

Gaby Di Domenico from Naples is waiting for me on his boat, moored in L’Estaque harbour…

PIRATES!

L’Estaque harbour, on the west side of the bay of Marseille, is not for the faint hearted. It is an ‘independent republic’ of sorts and you need an insider to gain entry. The access code ‘we are visiting Gaby’ worked for us and the rusty gate swung open and closed just as quickly behind us. Large tuna fishing boats tugged gently at their moorings, swinging softly in the swell, nets and fishing pots were piled high, warehouses and storage units were scattered about, doors closed and exuding mystery. Two coral divers were preparing a small robotic camera, carefully uncoiling the wire. I waved a brief ‘hello’, very aware that they were watching me and wondering who the stranger was.

Gaby Di Domenico © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magazine

Gaby welcomed me onboard his boat. This famous diver is nicknamed ‘the tadpole’, but although small in stature, his personality is huge; you can literally feel the hot-blooded energy bubbling up in him. He has seen it all… A gold chain with a diving helmet pendent peaked out from beneath his striped shirt. I know he carries a Taser on him at all times, apparently it is ‘safer at his age’. He has taken two bullets in his time from a Magnum .357 that left him disabled. His newly released book Pirates reveals the full story…

“So young man, you are interested in pirates…? What is it that you want to know…?”

My first question had barely escaped my lips before Gaby began pounding me with a barrage of information. What a storyteller! He is talkative and passionate about his subject; I had to hang on to make sense of the mix of local dialect and hand gestures. “Listen to me, I’ll tell you about pirates,” he said. And tell me he did!

“Yes, I am a pirate. So? I am a retired pirate, unashamed and unrepentant. I have no regrets. In those days, I was hungry and the amphorae that we raised from the seafloor at our own risk, fed my family and I. It was no issue to raise an amphora neck or even a whole amphora back then, but get caught today and boy, there are consequences. And yet, there are literally thousands of amphorae in the Bay of Marseille where up to fifty wrecks are lying on the bottom and that is just between here and Marseilleveyre, a headland south of Marseille city.

In my day, piracy was in its infancy. The word didn’t even exist back then around here, nobody cared about the ‘jugs’. Every old fisherman on the water had a ‘Dolia’ on board, an ancient Roman terracotta water jug; we used to keep the water for our Pastis cold in them while we were out fishing!

So yes, I did raise lots and lots of amphorae, despite the customs, police and maritime authorities. We didn’t take much notice of the rules back then, when we had a client asking for a ‘jar’ we simply went and got it. Opinion today may well judge us to have been a bit casual and lacking in respect of our ancient heritage, but for goodness sake, as god is our witness, we discovered those wrecks!”

Francis Le Guen, OCEAN71 Magazine reporter, meets Gaby Di Domenico in his "Republic", the port of the Estaque near Marseille © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magzine

Gaby leapt up, furious, arm outstretched and pointing east towards the new headquarters of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research (DRASSM), then equally abruptly, sat down again.

“You listen to me! In the past, we had an arrangement with the authorities because the director of antiquities was not some stubborn idiot; he understood how things were. Today it’s a whole different ball game, they prefer to fine people that raise a piece of broken old tile or drag them before the court under the pretext that the thing is 2’000 years old. Even if it was us that discovered all of these treasures in the first place!

All the current nit-picky rules seem made to encourage piracy not prevent it. If divers were allowed to raise pieces of no exceptional value, an exchange system could be established with the administration whereby a rare piece would be handed over in exchange for a piece that they don’t know what to do with and which has no historic value to them. We could then sell officially. Instead, everyone is silent. Right now, as I am talking to you, there is a wreck in the Var, 70 metres below the surface that is being emptied by a team of divers for resale. An amphora goes for around 1,500 Euros these days and they are bought by lots of 10 to 20 at a time. If you want one, it will be delivered to the location of your choice, but you will never know who the seller is and definitely will never find out who raised your ‘jar’ to the surface.”

DESTRUCTION ON AN INDUSTRIAL LEVEL!

 “The hypocrisy of the authorities is staggering! Listen to this story…

It was common knowledge that hundreds of amphorae, collected during underwater archaeological campaigns, including at the Grand Congloue, were piled sky high in the courtyard of the Saint John Fort, discarded like old cars in a junkyard. They were carelessly stacked and regularly broken in the process; no one cared.

 In 1972, a rumor circulated that these amphorae were going to be loaded onto trucks and chucked into the sea to be used as rubble for the base of the Pointe-Rouge harbor wall which was under construction at the time.

The grapevine is very effective in piracy circles and we mobilised. The day that the trucks, escorted by motorbikes, arrived at the building site, we were lying in wait, hidden in the rocks with binoculars, waiting for the trucks to leave so that we could rescue the treasures that they were throwing away. But sadly our plan was foiled, other trucks followed behind loaded with massive stone blocks that they rolled into the sea on top of the amphorae, crushing them into oblivion…

I saw this act of vandalism with my own eyes and others that were with me will testify to the same story. A disgrace, a waste and a barbaric thing to do.

Because there were too many, because they didn’t know where to store them all, they destroyed them – Why not give them to people that get enormous pleasure from them instead? Every resident of Marseille is proud of his or her heritage; they would have loved the opportunity to show off an ancient amphora to their guests! Why is that right only granted to the rich or the powerful that have the wherewithal to bypass the law? Why not organise a public auction where the amphorae would have fetched good prices instead of destroying them? The earnings could have funded further archaeological campaigns! But no…instead they chose to destroy what they couldn’t store or didn’t know what to do with, there were so many after all… And yet they hunt down anyone that dares to raise an antiquity from the seabed to sell it – those are outlaws after all!Who are these people at the Administration of Cultural Affairs that knowingly destroy what they themselves call archaeological heritage?

As for DRASSM, each to their own. Cops or Robbers – I don’t know. How could you know? I’ve met enough rogues in my life… Michel L’Hour – today he is Mr Clean, whiter than white, but I would remind him that he began his career in the company of Patrick Lize, the global specialist in wreck records, which he sells to the highest bidder, and Franck Goddio who leads archaeological research in countries where the laws are a bit more flexible.

And as you might know, L’Hour is the kind of guy that will have dinner with his diving friends, collect their stories, and then send the cops over at dawn for a raid.”

AMPHORAE MANUFACTURERS

“We have had some fun though, I have to say! Has anyone ever told you about Jose Torres? He just died so I can tell you the stories now; they’re also included in my book… Jose was the Michelangelo of cement sculptures and the Van Gogh of painting on cement. He was a brilliant forger who made dozens of fake amphorae that he sold at high prices to dummies!

Drawing of José Torres in his small wood house near Cassis © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magazine

Once he managed to save a haul of amphorae that had been decapitated by a trawler by using a ceramic pipe to form a new neck. It was incredible to watch the artist at work and to learn the secrets of his trade, something that you won’t learn at the Beaux Arts! He created worm trails in the cement and used a Coral sea urchin to give the cement an indelible brown colour that is best fixed using a hairdryer and some hairspray. The result is more natural than if the amphora had been underwater for 2’000 years!

 In 1965, the pirate community launched a challenge to create a cement amphora and present it at an exhibition hosted by one of the large Marseille hotels and attended by a gaggle of experts – one of which we would ask to date the piece.

An illustration of the encounter between the experts © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magazine

Jose took up the challenge with panache. He made a wire structure, covered it in cement blended with a walnut-based mixture that included crushed oyster shells stained with dried sea urchin and tomato coulis. After a month of intense work, he delivered a true masterpiece. He had even gone so far as to brush the interior for perfect authenticity! On the big day, the experts examined the piece from all angles, very stern, pursed lips, deeply concentrated. We were like kids impatiently awaiting their verdict. I remember that two of them could not agree on the origin of the amphora – Greek? Roman? Phoenician? We could barely contain ourselves, itching to jeer: ‘It’s from just up the road and was made a month ago!’ Jose was nudging us in the ribs, certain of victory.

“You’ll see – they’ll fall for it,’ he chuckled.

An illustration of the encounter of the experts © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 MagazineAn illustration of the encounter of the experts © Antoine Bugeon / OCEAN71 Magazine

In the meantime, the experts continued their discussions, Greek? Roman? One of them turned to us with a condescending look, ‘this piece is very rare which makes it very hard to date,’ he said. That was as much as Jose could take – he exploded: ‘I know it’s rare; I made it myself last month using cement, just up the road in my shed at Callelongue!’

You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, every eye in the room turned to Jose, but he didn’t care one bit. ‘It’s the truth gentlemen,’ he said. ‘I’ll prove it to you’. And he pulled a mallet out of his bag and smashed the amphora into a thousand pieces, exposing the wire shape. ‘You will have learned one thing tonight at least,’ he said addressing his audience of experts. ‘The Romans and Greeks knew all about concrete!’

We didn’t hang about after that, if looks could kill…well we would have been long gone!

Jose also used to make the most marvellous forgeries of the three-legged wrought iron supports that you sit the amphorae in to present them. He must have forged nearly 10,000 in his lifetime.”

As Gaby’s story drew to an end, I jumped in with a final question: “Someone told me about a recently discovered Etruscan wreck, do you think I could meet one of the guys that is diving it?”

He looked at me sharply, a bit surprised that I knew about this. Judging me to be ‘OK’, he said: “Sure… you can try, you nut!”

Other files

  • Gallery The ruins of Jazira Al Hamra © Philippe Henry / OCEAN71 Magazine

    Red Island’s mysterious village

    Culture, Economy1 chapter

    The United Arab Emirates is well known for its passion for extravagant skyscrapers and constructions, its exuberance and its financial power thanks to oil and gas. The emirs even try to conceal their relatively poor nomadic tribes’ history. Along the coast, we managed to find one of the last old villages of fishermen, abandoned. It is said to be haunted…






  • Gallery

    The seahorse’s secret

    Ecology, Economy1 chapter

    Oysters, the Arguin sandbank, the tides, many tourists visit the Arcachon bay ignoring that this unique biological maritime space hosts one of the most mysterious creatures of the sea : the seahorse. Almost extinct a decade ago, the bay is pride to have today the highest concentration of seahorses in France.






  • The American Samoa enigma

    Ecology4 chapters

    It is now a known fact that corals are threatened by global warming. Some scientists are even predicting the end of coral life by 2050. Meanwhile, there is still a mystery to solve : how some corals in American Samoa have resisted centuries of climate change to become giants and how others are thriving in waters so warm that it is considered deadly ?