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Bronze Battering Ram From Ancient Warship Reveals Design Secrets

Belgammel Ram

Researchers from the National Oceanography Centre and the University of Southampton have been studying a bronze battering ram from a 2,000 year-old warship. The 20-kilogram battering ram, known as Belgammel Ram, was discovered by a group of British divers off the coast of Libya near Tobruk in 1964. It is believed to have been from a tesseraria, a small Greek or Roman warship. The ram was the first of its kind to have been discovered. A couple other rams have been discovered since then.

These warships were equipped with massive bronze rams that could be used to ram enemy ships. The 65-centimeter (26-inch) Belgammel Ram is smaller in size and researchers say it would have been sited on the upper level on the bow. The researchers say this second ram, called a proembolion, strengthened the bow and also served to break the oars of an enemy ship. The drawing below, by Kirsten Fleming, shows how the two rams were mounted on the bow of a Roman/Hellenistic warship.

Belgammel Bow Drawing with Two Rams

The researchers have been analyzing the Belgammel Ram. Here are some highlights of their findings.
  • Burnt wood fragments found inside the ram have been radiocarbon dated to between 100 BC to 100 AD
  • Tridents and bird motive on the top of the ram were revealed in detail by laser-scanned images taken by archaeologist Dr. Jon Adams of the University of Southampton
  • The composition of the bronze was found to be 87% copper, 6% tin and 7% lead
  • The Belgammel Ram was likely cast in one piece and cooled as a single object
  • Using an isotope characterisation of the lead component found in the bronze the researchers found the lead component of the metal could have come from a district of Attica in Greece called Lavrion.
Dr. Nic Flemming, a marine archaeologist and visiting fellow of the National Oceanography Centre, said in a statement, "We have learned such a huge amount from the Belgammel Ram and have developed new techniques which will help us unpick future mysteries. We will never know why the Belgammel Ram was on the seabed near Tobruk. There may have been a battle in the area, a skirmish with pirates. It could be that it was cargo from an ancient commercial vessel, about to be sold as salvage. The fragments of wood inside the ram show signs of fire, and we now know that parts of the bronze had been heated to a high temperature since it was cast which caused the crystal structure to change. The ship may have caught fire and the ram fell into the sea as the flames licked towards it. Some things will always remain a mystery. But we are pleased that we have gleaned so many details from this study that will help future work."

You can view a rotating 3D image of the Belgammel Ram here.

Photo: Crown Copyright, AWE, Drawing: Kirsten Flemming

Posted on April 5, 2013

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