Easter, 1985. The Roman ship had been found on Christmas Day, 1982 by local Diver Richard Keen. The wreck was buried between the pierheads of St Peter Port harbour, and due to the lack of shipping that is the only day in the year divers are allowed to go down for scallops. Fortunately Richard had an interest in archaeology and by his next visit to the site in 1983 had recognised Roman roof tile falling out of the wreck.
The Guernsey Maritime Trust was formed, and in November 1984 the first timbers from the ship began to be raised. It was around this time when a schoolboy asked his dad “Was this Asterix’s ship?” A reporter was in earshot and the name stuck.
The front half of the ship had been raised by the time I arrived in Guernsey at Easter 1985 to take up my post. Headquarters was an old banana ripening store in Petite Fontaines, just off Victoria Road. It was a bustle of activity, with divers coming and going between the dives, artefacts arriving by van, then timbers on lorry-backs. Some timbers took 10 men to lift off the lorry and into the workshop. Here were a trio of tanks made of the same yellow plastic used for underwater lifting bags. We heaved the timbers into the tanks – which were knee-deep in cold water. At this stage they were still wrapped in polythene sheeting.
As the only non-diving member of the team, I spent the whole operation on shore. This also meant I was the only person not wet, cold and tired by the end of the day. As post-excavation person my job was to log and record the objects being raised. These came mostly in fish-boxes, far faster than I could handle in real time. It took weeks finally to unpack them all.
It was all a rapid learning experience. The dives were led by experienced underwater archaeologists from the Mary Rose Trust, working under the direction of Margaret Rule. The rest of the team were from the local Blue Dolphin Club – often working in pairs with the archaeologists. At that time we had only a vague idea of the size of the ship and the first evidence suggested a second-century date. Harbour rubbish was being brought up mixed with Roman objects that had scattered from the ship. As soon as possible, everything went into cold fresh water to stop it drying out and to start to leach out the salt.
Then suddenly the dive was over. The divers from the UK went home, the locals went back to their day jobs and I was alone in the store with 150 chunks of wood, 2,000 objects and over a ton of ‘samples’ waiting to be sorted through.