Asterix #5: The Fiat Gearbox

It was a divers’ joke. The object they found was a blue-grey colour, heavy, metallic. It was the size of a man’s oustretched palm, with a circular central hole and three vanes each with a screw hole. Three further supporting lugs added strength. They called it the Fiat Gearbox, or the Messerschmitt gearbox, thinking this might be a relic from the Occupation rather than a piece of the Roman ship. There was a fair amount of modern junk which had collected in the scour pits formed by Asterix, including  a ‘Sealink’ saucer, so it was not an unreasonable idea.

Then we found a second one, embedded deep in the pine tar. There is even video of a diver chipping it out. I had the job of cleaning this, painstakingly using a pin drill to cut away the clinging tar. It was clearly Roman – and far more ancient than Fiat!bilge pump j

A quick literature search showed that similar objects had been found on several Mediterranean wrecks of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Each was subtly different, but the general design was the same – a metal fixing with circular hole supported so it would attach to a wooden structure. The Lake Nemi bilge pumpobjects were bearings for a bilge pump. Finds from the sunken barges on Lake Nemi dating to the time of Nero offered the best indication of how these would work. A simple chain of cups was powered by a crank and served to scoop water overboard. The design had clearly been in use for at least three centuries by the time Asterix went down.

The presence of a bilge pump explained the ‘limber holes’ cut onto the undersurface of the floor timbers in Asterix. these would allow bilge water to flow freely along the hold of the ship. They only made sense if there was a pump – and this pump had to be located at the lowest part of the ship. Out two parts were however found up in the aft hold, too far back to be effective. Either the pump could be unshipped when not required and was stored at the back, or our two bearings were being carried as spares. One is on display at Castle Cornet and the second at Guernsey Museum. Cleaned and conserved, less burnt than the first,  the second one has a dull bronze-brown colour.

The presence of this ‘Roman’ invention on an otherwise ‘Celtic’ style ship further shows how ‘Asterix’ employed the best technology each culture could offer.













Wrecked coverFor the past few months I’ve been editing a book written by a colleague. Wrecked, Guernsey Shipwrecks, is the work of Patrick Martin. When Patrick was working at Fort Grey Shipwreck Museum he asked if he could write a book about the wrecks on display. This seemed an ideal opportunity to publish some of the large collection of photographs and other images in the Museum collection.

The book takes a look at some unusual wrecks, as well as those familiar from displays in Guernsey’s Shipwreck and Maritime Museums.

Wrecked is on sale from 9 December from the Museum shop, other boookshops and online from  Guernsey Museum Shop

What – no dinosaurs?

Don’t we just love dinosaurs?  Big, bizarre and scary, with impossible names from a land far away and long ago. Unlike, say dragons and unicorns, they are also real. Children dinoprintdon’t need to ‘believe’ in dinosaurs to find them fun. As monsters they make great toys, and as we grow up we find there is fascinating science emerging from their study.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a boy in the sixties the word ‘geek’ had not yet been coined for the sort of seven year old who borrows adult books about fossils and palaeontology out of the library. The dinosaur was not mainstream. There were no cuddly brontosaurus’ for toddlers, no dino colouring books and only a few plastic kits from Aurora when I wanted a model. Far fewer species were known, and these were the stereotypes; Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and so on. They were cold-blooded, stupid reptiles who turned up as stop-motion monsters in films like One Million Years BC. Experts could only guess why such successful animals that had dominated the planet for 160 million years became extinct 65 million years ago. My local museum in Rotherham had no dino bones, so the Natural History Museum in London became a shrine I dreamed of visiting.

Gradually dinosaurs came out of museums and universities to become public property. A new age of dinosaurs saw children’s books, toys, games, cartoon characters, dino-shaped biscuits and jellies take over the world. Oddly it made their study seem less grown-up, as if we were indeed researching dragons and unicorns. During the 1970’s scientists made great leaps in our understanding of these beasts. A massive asteroid impact was proposed as the ‘smoking gun’ which explains the extinction. Study of their skeletons showed some dinosaurs were warm-blooded, then that ‘theropod’ dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds. Many new species included fast-moving small predators like Velociraptor, dinos with feathers and some that lived in trees. Studies are now being made of their blood supply, digestion and running speeds. Species have been found nesting like birds, laying eggs, hunting in packs, migrating in herds and we can work out what colours some of them were. For a dino-geek, all this is really exciting.

So finally, in 2006, I took a post in a museum. And as luck would have it, Guernsey has no dinosaurs. Not one. A couple of bones and other fossils have come into the collections from elsewhere, but a lonely tooth from an extinct species of elephant is our most ancient creature we have from the island . It is not because we don’t have old rocks – some outcrops at Jerbourg are up to 2,600 million years old, almost half the age of the Earth. All our major rocks have fiery origins, formed deep in the earth and later pushed up to the surface. The youngest of these are about 550 million years old and formed before there was any life on land. Above them, once upon a time, would have been deposited layers of sedimentary rocks such as sandstones or limestones including some dating to the time of the dinosaurs. These have all been eroded away by wind and water. If we ever had dinosaurs walking over our heads, the evidence is long gone.

So, I’m still dinosaur hunting whenever I can, but I have to travel to places like the tiny Mormon town of Blanding, Utah whose dinosaur museum I visited in 2012. Out in the desert, in killing heat, a young Navajo woman guided my wife and I across sandstone beds where dinosaur tracks run for mile after mile and there are loose bones scattered on the surface as we would find shells on our beaches. Meanwhile, a body of experts insist that as aves (birds) is a group of theropod dinosaurs, the dinosaur is technically not extinct at all. Perhaps the closest a Guernsey Museum visitor will come to dinosaurs is that robin hunting through the flowerbeds outside.

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You can follow the adventures of Jason Foss and alter-ego Jason Monaghan right here: Crime writing, Archaeology, Crime writing with archaeology, maybe even writing with no crime at all.

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