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Roman conquest clues emerge at Carthage.

Roman conquest clues emerge at Carthage

At the ancient archaeological site of Carthage, scientists digging into sediments beneath a harbor have uncovered clues to the military strategy that led to the city's defeat by the Romans more than 2,100 years ago. The findings help clarify the historian Appian's written account of the siege of Carthage, led by the Roman general Scipio in 146 B.C., says geo-archaeologist John Gifford of the University of Miami, a co-director of the project.

Scipio's attack destroyed Carthage, then a major metropolis and center of an extensive Mediterranean trading network. The battle served as the culmination of three great wars between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. But Appian's description leaves unclear the method by which the Romans overwhelmed the fortified city.

Research conducted at the north African site -- now part of Tunisia -- in the summers of 1985 and 1986 yielded under-water remains of a stone causeway that allowed Scipio's army to attack from a base on a barrier island about 600 meters from Carthage's port, Gifford's team contends. They have submitted their findings for publication.

"We think Scipio had his men dump thousands of tons of rock into the shallow harbor, which was only a few meters deep, and build an artificial landfill over which he mounted an attack on the harbor walls," Gifford asserts.

Scipio may have borrowed the strategy from a military pedecessor, Gifford adds. In 312 B.C., the Greek ruler Alexander the Great conducted a successful siege of Tyre, another coastal Mediterranean city, by building a causeway from a barrier island to its port. Scipio had access to written accounts of that campaign, and Gifford suspects the Roman general appropriated Alexander's tactic.

Gifford's team also dug into the history of Carthage's coastline by extracting 16 sediment cores from different locations around the surviving port. The composition of sediment from the bottom of some of the cores, along with radiocarbon dates obtained from bits of carbon, suggests a natural lagoon existed at the site around 500 B.C. Historical records indicate the Carthaginians resculpted the coastline and built two large harbors around 200 B.C.

Work at Carthage and other Mediterranean sites increasingly shows that "ancient engineers were capable of organizing substantial civil engineering projects," Gifford says.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 6, 1991
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