Storms War Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas At the Ashmolean Museum until 25 September in the Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries

It’s the ‘flat-packed’ Byzantine church that’s been getting all the attention. And who can argue with that? From start to finish it’s a feat and a half to have these massive prefabricated marble pieces of church interior come to Oxford and the Ashmolean’s superb summer exhibition of treasures from the Sicilian Seas.

Fourteen pieces of church interior recovered from a shipwreck off southeast Sicily have been assembled in the exhibition – marble columns, decorated capitals, part of a pulpit, choir screen – to give visitors a feeling for what it might have been like to step inside the basilica had it reached its destination in the 6th century AD. What’s more, the pieces are in astonishingly good condition given that they’ve spent more than a thousand years under the sea. As to how and why they got there, we’ll get to that shortly.

Throughout its history, the island of Sicily - characterised as at the crossroads of the Mediterranean - has been fought over, coveted and colonised for its strategic position vis-à-vis trade and power, and for the fertility of its soil (in the Roman era Sicily was said to be the bread basket of Rome). Inevitably, over the 2500 year period covered in the exhibition numerous ships trading or warring around these coasts were lost to the perilous Sicilian seas, leaving a rich cultural heritage lying on the sea bed awaiting discovery and recovery.

Uniquely, the Ashmolean’s exhibition taps into that underwater treasure-trove to explore the roots of Sicily’s rich multicultural history. The 200 objects, all of which are loans from Sicily, were recovered either by underwater archaeologists investigating shipwrecks, or as chance finds by local fishermen.

Exhibits as varied as elephant molars, a life-sized bronze relief sculpture of an elephant’s foot, an amphora prettily encrusted with coral, amphorae that once contained foodstuffs like olive oil or garum (a fermented fish sauce loved in antiquity), anchor stocks inscribed with the sea god Poseidon’s name for luck, statues of warriors (including an impressive Roman warrior, 200-1 BC, showing clearly on one side the effects of prolonged exposure to the sea, the other, the buried side is relatively unscathed), a shipboard altar used by sailors praying for a safe voyage, an oven they also used on board, and an AD 1100-1200 bronze pail inscribed with a verse of the Qur’an, bring to life stories only hinted at in the written record.

The church was one of many sent out by the Emperor Justinian (c.482–565) to cement Christianity across the Byzantine Empire. However, the ship carrying it, destabilised by its heavy cargo, sank most probably during a storm on its way to Italy or north Africa. And there it remained, lost to the sea-bed until excavated in the 1960’s.

This is the first time the church has been part reconstructed. The Ashmolean curators have used fourteen of the prefabricated marble elements of basilica brought to the surface by German archaeologist, Gerhard Kapitän and his team. Hundreds of pieces were excavated then, including 28 columns with Corinthian capitals and bases. Much remains on the seabed, and the Marzamemi shipwreck (as it’s called, after the village of Marzamemi, south of Syracuse) is under investigation again this summer. The Ashmolean’s reconstruction is based on remains of completed buildings that exist today in Ravenna, Italy, in Cyprus, and Libya.

Sicily has a long complex history but the show manages this - taking us from the Bronze Age, through Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, to the Arab Norman period - by keeping to chronology and focussing on seven shipwrecks found off different coastlines to show the movement of ancient peoples, goods and ideas around the Mediterranean.

The exhibition has also been made family friendly with ‘shipworm’ symbols signifying family activities. The ‘shipworms’ make us (adults too!) look closer at things like divers and their gear, and think of all sorts of buried treasure that can be found under the sea.

But while shipwrecks form the backbone of this show, telling stories of migration, cultural exchange, trade, everyday life, and aspiration and so on, another spectacular discovery supplies the energy.

Three bronze battering rams from Roman and Carthaginian warships taking part in the Battle of the Egadi Islands in March 241 BC are displayed along with a fabulous backdrop of a video that re-enacts the battle. The recently recovered rams are proof of the exact location of this decisive victory of Rome over Carthage that ended the First Punic War (264-241 BC) between the two superpowers. The history-changing battle ensured Rome’s ultimate domination of the Mediterranean.

The digital reconstruction made by Creative Assembly, makers of the video game Total War, forcefully shows the two fleets of 200 and more ships ploughing into one another. And in the show, you can see a piece of wood from an enemy ship stuck inside one of the rams.

Told in the opening room, the remarkable story of the Englishwoman Honor Frost (1917–2010), one of the earliest pioneers of underwater archaeology, underpins the whole show. Frost, who extraordinarily got her zest for diving as a young woman by submerging herself in a well in Wimbledon, her friends pumping air down to her using a garden hose, had first studied in Oxford at the Ruskin School of Art and had a career designing for the ballet.

In time, Frost was instrumental in establishing marine archaeology as an academic discipline.

Today divers use cutting-edge technology such as ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to explore deeper and further than ever before, and today, Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, lying at the heart of historic maritime routes, is a leading centre for underwater archaeology.

At the Ashmolean Museum until 25 September.

Theresa Thompson for Oxford Times