A story, involving the Apostle Paul, is currently making waves in the media. Researchers claim that they have found an anchor tied to an almost 2,000-year-old shipwreck in the Mediterranean involving the saint. According to the Bible, Paul was imprisoned and en route to Rome to face trial when the ship he was traveling in hit a sandbar and ran aground. As a result of the collision, Paul and his fellow prisoners discovered that they had reached the island of Malta, some 50 miles south of Italy.
Now, representatives from the BASE (Biblical Archaeology Search and Exploration) Institute claim that the traditional location for the shipwreck is incorrect and that they have identified one of the anchors from Paul’s ship.
Tradition maintains that Paul was shipwrecked off the coast of what is now known as St. Paul’s Bay in the northern part of the island. According to Acts of the Apostles, which records the details of Paul’s journey and shipwreck in some detail, shortly before they hit the reef, the sailors on the ship cast off four anchors into the water (27:28, 40). The sailors planned to kill all the prisoners but the prisoners, at the suggestion of a friendly centurion, jumped overboard made it to shore (some people swam, others drifted on planks, Titanic-style; Paul doesn’t tell us which group he was in).
Using a combination of interviews with modern fishermen, maritime current analysis, and close readings of the Bible, Robert Cornuke, the president of BASE, argues that the actual location of Paul’s shipwreck is St. Thomas Bay, a site just north of modern day Marsaxlokk in the southeast of the island. Cornuke notes that the approach to the bay was marked by a “long finger of shallow reef” which, they say, “coincided exactly with the sailor’s soundings as recorded by Luke [the author of the Acts of the Apostles].”
Once Cornuke had identified this site as the probable location of Paul’s shipwreck he had hoped to locate the site of the wreck. As it turned out, others had beaten him to it. In 1971 a group of Maltese fishermen-divers led by two teenagers named Tony and Ray found four first century Roman-style anchors in the approximate location where one would expect to locate them and at the depth (90 feet) mentioned in the Bible. According to the BASE statement “Unfortunately, the divers did not realize what they had found, and, over the years, two of the anchors had been melted down for use in scuba-diving weight belts, and a third was lost–to a place unknown.”
Cornuke consulted with Dr. Anthony Bonanno of the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta, who confirmed that he had discovered part of a typical Roman anchor. Bonanno confirmed that the anchor would have been in use over a 500-year period between the third century B.C. and the second century A.D.
In evaluating the likelihood that it has uncovered one of the anchors from Paul’s ship, the BASE institute statement concludes “the evidence… is virtually overwhelming.” Cornuke, a former FBI-trained investigator, told The Daily Beast that he feels that the evidence is overwhelming, “I think I could win it in a court of law,” he said, “Can I prove it empirically? No.”
The discovery has elicited breathless coverage at Fox News and the Daily Mail, but before we get too excited it’s important to look at the full picture. The first problem is the frequency of shipwrecks in the ancient world. Shipwrecks were so common, in fact, that they become a major plot device in ancient literature. Odysseus is stranded in the Odyssey. Aeneas, the founder of Rome, survives a shipwreck in Virgil’s Iliad. But most strikingly in ancient Greek romance novels, the happy couple is frequently torn apart by the fact that one of them is involved in a shipwreck and assumed dead. Next to being kidnapped by pirates, storms and shipwrecks are the favourite literary device for creating drama in these stories. The importance of the shipwreck in these texts has led some scholars to argue that the entire Acts of the Apostles is written in the style of ancient romance novels (minus the sex, obviously).
In classical archaeology there is a whole field of study known as “shipwreck studies” and the data suggests that there were more shipwrecks in this period than in others. As Yale classicist J. G. Manning has written in his magisterial book The Open Sea (Princeton, 2018), “the distribution of shipwrecks follows a bell curve, rising steadily from ca. 600 BCE to 200 BCE, rapidly increasing from 200 BCE and peaking in the 1st century BCE, with only a slight decrease in the 1st century CE, and a sharp decline beginning in the 3rd century CE.” There are some problems, as Neville Morley has written, in drawing conclusions about trade from this data, but we can confidently say that Paul was not on the only ship to sink in the Mediterranean in the first century A.D.
When contacted by The Daily Beast, Professor Bonanno clarified his position further; “I warned Mr Cornuke that the anchor per se could not constitute evidence for belonging to that shipwreck. Essentially, I find that Mr Cornuke makes a plausible alternative site for the said shipwreck, although there are more records of finds of Roman anchor stokes in the area of Qawra/St Paul's Bay near which there was another small harbor which since then has silted up.”
Assuming that all of the details of the story in Acts are accurate, there are some remaining questions about the anchors. Who found them? When? Where? And how? Cornuke, who interviewed the surviving fishermen about their discovery, said that he was told that they found the anchors at a depth of 90 feet and in a “120 foot spread pattern.” But there’s no photography of the anchors in situ and of course no official measurements of the depth of the water where they were found.
Interestingly, recent news coverage has included none of the information about who found the anchors, when, where, or how. BASE’s own report supplies no names at all. And perhaps for a particular reason: under Malta’s antiquities laws, failing to report the discovery of ancient anchors is the kind of thing that could have landed the Maltese diver in jail. It’s essentially looting. Cornuke told me that concerns about the legal status of their find meant that it took him two years to track down those involved and persuade them to talk to him about their discovery.
As reported in 2003 by Christianity Today (these claims by Cornuke have suddenly and inexplicably resurfaced), Kathryn Proffitt, the former US ambassador to Malta, arranged for the government to pardon the fisherman on certain conditions. First, Cornuke’s book had to promote Maltese tourism and temple sites; second, Proffitt and the Maltese government had the right to edit the book; finally, Cornuke would remain silent about the pardon deal. When Cornuke reneged on the deal Proffitt unsuccessfully attempted to sue to stop the distribution of the book. Cornuke cannot be accused of doing anything underhand with the actual artifacts: he told me that he donated what was left of the anchors to the Malta Maritime Museum of Vittoriosa.
Cornuke may well have, as Prof. Bonanno remarked, offered a plausible explanation for where Paul’s shipwreck actually took place. An insight like this isn’t purely academic: it has important consequences for the tourist industry on Malta, which has a great deal invested in the traditional location for the site of Paul’s shipwreck. This much is clear from Cornuke’s deal with the government about promoting Temple sites in exchange for pardoning the fishermen-looters. There’s money at stake in religious history.
From an historical and archaeological standpoint, however, this is an excellent example of why (even if you don’t care about ethics) looting is destructive. Archaeologists have nothing but the 40-year old memories of a group of divers to go on. These were divers that Cornuke, a religiously motivated man himself, described as “very religious” and thus, one assumes, knowledgeable about biblical stories. They were also very young when they discovered the anchors (Tony was 14 years old) and considerably older when describing it. There’s no way to prove where the anchors actually were when they were found and memory is a slippery thing. Any archaeological evidence from the find spot that originally accompanied the anchors has been disturbed and the find spot itself has been lost. Even in cases like this, when the looted artifacts wind up in a museum in their country of origin, looting produces (at best) the sloppiest of 19th century archaeological method. Are these the anchors of Paul’s ship? Maybe. Probably not. But even if they were, we’d have no way to know.