Over the years marine archaeologist Robert Marx has excavated Spanish galleons, sailed a replica of a Viking ship from Ireland to Gibraltar, and crossed the Atlantic in a clone of Columbus’ ship the Niña. But it wasn’t until last October that Marx, 46, plunged into what may prove to be his most intriguing adventure: In an area of the Rio de Janeiro harbor where fishermen’s nets had been dragging up odd clay fragments, Marx discovered a graveyard of what look suspiciously like ancient Roman amphorae. Such jars—the packing containers of the ancient world—often signal the site of a Roman shipwreck. And that, in turn, could mean that the Romans reached Brazil as much as 1,700 years earlier than Pedro Alvares Cabral, the Portuguese explorer who is credited with discovering it in 1500. “Nothing has been done in Brazil to prove or disprove the find,” says Marx. “If authentic, it would be one of the most important discoveries in the field of marine archaeology.”
The situation is tantalizing but full of uncertainties. Why didn’t the Brazilians themselves investigate when a local diver brought up two of the jars in 1976? Marx has speculated that Brazil, which has strong cultural ties with Portugal, didn’t want the traditional history challenged. What proof is there that the jars are Roman? “All the experts agree that the jars are Roman—they are second century B.C.,” says Marx. Yet the American sources he cites, while encouraging, actually don’t go quite that far. “They look Roman to me,” says Elizabeth Will, associate professor of classics at the University of Massachussetts, who, like other U.S. experts, has seen only photos. “But without seeing actual examples and fragments of the clay, it is hard to be certain.”
As for how the amphorae got there, Marx admits that the jars could have come from a derelict ship, abandoned and blown across the Atlantic unmanned. But he discounts such a theory because the wreck site is far up at the head of a natural bay, implying that the vessel that carried the amphorae was guided by more than wind.
Marx himself seems guided by a rare, if sometimes quirky, sense of adventure. A largely self-taught marine archaeologist who obviously is not averse to publicity, he says he learned hard-hat diving as an 11-year-old in New Jersey and later taught scuba technique in Puerto Rico while serving in the Marines. During the ’60s he made news with a series of remarkable ventures, including overseeing the excavation of the old harbor area of Port Royal, Jamaica (submerged after a 1692 earthquake) and his copycat voyage of the Niña. “We wanted to know how boring it was being crowded on a stinking ship for so long with bad chow,” he explained at the time. Since then he has continued to dive around the world, from Lebanon to the Bahamas, financed, he says, by wealthy “Walter Mitty types” who want to share vicariously in his experiences. His scientific grounding, according to one source, is sound. “Bob’s an active man, very thorough and enthusiastic,” says Harold Edgerton, an MIT professor emeritus of electrical engineering who will be joining Marx on the Brazil research. “He manages to come up with things that others don’t.”
When not in Rio lobbying to get his diving project under way, Marx lives in Satellite Beach, Fla. with his second wife, Jenifer, 42, also a diver. He hopes to get Brazilian government approval for his team to start working the Rio site by September. Already, he says, a sonar survey of the area detected what might be pieces of wood, a promising sign. But Marx knows that in order to prove conclusively that a Roman wreck lies on the bottom of Guanabara Bay, he will need to find other Roman artifacts—hull fragments, coins, weapons—and that may require months of tedious attention in a muddy, inhospitable setting. “Working shipwrecks,” he says, “is not like in Hollywood movies.”