An Eventful Week in Carthage

Chrissie Harrison


Sometime in the spring of 1990 whilst shopping in Habitat, Tottenham Court Road, I bumped into Paul McCulloch. We sat on a sofa and had a chat about the archaeological excavations in Carthage which he would be supervising in the coming summer. This conversation led to a welcome invitation to visit the site.

 Sidi Bou Said marina... Myself, Gustav Milne and Paul McCulloch ...Le PountSidi Bou Said marina... Myself, Gustav Milne and Paul McCulloch ...Le Pount


We arrived late at night on the 7th September at Tunis Airport, greeted by the intense heat, jasmine scented air and the North African vibes of mysteriousness and money changing. Paul was there to meet us and help with the formalities before we were bundled into a taxi bound for the dig house, situated in the Tunisian suburb of Carthage.

Too impatient to wait for daybreak, we went out into the night to see the Phoenician circular harbour at the Cothon, where some 200 warships could have been accommodated. On the central island were the shipsheds where the warships could have been drawn up on slipways: harbour archaeology on an impressive scale to dwarf the Port of Roman London.

View from the circular island the middle of the Punic Harbour: in the background, Chrissie and Paul are examining   scatters of pottery and other ancient debris. View from the circular island the middle of the Punic Harbour: in the background, Chrissie and Paul are examining scatters of pottery and other ancient debris.


Remains of the ship shed where the Punic warships were accommodated, before being launched down the ramp into   the lagoonRemains of the ship shed where the Punic warships were accommodated, before being launched down the ramp into the lagoon.


Aerial view of the circular harbour with the central island and the ancient access causeway still surviving. Aerial view of the circular harbour with the central island and the ancient access causeway still surviving.

 The remains of waterfront warehouses are still visible, partially submerged by rising sea levels. The remains of waterfront warehouses are still visible, partially submerged by rising sea levels.


Later that week we were able to record a small section of the Punic harbour exposed in a trial trench, although that was not the focus of the main excavation programme.

Carthage was founded in the 9th century BC, and became one of the largest cities in the ancient world, dominating a maritime empire that stretched from North Africa to Spain, Sicily, Malta and Tyre. It was once Rome’s great rival, leading to three Punic Wars from 264 to 146 BC: the last of these saw Carthage brutally and totally destroyed. The Romans later rebuilt a city on the ruins, of which well-preserved remains have survived.

These are the streets of the town as it was in 146BC

These are the streets of the town as it was in 146BC

These are the streets of the town as it was in 146BC

These are the streets of the town as it was in 146BCThese are the streets of the town as it was in 146BC, where the Roman army fought, house by house, slaughtering everyone in their way: the few inhabitants that survived were sold into slavery.


The 1990 excavation season required a 7am start on site, with a tea break around 10.30. Work stopped at 2pm then lunch was a leisurely affair on the shady terrace out of the blistering heat. Catering was on a rota basis, one person each day was responsible for deciding the menu shopping and cooking. This system worked very well.
On site our Tunisian diggers provided copious amounts of very strong brewed tea which despite being totally non-alcoholic definitely had quite a kick and was a life saver. “Turned out nice again” was the daily joke as we shovelled in the burning sun and mopped our brows whilst sipping this potent brew.
One digger had a pet chameleon an amazing creature which seemed to enjoy being the centre of attention and changing colour for the delight of all.

Neptune (not unsurprisingly a fish restaurant) was a short walk from the dig house. It provided a stunning view of Cap Bon and the Mediterranean as waves lapped the sea wall of the terrace and served excellent food. It was here that I tried alioli for the first time: harissa was another new gastronomic experience, but not for the faint-hearted.

Carthage has a French colonial heritage, which includes its own TGM metro. Three stops from our local station Carthage Hannibal is Sidi Bou Said, a picturesque artisanal white washed village with contrasting blue doors and shutters nestling in the hillside of Cap Bon. Home to many artists and musicians, bougainvillea palms and jasmin abound as well as tourist shops and cafes. Café de Delices is a series of terraces on the cliff with amazing views of the Marina and the Gulf of Tunis. Sidi Bou Said was given heritage status in 1915 to help ensure its preservation.


Le Pount- stern viewLe Pount- stern view

We saw an unusual sailing ship in the marina and were invited on board. It was a replica of an ancient Egyptian vessel, used for the voyages to the Land of Punt, a rich kingdom which may have been in Somalia.

Our stay also included a visit to the Bardo Museum in Tunis. This beautiful building houses an impressive collection of Phoenician masks, Roman mosaics, marble statues and artefacts from many eras as well as an Islamic department. So much to absorb and such a welcome respite from the heat, a truly memorable place to visit.

The dig house had previously accommodated an American School, and anti-American/Western feeling was become increasingly apparent. The ominous events of the first Gulf War found us huddled around a radio on our last night, listening to the news on the overseas service. By the time we had flown back home, Operation Desert Storm was already under way.

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5 comments

  • Comment Link Pete James Monday, 16 May 2022 18:22 posted by Pete James

    No Angus, Pat didn't travel back with us but I think you are right about Prince working at Sheffield Manor. I lived in Sheffield from 1976 to 1981 when I joined the DUA and moved to London. In Sheffield I worked for the very small (3 man) South Yorkshire Archaeological Service and first met Prince there when we advertised for diggers to work on a small excavation in Wath on Dearne. I believe Prince came south to work for the DUA not long after me.

  • Comment Link Angus Stephenson Tuesday, 10 May 2022 12:20 posted by Angus Stephenson

    Interesting article and comments from Pete. Patrice (Panella as was), as one of the American finds personnel, was there in 1978 and brought back boxes of metallic small finds which we dragged around the country for the next few years, until we could get rid of them. I thought Patrice travelled back with you and Prince that year, Pete? The memory fades.... I remember working with Prince on a dig at Sheffield Manor one summer around then, too.

  • Comment Link Pete James Wednesday, 27 April 2022 13:03 posted by Pete James

    Hi Chrissie. Good to hear from you! Yes, I was Whatsapping with Ian last night about the possibility of doing something for Home & Away. I don't think I have documentary evidence of that trip to Libya/Tunisia any more, apart from slides (which I will have to scan), so I will have to rely largely on my sometimes unreliable memory. It is such a pity that I can't ask Prince for help with this. I will need some time, then, to piece something together. (And, as Ian knows, it took me more than a year to write the piece about the GLSMR, so nobody should hold their breath!)

    All the best,
    Pete

  • Comment Link Christine harrison Wednesday, 27 April 2022 09:22 posted by Christine harrison

    Hello Pete thanks so much great to hear about your very eventful time in North Africa. Would you be interested in writing a bit about it and sharing any photos?
    This is part of Home and Away, a new section on the website exploring the expertise and diversity of the diggers who dug London. Xx ?

  • Comment Link Peter james Tuesday, 26 April 2022 12:22 posted by Peter james

    I love this Chrissie. A beautiful evocation of what was evidently a special experience for you. It also brings back memories for me. (Not obviously relevant to Digging London, perhaps, but bear with me!) In 1979 I visited Carthage with Prince Chitwood, whom many readers of DL will remember. We were returning, in a somewhat roundabout way, from an excavation at Tolmeita (the ancient city of Ptolemais) on the coast of Libya, directed by John Ward-Perkins for the Society for Libyan Studies (although, sadly, we didn't get the opportunity to meet the great man as he had to leave the site before we arrived). Not long before we were due to depart for home we received a message asking us to change our travel plans and fly from Benghazi to Tunis, where a Land Rover was laid up and waiting for us to bring it back to Newcastle upon Tyne. This had broken down when an archaeological expedition to the Fezzan in southern Libya (also on behalf of the Libyan Society, and led by Charles Daniels of Newcastle University) was returning to Tunis to catch the ferry to Marseilles and then travel on to the UK. The repair was going to take a while so the survey team decided to fly home without it. While the Land Rover was being repaired and our papers were sorted out Prince and I were to stay at what I think was the HQ of an American team digging at Carthage, and I wonder whether this is the same 'dig house' you stayed in Chrissie, some 10 years later? In the Elysium RIP section of this website there is a photo of Prince and me on the roof of that house. (There we met Pat Panella, later Pat Stephenson, who was digging with the team. I have other pictures taken on the same occasion that include Pat.) There is so much in your account, Chrissie, that resonates with me - the heat, the jasmine scented air, and the sights of a strange world I had never visited before (including countless fly-overs by Col. Gaddafi's Russian made MIG fighters and helicopter gunships!). On my arrival in Libya I most vividly remember my taxi being overtaken by a pick-up truck with a camel sitting in the back, head towering above the roof of the truck and looking disdainfully at all around him. Our on-site experiences were similar to yours in Carthage, too, although for us the workforce was just Prince and me plus a team of about 15 local workers. I think we started work at 6am and and had a break at 8.30, when breakfast consisted of very strong, very very sweet mint tea, brewed in an enormous kettle over an open fire, and omelettes that were delivered every morning in a police car, courtesy of a local PC who was the brother of one of our workers. Apart from the amazing archaeology the site was remarkable for its wildlife: little owls, snakes, scorpions, and legions of crickets that were the size of sparrows and came at us at head height when the jumped! Our stay in Carthage was memorable too - the ancient remains, the hospitality of the Americans, the souk in Tunis, and meeting some of the locals Prince knew from a previous visit. Thanks for bringing back all these memories!

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