The ram, also called a rostrum, was found back in 2008, sitting in about six meters of water off the coast of Sicily, in the awesomely-named “Bay of the Pirates” (or Acqualadrone).
Shortly thereafter, scientists carbon-dated the weapon and announced that it must have come from a warship that sunk around 260 B.C.E.
This means the boat likely met its destiny during the First Punic War, which Wikipedia tells me was one of three wars fought between the Romans and the Ancient Carthage of North Africa.
You can nerd out on the history at www.historyofwar.org: “Prior to the Punic Wars, Rome was not seen as a major power in the Mediterranean…” But the point is, this boat and its ram went down in a rather significant series of watery altercations.
Now scientists are reporting that they’ve figured out that the wooden base of the ram is pine and that it was waterproofed with pine tar. The team also found “remarkable quantities of sulfur” in the wood, which means two things:
First, that many sulfur-eating bacteria have colonized the wood over the past two thousand years and have left their sulfury waste behind.
(One of the most common ions floating around in sea water is sulfate, which marine bacteria harvest to use in their metabolism, Stanford’s Patrick Frank, one of the paper’s authors, told Artful Science.
Then the bacteria rudely leave their sulfur waste (called hydrogen sulfide) behind on the wood. As an aside, other famous sunken ships, such as the Vasa and the Mary Rose, also have copious amounts of sulfur compounds in their wood courtesy of marine microbes, Frank says.)
Second, this ram is in danger of rapid degradation. The leftover hydrogen sulfide can be pretty easily transformed in to corrosive sulfuric acid by iron and copper that has also percolated into the wood.
Frank says a solution to this problem could be to remove ozone from the air surrounding the artifact, in order to slow down the problematic production of sulfuric acid.