Planet Earth

Lost Ships

A long-lost cache of surprisingly well-preserved vessels promises a rare look at everyday life in ancient Rome

By Robert KunzigApr 1, 2000 6:00 AM


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Sometimes archaeologists must scrape and sift through tons of dirt to find a single tiny fragment, a bone chip or stone chip, of the past. And sometimes the past surges up at them in such abundance that they need cranes and trucks to haul it away. Stefano Bruni has the latter problem. He just happened to be in the right job at the right time.

He doesn't know much about ancient ships, he admits. Until last year Bruni was an obscure Etruscologist, a student of the people who preceded the Romans in central and northern Italy. Among other things, he had dug up the burial mound, or tumulus, of an Etruscan prince just outside Pisa. But Bruni is also the scientific director of the Soprintendenza ai Beni Archeologici della Toscana, the government agency that protects archaeological sites in Tuscany. His agency had classified the area around the tumulus, which happened to include an old railway station called San Rossore, as archaeologically protected. When the Italian national railway, the Ferrovie dello Stato, decided to build a new control station at San Rossore, it had to come to Bruni.

Before construction started, Bruni's team sampled the site to a depth of about 20 feet. They found nothing surprising--mostly traces of Roman farm fields. Pisa has no shortage of historic stuff; the Leaning Tower, built from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, is just a third of a mile from San Rossore. But on December 1, 1998, just below the depth where the archaeological survey had stopped, workers at the northeast corner of the site sliced through a wooden ship from the second century A.D.

At first the Ferrovie thought it might get away with handing over that one ship and moving its building 33 feet to the south, but it soon turned out there was more than just one ship. Bruni's team has since found parts of 17 ships and is now excavating eight that are more or less intact. The ships date from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 500, but there may well be older ones to come; a stone pier and wooden breakwater at the south end of the site, Bruni says, date from the fifth century B.C.

Apparently this plot of land, which is just over six miles from the sea, was once a small harbor off a large Pisan lagoon that has since filled with silt.

Bruni is digging up ships that sank in that harbor, along with their contents: incense burners and oil lamps, fish hooks and sewing needles, and many, many amphorae. Those large earthenware jars once brought goods to Pisa from all over the Mediterranean -- or mare nostrum, as the Romans took to calling it, meaning "our sea." Through a small patch of weedy wasteland in northern Italy, Bruni's archaeologists are thus getting an off-center view of the millennium that was Roman, from the Republic through the fall of the Empire.

All this, and poor Bruni still has to do his day job -- still has to haul himself across the countryside when some other construction crew hits something unexpected underground; still has to show up at the office in Florence; still has to deal with, as he puts it, "the envy and jealousy of some less-fortunate colleagues." That's what can happen when a harborload of Rome gets dumped in your lap.

Libraries have been written about the Roman Empire, and Bruni's dig, unique as it is, is not likely to shake their foundations. Still, the Empire drew its strength from maritime trade, and the Pisa dig is a vast muddy warehouse of Roman seagoing details. Augustus came to power as Rome's first emperor in 30 B.C. after his fleet defeated Mark Antony's at Actium, off western Greece, and he went on to establish a formidable navy to rid the Mediterranean of pirates. After that the Roman Sea was crisscrossed reliably by thousands of merchant ships. People in Rome, a city of perhaps a million, came to depend for their very bread on wheat from Egypt and North Africa; they drank wine from France and cooked (and massaged themselves) with olive oil from Spain. The basic vectors of this amazingly internationalized economy are known from myriad documents and digs.

What isn't so well known, and what these ships promise, is the sort of detail that makes history come alive--details about ancient Pisa itself, about ancient ships, and about the life of an ancient harbor. Pisa was old, at least several centuries old, when the Romans took it over. It was the Etruscans who built the breakwater and pier Bruni's team has found, and so Pisa must have been a substantial Etruscan port. During the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries B.C. --when Rome defeated Carthage and so became the dominant power in the western Mediterranean--Pisa became a Roman naval base. But the city -- about 200 miles north of Rome -- did not become a Roman colony until the reign of Augustus. It acquired temples then, a theater, and baths. Of all that, nothing is left.

One place where you find bits and pieces of the Roman city, it turns out, is in the harbor. In the stratum just above the first ship, Bruni's team found fragments of mosaics, of frescoed walls, and of marble columns. Bruni thinks he knows where the rubble came from. A few years ago, when he did some digging in the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the medieval cathedral and its leaning bell tower now stand, he found traces of grand Roman edifices. In the fifth century, when those buildings were declining and falling along with the rest of the Empire, the inhabitants of Pisa apparently chucked the debris into the nearby harbor.

By then perhaps it had silted up enough to be most useful as a dump. The harbor lay at a bend in a river whose course has since shifted some miles to the north of Pisa. It was not far from that river's confluence with the Arno, which still flows through the city center--and which is still prone to flooding. At different times the harbor would have received loads of silt from both rivers, as well as from the sea, which was close by. Picture Pisa in Roman times, Bruni says, like the Venice of today: a city built on islands in a vast lagoon and traversed by canals.

Rapid silting up of the harbor covered the ships Bruni's team is now excavating and preserved them from decay. Although hundreds of ancient shipwrecks have been found before underwater, in general the only significant ship parts to survive the millennia were protected by cargoes of indestructible amphorae. "We have only the hull or the bottom of the hull of practically all of them," says Lionel Casson, a professor of classics emeritus at New York University and an expert on ancient seafaring. "We're lucky enough that some of the ships fell over and rested on their sides, so we have the sides that the amphorae fell on top of and protected. The higher on a ship you go, the more interesting the information gets."

Several of the Pisan ships are preserved right up to the gunwales, their planking a bit worm-eaten and waterlogged--the workers hit groundwater at the site even before they hit ship--but otherwise beautifully intact. One of them, called ship D, still retains the bottom end of its mast and part of its deck; ironically, it is the bottom of the hull and the keel that are missing, for ship D was found capsized. Its age is uncertain, but traces of iron cladding on its bow and beams that might have supported a gangplank for boarding an enemy led Bruni and his colleagues to suggest that it might have been a Roman warship.

That would have been spectacular, because no such ship has ever been found--for the simple reason, Casson explains, that warships didn't have their holds filled with amphorae to preserve them. Our knowledge of the Roman navy comes exclusively from documents and pictures. But naval archaeologists, of whom there are none on Bruni's excavation team (which may account for some of the "envy and jealousy" he has encountered), discounted his claim. Ship D's squat dimensions--around 46 feet long by 20 feet wide--do not suggest a rapid warship. "It looks like a normal navis oneraria"--a sailing freighter, says naval archaeologist Giulia Boetto of the Museum of the Roman Ships at Fiumicino.

Even if no warship ever rises from the mud at Pisa, the dig remains exciting to Boetto and her peers for the great variety of watercraft that it promises to reveal, from seagoing freighters to river-going canoes. Almost as rare as Roman warships, for instance, are fishing boats; the Fiumicino museum has only one that has been excavated and preserved. But in preservation it cannot match the one Bruni seems to have in ship C, a 33-foot boat that Bruni has tentatively dated to the first century b.c. With seven benches for the oarsmen, 14 tholepins that held the oars in place, and the futtocks that ribbed the ancient hull, ship C is close to being whole. Nearby, the diggers also found a winch and numerous hemp lines, which may have been elements of the boat's rigging. "You never find rigging," says Casson.

In ship B, on the other hand, it is the cargo that is preserved: Amphorae were still stacked in the hold, still held upright by a ballast of rock. Some of the rock is lava from Vesuvius, which indicates the ship had come from the Bay of Naples. The amphorae contain residues of what appears to be wine, as well as peaches, cherries, plums, and walnuts. A coin with the head of Augustus suggests that the ship's last journey occurred in the late first century B.C. For some reason it sank when it arrived in Pisa; perhaps its cargo was not worth the effort for divers to salvage it.

Every ship at San Rossore has its own story--and one of the most intriguing belongs to a ship Bruni's team hasn't even dug up yet. Between ship C and the stone pier, the diggers found a few scattered planks from what appears to have been a large ship, one whose main wreckage must lie outside the foundation of the railway building and thus outside the excavation. Next to the planks were the ruins of a wharf. It would seem the ship was dashed against the wharf, thereby shattering both, presumably by a storm or a flood.

Bruni dates that event to between the midpoint of the third century and halfway through the second century B.C.--roughly the century of Rome's wars against Carthage. The ship's contents, scattered among the planking, make it possible to imagine the journey that ended so disastrously. Several small incense burners of Punic style, one of them exquisitely carved in the shape of a woman's head, suggest the journey began in Carthage, and that the crew burnt incense during religious ceremonies on board. A painted "sombrero" vase indicates a stop along the eastern coast of Spain; a gold clasp of Celtic craftsmanship must have been picked up in southern France.

When the ship arrived at Pisa, it had a live lion on board--or at least that's how Bruni interprets a single large canine tooth, indubitably that of a lion. The lion was probably picked up in North Africa and may have been bound for battle with a gladiator in an amphitheater, either at Rome or at Pisa itself. In the end it went down with the ship, along with two horses and at least some members of the crew.

Pisa is not Pompeii, although it is tempting to see it that way. Pompeii is a snapshot taken on the morning of August 24, A.D. 79 , when an ash cloud buried the city; the harbor Bruni is excavating is a collage assembled over the course of a millennium, which makes it trickier to analyze. So far, researchers have been more concerned with excavating and preserving their find than with analyzing it. "It's a race against time," Bruni says. "When we expose the boats to the air, the wood decays very rapidly." As the boats are uncovered they are immediately re-covered with a protective shell of fiberglass, which may also help make it possible to move them someday without breaking them. Fortunately for Bruni, the railway has decided to build its offices elsewhere.

Only after the ships have been removed from the site, rinsed in fresh water, and injected with a chemical solidifier, will it become possible to study their construction with care. Already ship D, though it is not a warship, looks to be exceptional: It seems to lack mortises and tenons, the slots and wooden pieces with which ancient Greek and Roman shipwrights joined one plank in the hull to the next. They assembled the entire hull first as an empty skin, says Casson, and only later did they strengthen it with internal framing, sometimes haphazardly. The modern way of building a ship, in which you start with keel and frames and then fasten the planks to that skeleton rather than to one another, took hold in the Mediterranean only in the Middle Ages--with the exception, perhaps, of ship D.

Bruni is not a ship man, however, and if you ask him for the most interesting aspect of his dig, it is not mortises and tenons he mentions. It is the way in which the harbor at San Rossore is like Pompeii after all--in its preservation of the commonplace, of ordinary objects that seem almost as precious to us now as the more glorious bits of Rome, because they are fragile and rare and more connected to our lives. "There are things you don't normally find in digs," Bruni says, "things made of materials that are destroyed by time. We've found a lot of those things. Wooden dishes and vases, cords and sacks, wicker baskets, leather sacks, cloth. Those things are the most astonishing and the most exciting for the people digging; they're the ones that make you feel tenderness. Because they're the everyday things of sailors from many years ago. It's everyday life we're seeing here." From the Keel up, Plank by Plank

If you want to know more about ancient ships, get ahold of Lionel Casson's book Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, the bible for naval archaeologists. Be sure to have a good dictionary at hand, though, because you will be reading sentences like "The garboard strakes were mortised to the keel rabbet . . . . "

Like other ancient shipwrights, Casson explains, the Greeks and Romans built the hull of the ship first, and then strengthened it with an internal frame; the practice of building ribs onto the keel and then attaching the hull planks to that skeleton did not become widespread until the Middle Ages. Instead the ancients attached the planks, or strakes, to one another. The Greeks and Romans had the best technique for doing this--"so refined that it more resembles cabinetwork than carpentry," Casson writes.

Into the top edge of each strake they drilled slots--called mortises--spaced anywhere from five to 10 inches apart. At the corresponding positions on the bottom edge of the next strake, they carved another series of slots. Then they inserted pieces of wood called tenons into the slots to hold the strakes together. After the strakes were fitted together with tenons in the slots, wooden pegs were hammered into the tenons to lock them in place. The result was a joint so tight it didn't even need to be caulked with reeds--although the whole hull was often covered with tarred fabric and sheathed in lead to protect it from shipworms.

The strakes were sometimes as much as four inches thick, sometimes less than an inch; when they were thin, the ones next to the keel, called garboards, were installed in two layers. They were made of whatever wood was locally available. The keel was sometimes made of oak, especially on warships. Those were speedy oar-powered galleys, sometimes with auxiliary sails; merchant ships were either galleys or beamy sail-powered tubs called navis oneraria. The latter were the ones that hauled most of the amphorae full of wine and the sacks full of grain around the Mediterranean.

For a look at artifacts from the Pisa site, visit (Be forewarned: The text is in Italian.)

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