Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Roman Warship Resurfaces Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Jarrett A. Lobell

In front of hundreds of excited spectators, Italian archaeologists recently raised the only Roman warship ever found from the muddy ancient harbor of San Rossore in Pisa. The galley is one of at least twenty ships that sank in the harbor between the second century B.C. and the sixth century A.D. Archaeologists have been excavating the site, a short walk from the city's famous Leaning Tower, for four years ("A Cache of Vintage Ships," July/August 1999).

This relatively small harbor, known in ancient sources as the Porto delle Conche, has already produced several ancient riverboats and merchant ships that were carrying exotic goods from North Africa and the Danube. These include near-intact shipments of wine, food, clothing, building materials, a North African lion likely destined for a gladiatorial spectacle, and the skeletons of a sailor and his dog found trapped under the rigging of his ship.

The forty-foot-long warship, named the Giuditta after the archaeologist who has excavated it, is "the best-preserved vessel of antiquity ever found," says project director Andrea Camilli. The ship is practically undamaged, preserved in fifteen feet of mud that eventually silted up the harbor in late antiquity.

The Giuditta dates to around A.D. 30. Archaeologists and ship historians are particularly excited about its reinforced oak prow, covered with iron and designed for ramming. The oarlocks and sail fastenings are also identifiable, making the ship a gold mine of information about ancient naval warfare. The Giuditta will be conserved and restored over the next four years before its eventual display in Pisa's newly opened Museum of Ships. Work will also continue at San Rossore, where archaeologists are confident that even more ships are buried.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America