Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Probing the Depths of Venice Volume 49 Number 4, July/August 1996
by Albert J. Ammerman

Ancient sediments yield evidence of the islands' first settlers.

By the end of the thirteenth century, Venice was one of the largest cities in Europe, with a population of more than 100,000. While there are rich historical sources about the city from then on, what we know about its history from the fifth through eighth centuries A.D. was until recently based on chronicles written centuries later. These chronicles cannot provide reliable answers to even the most basic questions about the early city. Only archaeology can hope to do this, but the remains of these centuries now lie in waterlogged layers three to six feet below sea level, and until recently scholars lacked the techniques to excavate them. During the past 11 years, as part of a project in Rome's Forum, my colleagues and I have developed equipment and methods for taking core samples well below the water table. Application of these techniques in Venice is yielding important information about the early city. One sixth-century source described the lagoon-dwellers as living in simple wooden houses, but excavations in sixth- and seventh-century layers have revealed traces of more developed architecture with bricks, mortar, and tile roofs, at least in some places. Archaeology is also contributing to the monumental task of saving Venice from sinking into the sea by illuminating subsurface conditions that can, over time, affect the stability of buildings.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America