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Sunken Ships of Pisa Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Andrew L. Slayman

[image] One of the Roman ships found by builders working at a Pisa train station. (Giovanni Lattanzi) [LARGER IMAGE]

Four well-preserved Roman ships have been found in Pisa, Italy, by builders digging the foundation for new offices at one of the city's train stations. Following Italian law, work was suspended and archaeologists were called in after the first ship was discovered. Moving quickly because construction could not resume until they were done, excavators found three more ships, cargo and other artifacts, and part of an ancient quay.

One hull, 46 by 20 feet, is in particularly good condition. "The wood seems to have been buried almost yesterday," says a project volunteer. "The planking is still fastened to the frame with copper nails." Potsherds found nearby date the ship to the mid-second century A.D. According to project director Stefano Bruni of the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany, the design of the hull suggests that it is a warship. If this is the case, says Bruni, "it will be the first known imperial warship whose structure survives relatively intact, contributing immensely to knowledge of the Roman fleet."

This ship was empty, but the cargo of another vessel, dating from the first century B.C., was nearly intact. Amphoras (two of which were stolen from the excavation) contained a liquid residue (possibly wine); remains of cherries, plums, and olives; as well as sand from the Bay of Naples. Another freighter's hull was very well preserved, but no cargo was found. Near a fourth, smaller boat, a wicker basket, a leather sandal, and a coil of rope were discovered.

Artifacts from the site include a terra-cotta dish and lamp, held by project director Stefano Bruni. (Giovanni Lattanzi) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Sixteenth-century histories mention a part of Pisa known as the Porto delle Conche (Port of the Basins), after an ancient inland harbor on the Auser River (now known as the Serchio). The location of the port, which no longer exists, was not known; Bruni speculates that it may at last have been rediscovered.

Conservators are encasing the hulls in resin so they can be moved, allowing construction to proceed. The city and the archaeological superintendency hope to build a special facility where the public can view the ongoing conservation, which is expected to take several years, before the ships are moved to a museum for permanent display.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America