Early Roman Empire   :|:   Document

The Roman wreck of Comacchio

ref. : en.1933.2019 | 16 February 2019 | by Francis Leveque
épave | Fourth quarter of Ier century BC
Italie du nord ( Italie )
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It took an unknown storm to cause a human tragedy on people we know nothing about so that we can see a trace of a little part of their lives. Who was on this boat under Augustus? Did they come out alive? Why was the contents of the ship not recovered?

The Roman imperial vessel was discovered by chance in the immediate outskirts of Comacchio, along the road leading to Ferrara, in the Valle Ponti, in 1981, during the maintenance of the drainage canals. The boat was recovered during three excavations carried out by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici of the Emilia Romagna region over a period of ten years.

The description of the contents of the ship is largely inspired by the comments of the Delta Antico Museum and the NAVIS II website.

Il avait entièrement gardé son chargement commercial et de nombreux objets d’usage quotidien, tout comme son armement. L’ensablement rapide du navire a permis de conserver la cargaison, maintenant exposée dans les salles du musée, et de la coque.
The ship ran aground, probably because of a storm, at the mouth of the river as it headed north to reach the Po. The superstructures were destroyed by waves which underwashed the vessel at its base and thus caused it to sink into the sand
It had kept his commercial load and many objects of daily use, just like his armament. The rapid sinking of the vessel has preserved the cargo, now on display in the museum, and the hull.

The archaeological excavations

The entire upper portion of the wreck was brought to light and the cargo recovered during an extensive excavation season in the summer of 1981. Subsequently, the vessel was submerged beneath the watertable in order to preserve the timber pieces.

The 1986/87 winter excavation campaign resulted in the recovery of goods and objects of daily life belonging to seafarers and passengers. The recovery took place during the winter of 1988-89. The hull, supported by a wooden cradle and encased within a metallic framework was raised and transported to the interior of the Palazzo Bellini complex at Comacchio.

As a result, a vast restoration campaign has begun. The boat was placed in a tank measuring 25 m in length in which it was gradually impregnated with PEG (polyethylene glycol). The treatment allowed to preserve and expose almost all the remains of the ship and its cargo.

The ship

It is a boat about twenty meters long, with a propulsion sail and flat bottom, for navigation in inland waters or on the coast.

The hull is preserved over a length of little more than 20 m. Part of the port side is still connected to the stern griped up to the wale, while towards the bow (identified thanks to the presence of an anchor) the planking strakes are detached and overlapping. The bow as well as the starboard side are missing. A crack splits the planking near the stern gripe.

The vessel, lacking a proper keel, featured a keel plank. The stern is a complex piece of elm wood, 1.70 m high. The upper extremity was attached to the sternpost (which did not survive) by means of a hook scarf.

The hull structure is composed of elm planking joined by diagonal scarfs fixed with horizontal iron nails. The width of the ceiling planks ranges from 17 to 29 cm. while their thickness averages 5 cm. The quick work is assembled by lashed joinery.

The wale is maintained by a system of tenons (7 cm) and mortises (8 cm). The holes are closed by pegs made of various wood types (ash, cornel and lime).
The internal planking is composed of various wood (walnut, elm and oak).

Lead ingots

The marks affixed to the ingots of the cargo made it possible to date the voyage of the ship in a precise lapse of time: the time of Augustus before the death of Agrippa, his collaborator and son-in-law, towards 12 BC
The vessel was carrying 102 lead massae, weighing between 19.5 and 41.5 kg, from Spanish mines. They are almost all marked with the acronym AGRIP, or Marco Vipsanio Agrippa, the great general of Augustus. MAC, GEM, LPR marks are thought to refer to the legions Macedonica, Gemina and Legio Prima, commissioned by Agrippa during the Cantabrian wars in northern Spain around 19 BC.

L.CAE.BAT could instead refer to the name of an importer, Lucius Caesius Batius.

Limestone weight was used to control lead ingots with a large two-armed wooden balance. The initials T.RVFI, engraved on the upper side, refer to a Titus Rufus, perhaps the owner or the magistrate who certified the weight.

The anchor

The anchor, now covered with thick concretions, is composed of iron elements of rectangular section.
It is 2.25 meters high and is anchor type Admiralty Pattern, or simply «Admiralty», and also known as «Fisherman», widespread in the Roman world since the beginning of the second century BC.
It has iron rings to which the peaks have been attached to descend the anchor into the sea and facilitate recovery in case of problems. It was probably on the bridge at the bow.

Ship cargo

The many amphorae come from different geographical areas.
A group, intended to contain oil or wine, is of Adriatic production (from Cisalpine to Piceno), another contains precious wines of Eolide (the Greek islands of Chio and Lesbos), Caries ( Cnidus, on the western coast of Turkey) and Kos Island.
The amphoras were closed with terracotta corks, some molded, others recycled from shards of broken amphorae, probably sealed with a mixture of pozzolan.
Many amphorae are reported as heterogeneous and difficult to interpret.

There are marks, made with stamps and signs printed in the rough, but also several acronyms, painted or graffiti, which can refer to the content, the year of production, aging, origin, the destination, the capacity, the names of the merchant or the person in charge of the weighing.

Sailors and passengers

There are many personal effects of people on board: shoes, bags, baskets, parts of clothing and waterproof leather cases for luggage. But also nuts and pawns, medicine containers, personal hygiene accessories, a little grotesque idol with an amulet function.
In ancient times, there were no ships used exclusively for the transport of passengers, which were lodged on a merchant ship which was directed to their destination. The signs of the presence of passengers could be the remains of women’s shoes and a baby bootie.
The latter could, however, also belong to a young worker or a marine apprentice.

Soldier on board

The caligae (studded sandals of the army), a finely decorated sword, the sheath of a dagger and the winged wing of Jupiter adorning one of the wooden drawers, indicate the presence on board one or several soldiers, perhaps an armed escort with the goods, or more likely a changing officer.

Miniature temples

The small temples of the ship Valle Ponti are a unique testimony of objects of devotion.
Some ancient sources attest that, in the Greco-Roman world, miniature temples were produced in gold or silver as ex-votos and for personal devotional practices. The small temples of Comacchio were mass-produced with silver lead plates, mounted with welding or interlocking points.
They reproduce generic temple examples on podium with ionic columns. They have feet configured with lion feet and suspension rings.

                                      

Bibliography :

  • C. Domergue, Les lingots de plomb de l’épave romaine de Valle Ponti (Comacchio), in Epigraphica , vol. 49 , 1987
  • F. Berti, Fortuna maris : la nave romana di Comacchio - Catalogue de l’exposition présentée au Palazzo Bellini, à Comacchio, du 28 avril au 31 décembre 1990, Nuova Alfa ed., Bologne , 1990
  • C. Meucci, F. Berti, Schede di archeologia dell’Emilia Romagna. La nave di Comacchio : documenti di un restauro, Soprintendenza archeologica per l'Emilia Romagna, Bologne , 1997
  • M. Simoni, L. Ruffoni, G. Mezzogori, La nave romana di Comacchio : appunti di un viaggio nel passato, Tipografia Don Bosco,, Comacchio , 1997
  • C. Domergue, P. Quarati, A. Nesta, P.R. Trincherini , Retour sur les lingots de plomb de Comacchio (Ferrara, Italie) en passant par l’archeometrie et l’epigraphie. , in Minería y metalurgia antiguas. Visiones y revisiones. Homenaje a Claude Domergue, Casa de Velázquez, Madrid , 2012
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