Naples is one of the oldest Italian cities, dating back to 2,700 years. Its archeological sites have helped Roman historians and architecture enthusiasts alike understand the once-grand Roman Empire. However, Napoli’s archeologists actually learned more about the city’s famous commercial port through an excavation site at Piazza Municipio. Previously dug to accommodate the new metro system Metropolitana’s tracks, the site contains the remains of the port of Roman Neapolis and, most importantly, the hulls of three Roman ships dating back to first-century AD.
According to archeologists, the ships and the port were covered in sand and mud that slid from a nearby hill. By the fifth century AD, the marine sand and silt completely hid the port until it was discovered over 2,000 years later. Excited by their find, experts spent around five months excavating around the ships, uncovering personal belongings that once belonged to the ships’ sailors. Dice, sewing needles, baskets and even pairs of leather shoes were taken away and preserved to be put on display later.
Examining the conventionally designed “shell-first” mortise and tenon (an ancient method for joining ship beams) ships closely, archeologists identified two of them to be oneraria, which were trade ships used for relatively short trips such as to Rome’s port Ostia. The third ship, on the other hand, is a unique horeia, which is an in-harbor shuttle. Therefore, while experts believe that the first two ships were sunk intentionally, they suspect that the rare vessel was sunk by a storm, especially since it contained a generous shipment of lime.
To further examine the ships and continue building the subway, removing the ships became necessary. The process was a delicate one as the ships had to be excavated from thick layers of mud which formed the bottom of the Roman port. Therefore, huge sheets of fabric were used to lift the ships. Interestingly, beneath the ships were traces of the first harbor dredging, which is estimated to date all the way back to 326 BC. Moreover, belonging to the second century BC showed the changes that took place when Puteoli became the main commercial port. Cargoes of utilitarian objects such as ceramic lamps were replaced with luxury goods like goblets and bucchero pottery from Greece and Spain. All of these valuables became necessities of the elite living in villas along Napoli’s beautiful coastline.
In 2008, the ships were stored in fiberglass tubs filled with cold water within a climate-controlled building in Piscinola. Anyone entering the building was instructed to talk in hushed tones to avoid damaging the fragile ships. In addition, to create a pressure similar to that of the mud and silt, the tubs were covered with green plastic mesh.
Expert archeologists and conservators from Germany and San Rossore, Pisa have been invited to help Napoli’s experts learn more about the era and even conserve the wood. Unfortunately, the lack of funds has been delaying the process so far. However, once the several million euros necessary are provided, the ships are to move to special desalinization tanks before finally finding a home at a Piazza Municipio museum built for this excavation’s discoveries.
Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture. More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.