Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with new Roman discoveries. I would like to blame my own single-minded attention to Pompeii, and then to Roman laughter. But the particular discoveries I’ve got interested in today were made several years ago – so I just can’t have been paying attention.
Comacchio, near Ferrara, is a kind of mini Venice, built on thirteen little islands connected by bridges. And in the late 1980s, as I now know, the remains of an ancient boat was discovered near the city, in an area that had once been an ancient beach. The boat had run aground in the first century BC and been covered with the sand.
What intrigued me were the contents of this vessel. They included not just the usual kind of cargo: in this case amphorae, pottery, logs of boxwood, over 100 Spanish lead ingots (many stamped with the name Agrippa), plus the usual bric a brac for a voyage (tools, clothes, sandals etc). There were also 6 small lead portable shrines, in the shape of mini-temples, of a sort I’ve never seen before (they are in the picture). Some have mini-images of Mercury in them, others Venus.
Were they cargo intended for sale? Were they picked up somewhere to be flogged back home (perhaps a bit of commercial speculation . . . someone spots them on sale and reckons he can sell them for profit back home). That seems more likely than that the set were all part of the crew’s personal possessions. Either way, it seems like a striking piece of Roman evidence for what may well have been a personal religious object, and so personal religious devotion. Or were they elegant ornaments without much active religious significance at all?
Anyway, I soon found myself on the trail of more Roman boats.
No fewer than 16 Roman boats (dating from the second century BC to the fifth AD) have recently been discovered at what was the ancient river port of Pisa., wrecked in the harbour (the excavations are in the pictures). I’d missed these too, despite a few reports in British newspapers as I have now realised.
The cargoes of these are no less striking. One, which seems to have come from North Africa, had a lioness on board, as well as three horses. Another came from South Italy, carrying peaches, cherries, plums and walnuts in re-used amphorae (their improvised stoppers were made of fragments of marble statues and bits of Vesuvian lava). There were even remains of a crew member too: the skeleton of a man in his forties, with a dog.
At this point the husband had something to add, because he is just back from Istanbul, where he had seen the excavations of the Byzantine harbour. Here over 30 boats have been discovered. As well as lots of evidence for the harbour installations – plus skeletons of horses, presumably used to cart the cargo (vast quantities of wine to judge from the smashed amphorae) away on dry land.
Anyway that’s what has been keeping me amused and away from what I should be doing over the last day or so. Now, in just a few hours, it’s off to get the turkey, stuffing etc in the oven.
Happy Christmas everyone.