WHEN his cargo ship capsized, perhaps struck by a catastrophic flood, the Roman sailor struggled in vain to free his foot from a rope. Almost two millenniums later, his skeleton was found with an arm outstretched towards the remains of a dog similar to a basset hound.
The discovery of the two skeletons, both dating from AD10 when the Roman empire was at its zenith, is among a host of finds, which include 30 ancient ships preserved by their burial in the watery clay silt of an ancient port near the Tuscan city of Pisa.
The vanished port has been likened to an underwater Pompeii – the city destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in AD79 – and is now to be put forward for formal recognition from Unesco as a world heritage site.
Andrea Camilli, director of the archeological site at Pisa, within a few hundred yards of the Leaning Tower, is seeking funds to complete the excavation and to build a museum. The remains have been preserved by the anaerobic conditions, as was the Tudor warship Mary Rose, raised from the sea off Portsmouth 25 years ago.
Archeologists believe the Pisa wrecks were sunk over a period of almost a thousand years, from the 4th century BC to the 5th century AD. Some of the wrecks fell victim to catastrophic floods, likened by Camilli to tsunamis.
The Romans bore some responsibility for this naval graveyard as they had cut down surrounding woods of oaks and birches, thus destroying a natural barrier against periodic flooding of the Pisa plain. The port, similar to modern-day Venice, was a maze of canals at the junction of two rivers, the Arno and the Auser. Only the Arno still exists.
Historians describe the finds as offering a unique insight into the ships and sea trading of the ancient world. They are impressed by the variety of the ships – from 24ft to 90ft, and some still virtually intact – as well as by organic traces, such as those of wood and ropes, that have been preserved.
“We get a picture of daily life on the ships and of what they transported. Until now what was transported in amphorae was supposition, but the contents we have discovered reveal new trading patterns,” said Camilli.
Amphorae, or terracotta jars, were thought to have been used principally for transporting wines and wheat. But the Pisa site, where 13,000 amphorae have been found, shows they were used to transport fruit, including figs, and even fine sand, used by Romans to clean themselves after exercising.
One ship’s cargo was pork shoulder hams – with a preponderance of right shoulder bones. According to one theory, this was because most pigs rest on their left side, and the meat of the right side makes better quality prosciutto.
The jawbone of a wild boar suggests another boat carried live animals. The remains of a newborn baby were found in one amphora, which is believed to have been used as a small coffin for a burial.
“Each boat for each period is a snapshot for trading links in which Pisa was involved. Wrecks at sea are deep down and badly eroded, so these are incredible,” said Simon Keay, a maritime archeologist at Southampton University, who specialises in the Roman empire.
Some of the oldest ships are Greek and Phoenician, providing new clues about the trading links of the Etruscans, the preRoman inhabitants of the region. None of the vessels is a warship.
In the worst of the flooding, the ship Alkedo, powered by 12 oarsmen, and at least another four cargo ships, including the one in which the sailor and the dog were found, capsized in the year AD10. Then under the rule of Augustus, the empire was prosperous and at peace.
Analysis of the sailor’s remains shows he was about 40 and 5ft 6in tall. The skeleton was buried under a mass of cargo and debris, with a beam pinned against the neck.
Work at the site began in 1998 after the remains of a wooden ship were discovered as foundations were being dug for a new control centre for Italian state railways on the Rome-Genoa line. It has so far cost €13m (£9.3m).
Camilli said budget cuts imposed by the Italian government meant the site was short of funds. He said it was costing about £215,000 a year, but double that was needed to do the work properly. He had only enough funds for half of the proposed museum to open in late 2008.
The museum will be housed in Renaissance shipyards in Pisa, with at first only two or three restored ships on display.
Work at the site is expected to continue for at least another eight years as 20 of the 30 ships have yet to be uncovered. Some are more than 20ft underground, and they start to disintegrate once they are exposed to oxygen.
Three ships are hanging in a laboratory in Pisa and will have to be soaked in water and fungicidal solution for several years before they can go on display.
“Special status as recognised by Unesco would give us international recognition and publicity, and that is the first condition necessary for obtaining extra funds,” said Camilli.
Alex Hildred of the Mary Rose Trust said: “It’s a very important find. It is one of the largest and most important harbours in Roman and Etruscan times.”
For further information and pictures see www.cantierenavipisa.it