Italian Shipwreck Archaeology



Le Formiche shipwreck site—comprising the remains of a Roman merchantman—was surveyed and studied in the summer of 2009, near the island of Capraia in the Ligurian Sea. The underwater survey and excavation project was conducted by a joint team of archaeologists from ProMare and SBAToscana, Tuscany’s Underwater Archaeological Operative Unit (Nucleo Operativo Subacqueo). The vessel, which may have originated from a port on the central Italian coast facing the Tyrrhenian Sea was likely destined for southern France.

Artifacts that were recovered from the site included commercial storage containers (amphoras), black-glazed Campanian ceramics, and an oil lamp. No wooden remains of the ship’s hull were discovered, but artifacts that were parts of the vessel such as metal fasteners and nails (indicative of wood planking), the remains of an anchor, and roof tiles that were typically used to cover the roof of a ship’s galley, indicated the possibility of a deteriorated hull. Comparative dating of the diagnostic artifacts – based on the parallels identified for the amphoras, Campanian ceramics, and a preserved bronze coin – suggest a late second – early first century BC date for the site.

The fact that the artifacts were scattered in sand pockets inside and around a large posidonia growth seemed to indicate that parts of the site are obscured by this seagrass. A trench was excavated to test this hypothesis and several artifacts were recovered from beneath the roots.

Analysis of the archaeological data indicates that the assemblage represents the remains of a ship that was travelling a well-known route frequented by many similar vessels in this period. This conclusion is supported by comparisons between the artifacts found in the assemblage of Le Formiche Shipwreck and those discovered among the remains of several ships that carried amphoras and black-glazed Campanian ceramics from central Italy towards the sourthern France. Shipwreck assemblages that contain parallels with Le Formiche include those from Pegli, Albenga, Antibes, Dramont A, Cap Roux, Villepey, Anthéor, Bon Porte, Titan, Tiboulen, Cavalière, Spargi, Port Vendres and especially Grand Congloué II.



The island of Pianosa, part of Italy’s Tuscan archipelago, is located approximately 60 km east of the Italian mainland and 15 km south of Elba Island. Notable as the place the Emperor Augustus exiled his nephew Agrippa Posthumous in A.D. 6-7, the remote island was transformed to house this member of the imperial elite with a luxurious palace, thermal baths, a theater, and a fishpond built. The construction of a small harbor, of which some walls of possible Roman age have been found, appears to be contemporary with the Roman villa.

Between May 25th and June 5th, 2009, ProMare collaborated with Dr. Pamela Gambogi of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana, and with Dr. Kim McCoy of the NATO Undersea Research Center of La Spezia (NURC), to conduct an extensive AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) survey of the southern side of Pianosa Island. The use of AUVs, originally designed for the military and geophysical research, has proven highly effective when searching for submerged archaeological sites. The project was the second in a series of expeditions, beginning in 2008, that aimed to create a new and detailed map of all the archaeological material on the seafloor in proximity to the island. Pianosa, where a high-security penitentiary was active up until the late 1990s, is one of the few areas in Italy that has remained off-limits to divers, fishermen, and tourists for the past fifty years, and is thus an undisturbed area in which to conduct research and locate archaeological sites in a pristine state of preservation. A Remus 100 AUV, which NURC made available to the project, was used to map the seafloor with a side-scan-sonar up to a depth of 50 m, and the data was collected and geo-referenced using Site Recorder 4®, a geographic information system and mapping software.

In 2009, the team revisited a previously identified underwater site, located at a depth of 34 m, close to the rock called La Scola. There, approximately 100 amphoras of different types were spread across a vast expanse of the seafloor, instead of being concentrated in the typical “mound” formation that characterizes most shipwrecks. The vessel types identified fall within a broad chronological time frame, stretching from the first century B.C. to the third century A.D. It is possible that the site represents two or more wrecks, or a dump site, or an ancient anchorage situated immediately southwest from the small island port. Further research will be needed to understand in what circumstances this site was created.


Dolia Shipwreck: The Roman Shipwreck of Punta del Nasuto (Elba Island, Tuscany) (2008)

Elba, the largest island in the Tuscan archipelago, lies between the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Seas, 20 kilometers off-shore from the town of Piombino, on the Italian mainland. In March 2008, the NATO Underwater Research Center (NURC) from La Spezia, Italy, dispatched to Elba an AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) to investigate a previously sighted wreck of a Roman merchant ship (50 BC – AD 50) sunk nearly 300 meters off shore and 65 meters deep, with a cargo of dolia (storage containers). The AUV determined the maximum extent of the site and produced a site map, resulting in the first comprehensive image with all the dolia visible on the seafloor, as well as several buried ‘anomalies’ at either end of the site that may have been amphorae stored at the bow and the stern sections of the ship.

During the field season of September 2-11, 2008, a team consisting of scientists and technicians from the Soprintendenza peri Beni Archeologici della Toscana, the Interuniversity Center for Marine Environment from Politecnico delle Marche University (ISME), the non-profit organizations Explorer Team Chimera, the firefighters and mooring men of Piombino, and ProMare, returned to excavate a test trench through the site. The divers deployed a USBL (Ultra Short Base Line) positioning system to map the site, which was determined to be 7.5 m long and 4 m wide, that the mouth of one dolium is equal to 0.74 m in diameter (including the lip), and that all the dolia openings were oriented in the same North-Eastern direction and listing to one side, as the ship itself would have been immediately after coming to rest on the seafloor. Based on the dolia types found, the merchantman most likely dates to 50 BC-AD 50, the transitional phase between the Roman Republic and the Imperial periods, when ships carrying cargoes of wine travelled to Gaul.



The small island of Ventotene (less than 3 km long), is located 45 km off the Italian mainland in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The island became imperial property under Augustus and construction of a villa on the island was initiated shortly before Augustus’ daughter, Julia the Elder, was exiled there in the first century BC. After this, Ventotene became a popular destination for imperial exiles. Tiberius banished his grand-niece Agrippina the Elder (wife of Germanicus, mother of Caligula) in 29 AD; Julia Livilla, youngest daughter of Agrippina, was sent to the island, followed by (in 62 AD) Claudia Octavia, the first wife of Nero , who was subsequently executed there. Due to the social status of these upper-class inmates, the island underwent a major architectonic transformation: a large and elegantly decorated imperial villa was built on the northern promontory of “Punta Eolo,” a harbor was carved into the rock, a complex system of cisterns was designed to provide fresh water, and a monumental fishpond was built.

The fishpond, located on the northwest of the island at the extremity named Punta di Terra, was part of a large imperial maritime complex. Archaeological remains indicate an Augustan date for the initial construction. Carving saltwater pools into the rocks adjoining maritime villas and farming edible fish seems to have been a fashion among the Roman elite, promoting a taste for fresh saltwater fish.

In June 2008, ProMare sponsored the Soprintendenza ai Beni Archeologici del Lazio’s work in recovering the only remaining statue from Ventotene’s fishpond. The statue represents a Roman magistrate wearing a toga with the box containing the law scrolls to his right, carved from a single block of white marble (1.60 m tall and 0.70 m wide). The back of the statue is flat and purposely left unfinished, suggesting that it was originally placed against a wall, and might have fallen from one of the terraced upper rooms of the villa. The subject depicted might have been ideologically linked with the function of the villa as a place of political exile. Stylistically, it dates between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. The artifact is currently being conserved at the local archaeological museum.

Lake Garda – The Search for Fallen Heroes

The Search for Fallen Heroes (2004)

In 2004 ProMare lead an expedition to Lake Garda, Italy to locate the remains of 24 US Servicemen lost in 1945, just days before WWII ended, when their amphibious truck overturned, drowning all hands aboard.

As Allied troops rushed north through Italy into southern Europe, this amphibious 2 ½ ton truck, one of the ubiquitous DUKWs, was lost on Lake Garda, 60 miles east of Milan.  One of three such vans in the advance north, the DUKW was loaded with a field artillery piece and 24 infantry when it was launched from Torbole on the northeastern corner of the lake.  Horribly overloaded, the vehicle was swamped taking both artillery and men to the bottom, 200 meters below. All of the servicemen who were aboard are still listed as missing in action.

We have employed state of the art sonar systems to search the lake bed but could not locate the DUKW. We plan to return to Lake Garda with an autonomous underwater vehicle and manned submersible to continue our search, in the near future.


The Lake Garda Project in the news

National Geographic published an article here.

The Daily Mail published an article here.

The U.S. Army published an article here.



The city of Croton, located on the Ionian coast of modern Calabria in Southern Italy, has always played a crucial role for sailors headed to the Strait of Messina and the western Mediterranean, due to its east-facing harbor and a rocky coastline full of small bays and wind-sheltered coves. In antiquity, the coastline seems to have been even more articulated and complex than it currently is: Pliny the Elder (NH III, 10.95-96) describes a small archipelago of five islands in the area that has since disappeared from view. Two of the islands were still observable in 1525 in the nautical charts of the seafarer and geographer Piri Reis, and were last documented in a Greek portolano written by an anonymous sailor in the 16th century. The Abbé de Saint-Non and C. Tait Ramage, when they visited the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, also left drawings of promontories in the area which no longer exist.

In 2009 and 2010 the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Calabria, under Dr. Domenico Marino’s scientific direction, with support from ProMare, launched a systematic exploration of the Crotonian littoral between the city’s harbor and La Tonnara. While the area of Croton was already known to be one of the richest in Italy for the presence of ancient shipwrecks (five Roman marble carriers are worth mentioning, along with 10 other shipwrecks ranging in time from the Greek Archaic period to the Renaissance Age), the main goal of the project was to search for traces of ancient habitation which might testify to changes in the coastline. Submerged features such as quarries with their carved blocks still connected to the bedrock, and the presence of artifact assemblages close to the shoreline, were among the types of evidence sought. If found, the former feature, in particular, would be useful in helping researchers reconstruct and date stone-working areas that were above sea-level in antiquity.

During two seasons of research, compelling evidence attesting to this coastal transformation was uncovered. Thirty-four submerged quarry elements (blocks and column-drums), some of them dating to the 6th century BC and still attached to the bedrock, were located at a maximum depth of 4 m; a new map of the quarry now shows the extent of this feature beneath the water. Additionally, numerous tiles and amphora sherds, one example of which dated to the 3rd century B.C., confirmed the presence of human habitation in the areas of the coastline now submerged beneath the sea. Pieces of amphoras dating to the Roman Imperial period and found at the entrance to the city’s harbor, testify, as well, to its use at from at least the 2nd century B.C.

At the end of the 2010 season enough data was collected to propose a possible reconstruction of the ancient coastline in the area. Each item or feature uncovered was measured and georeferenced, making it possible to trace the general shape of the former coastline, which was at least 70 m further offshore than at present. GPS coordinates, taken manually, and following the submerged outlines of three elongated shoals, 1 to 5 m deep, revealed the shape of promontories now submerged like the tiny islands of Croton’s archipelago.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia



In the summer of 2011, the ProMare team (Ayse Atauz, Dante Bartoli, Peter Holt, and Lindsey Thomas) joined the University of Udine professor Massimo Capulli and his students (Lucrezia Federico, Daniel Iacumin, and Massimo Iob) and Texas A&M University professor Filipe Castro and his students (Kelby Rose and Kotaro Yamafune) to excavate a Roman shipwreck in the Stella River. The project was carried out under the general supervision of Prof. Luigi Fozzati of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici del Friuli-Venezia.

The Stella River was named Anaxum in Roman times, and has been a site of habitation for thousands of years. The largest Roman settlement near the Stella 1 shipwreck is Aquileia, which was founded in the 2nd century BCE.  It was the most important commercial hub of the northern Adriatic area before its utter destruction by Attila in A.D. 452 and later by the Lombards in A.D. 590, which caused its inhabitants to flee to the nearby lagoon and establish Venice.

In Northeastern Italy, there was a network of rivers, man-made canals, and lagoons that connected the populations of the southern base of the Alps and the large Roman city of Aquileia to the sea. The Stella River and the other inland waterways of Italy have played an important role in the development of the region by providing the means for an efficient transportation system.

The Stella 1 shipwreck is a laced vessel from the 1st century AD.  It was built at the beginning of the Roman Imperial Age and sank carrying a cargo of Roman tiles, a small collection of Dressel 2/4 and Lamboglia amphoras, presumably for the use of the crew, iron carpenter’s tools, a small wicker basket, and some ceramic artifacts, likely also for personal use. Stamps on the tiles indicate local production.

The team conducted a full recording of hull details and construction. In order to access some of the timbers, it was necessary to use a water dredge to remove the sediment obstructing access to the shipwreck. All extant timbers were recorded and a corresponding timber catalog created.  A combination of direct measurements and trilateration from control points was used to measure the vessel, and a reconstruction was created.  Both wooden and virtual 3D models are being created at the Texas A&M University Ship Reconstruction Laboratory by team members Filipe Castro and Kotaro Yamafune in order to better understand the vessel.

This barge was constructed with laced planks, following a traditional construction system in the region, which does not require the use of dowels to edge-fasten the planks together and provide resistance to sheer efforts, as in the Greek tradition of the Pre-Classical and Classical periods. Though the planking was sawn from timbers of good quality, repairs stretch across the bottom of the vessel.   

The first century AD was a time of extraordinary expansion for the Roman Empire, and the new Roman territories and settlements to the north and east of the Adriatic Sea required vast amounts of building material. Later, these settlements would able to establish their own production centers, but in the early phases of Romanization, most supplies were shipped from existing production centers. The Stella 1 vessel was likely part of this vast network of supply for the growing Roman Empire.  Loaded with locally made tile, the vessel may have been heading to Aquileia, from which the cargo could have been sent to any part of the expanding empire.