Nautical Pompeii Found in Pisa

The San Rossore train station on the edge of Pisa, Italy, is a lonely stop. Tourists who visit this city to see its famous leaning tower generally use the central station across town. But San Rossore is about to be recognized as one of the country's most significant archeological digs. For nearly a decade archeologists have been working near and under the tracks to unearth what is nothing short of a maritime Pompeii.

So far the excavation has turned up 39 ancient shipwrecks buried under nine centuries of silt, which preserved extraordinary artifacts. The copper nails and ancient wood are still intact, and in many cases cargo is still sealed in the original terra cotta amphorae, the jars used for shipment in the ancient world. They have also found a cask of the ancient Roman fish condiment known as garum and many mariners' skeletons—one crushed under the weight of a capsized ship. One ship carried scores of pork shoulder hams; another carried a live lion, likely en route from Africa to the gladiator fights in Rome.

What's most dramatic about the discovery of this maritime graveyard is that the ships date from different centuries both before and after the advent of the Christian era, meaning the shipwrecks did not happen simultaneously but over time in the same area. Researchers say that starting around the 6th century B.C. the cargo docks of the port of Pisa were accessed by a canal that made a loop connecting the harbor to the open sea. Every hundred years or so over the course of nearly a thousand years, tsunamilike waves violently flooded the waterway and capsized and buried ships, their cargo and their passengers and crew, alongside uprooted trees and even tiny birds and animals. The 39 shipwrecks, of which 16 have been age-dated and partially or fully excavated so far, date from around the fifth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. Random artifacts, for which the archeologists have not yet found ships, date back even further. "The ships represent life in motion," says Elena Rossi, an archeologist who has worked on the site since it was first discovered. "Some may have foundered, others sunk in storms, and others went to the bottom in a flood."

The shipwrecks represent a significant piece of a puzzle that archeologists and anthropologists have struggled to understand for centuries. Studying the oldest boats' contents and the way those ships were built, archeologists now better understand just who the Romans and Etruscans traded with and how they lived and utilized the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the oldest ships belonged to the Greeks and the Phoenicians, which implies that the mysterious and little-understood Etruscans were in fact active traders. One ship carried amphorae sealed with sand from both Spain and from the volcanic regions of Campania in Italy, giving scientists vital clues to where these ships traveled.

Other ships carried various types of cutlery and crockery, from utilitarian ware used by the seamen to more expensive, signed pieces. None of the vessels examined so far were warships, and back then passenger boats did not exist. Researchers have concluded that it was common practice for wealthy citizens to effectively rent space on cargo ships, which explains why some of the vessels had expensive personal effects obviously not belonging to the crews. One boat thought to be a 15-yard riverboat was found still moored to a sunken pile with perfectly preserved rope. It contained a wide range of personal belongings, from fine jewelry and hand-carved pottery to simple tools. One of the rowing benches on this ship still bears the faint inscription, in the Greek alphabet, of the word akedo, the Latin word for seagull, which is believed to have been the name of the ship. Another ship, known as the Chiatta, was capsized in a storm and lies upside down, perfectly preserving the mast and upper reaches of the boat.

The first nine ships were discovered in 1998, when Trenitalia, Italy's national train company, broke ground at San Rossore to build a new control center for the Rome-Genoa line. Within a few months remnants of more than a dozen shipwrecks were identified. Even a year later, when archeologists finally made the site an official state-funded excavation, they understood so little about Pisa's marine history that they accidentally bisected an ancient ship with metal bulkheads put in place to cordon off the dig. Half of the ship still lies undiscovered outside the work area, the steel barrier left in place across the ancient vessel. Part of another ship has been located under the train tracks, which will mean significant disruption to regional train service if they choose to excavate it. Archeologists on the project say that even more ancient ships lie buried under this part of modern-day Pisa.

An aggressive plan to recover and restore these ships is daunting and time-consuming. The land between modern-day Pisa and the sea has a high water table, in places more than three feet above sea level, which keeps the ground spongy. This porous soil helped preserve the boats in their watery clay graves—and the same soft soil contributed to the slant of the city's famous tower. But excavating the boats is a juggling act. Exposure to oxygen is detrimental to the ancient wood, but since some of the ships are 20 feet or more underground, the ground water has to be pumped away to allow the excavation to progress. The ships that have been identified but not excavated have been covered with removable asphalt on which the outline of the boats is painted in bright yellow, blue or white, depending on the age of the ship.

So far, only a few ships have actually been removed from the ground. Their ancient wood fragments are cleaned and then soaked in a bath of water and a fungicidal solution to stop the effects of exposure to oxygen from dehydrating the perishable organic materials. The boats are extracted and treated in small sections to keep exposure to the elements minimal. Ancient wood restorers then consolidate the fragments with the larger pieces of the original boats and wrap the reconstructed vessels in a plastic film, and finally in a fiberglass material called vitroresin. Humidity and exposure to light are carefully controlled, and the ships are hung from vinyl straps to allow circulation and drainage during the preservation stages. Three major ships are now wrapped and hanging in a laboratory in Pisa and will have to soak for several years before they are stable enough to display to the public outside their fiberglass shells. Workers have shared technology with researchers in Stockholm, Sweden, who recently unveiled a multimillion-dollar museum for the only other ship of similar origin ever found.

Optimistic workers on the Pisa project hope they will also have a museum dedicated to their 39 ships by 2015, inside Pisa's nearby Arsenal museum. They hope to showcase the ships' contents and display many of the preserved ships—even if they are still hanging in fiberglass casings or soaking in glass-sided liquid basins, if that's required to preserve the artifacts. But many of the ships may never be recovered from their graves due to lack of funds and other resources it takes to preserve these ancient relics.

For now visitors can gaze down at the dig site from above for about $9, and those who pass through the sleepy San Rossore train station can always just look down from the tracks to see what is easily one of the most exciting ancient discoveries in recent history.