A merchant ship wrecked between 19 and 12 BC, was found in 1981 near Comacchio with much of the cargo still on board. The particular oxygen-free environment has preserved up an abundance of objects in wood, leather, and vegetable fibers, which are rarely found in archaeological contexts due to their perishable nature. Thanks to its cargo, the ship has restored a slice of history and of everyday life.
The commercial ship's cargo
The commercial ship's cargo consists of goods of different origin: Spanish lead, ceramics from the upper Adriatic, wine or oil from the Adriatic coast, Greek islands, and Asia Minor, ceramic table- and kitchenware, timber, meat, perfumes, and small devotional objects. It indicates the widespread availability, at the time, of the excellent Greek or Italic wine, as it could be cooked in ceramics produced in pottery workshops or in Spanish metal pots, flavouring foods with oriental spices, perfuming with exotic substances, and trading with universally accepted weight and measurement units.
The Romans as well as the inhabitants of conquered areas are recognized in the same civic, political, and military ideologies, and imperial propaganda reached into the depths of everyday life. The excavation of the wreck has also yielded objects used on board, ranging from the ship’s navigation and maintenance equipment to the personal belongings of sailors and travelers.
102 lead pigs
The ship was carrying 102 lead pigs, weighing between 19.5 and 41.5 kg, from Spanish mines. They are almost all stamped with the initials AGRIP, i.e., Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the great general of Augustus. It is believed that the MAC, GEM, and LPR marks refer to the Macedonica, Gemina and Legio Prima legions, commanded by Agrippa during the Cantabrian wars in northern Spain around 19 BC. In fact, the legionnaires were also used in metal mining activities. Instead, L.CAE.BAT could refer to the name of an importer, Lucius Caesius Batius.
The limestone weight served to check the lead ingots using a large scale with two wooden arms. The mark T.RVFI engraved on the upper side refers to a Titus Rufus, perhaps the ship-owner or the magistrate who certified the weight.
Today covered by thick concretions, the anchor is composed entirely of rectangular iron pieces. Measuring 2.25 meters in length, it is the type with curved flukes, widespread in the Roman world beginning in the early 2nd century BC. It had iron rings to which the ropes for dropping anchor at sea were tied and to make salvaging easy in case of stranding. It was probably placed on the bridge towards the bow, stopped by the chock that rested at its side.
Anphorae. Italic wine and oil and evcellent Greek wine
There are numerous amphorae from various geographical areas. One group used for use as oil or wine containers is of Adriatic production (from Cisalpine to Picenum). Another contained wines from Eolia (the Greek islands of Chios and Lesbos); Caria (Cnidus, on the Turkish coast); and the island of Kos, whose wines were particularly prized and in great demand.
The amphorae were closed with clay plugs. Some were made from a mold, others were recycled from the walls of broken amphorae, probably sealed with a pozzolana mixture.
The lettering on many amphorae is generally rather varied and difficult to read. Stamps and marks were imprinted on raw clay, consisting of the amphora factory’s trade mark. However, there are also different initials, painted or scratched, that could refer to contents, year of production, aging, origin, destination, capacity, merchant names or agent responsible for the weighing.
Crew and passeger
There were many personal effects of the people on board: shoes, bags, baskets, items of clothing and leather waterproof cases for baggage as well as dice and checkers, containers for medicines, personal hygiene accessories, and a small grotesque-looking idol-amulet
In ancient times, there were no vessels used to exclusively carry passengers. These were taken on board by any commercial ship heading towards their destination. This is testified by the remains of women's shoes and a child’s slipper. The latter, however, could have also belonged to a young worker and apprentice seaman.
Troops on board
The caligae (hobnailed military sandals), a finely decorated gladio (sword), the closure of a dagger sheath and Jupiter’s winged thunderbolt decorating one of the wooden boxes indicate the presence on board of one or more soldiers, perhaps an armed escort for the goods, or more likely a official being transferred.
A very rare example of military clothing is the pair of hobnailed caligae (sandals), inside of which two soft leather boots were nailed, creating a pair of sturdy and waterproof shoes, suitable for military marches.
The small temples from the Valle Ponti ship are unique evidence of devotional objects. Ancient literary texts attest that miniature gold or silver temples were produced as a votive or a personal cult in the Hellenistic-Roman world. The Comacchio temples were mass-produced using pressed argentiferous-lead plates joined by welded or interlocking points.
These are standard examples of a temple on a podium with Ionic columns are reproduced.
The feet are configured with lion's paws and suspension rings.
The cellae, with doors that open, containing the image of a deity: Venus, with Priapus or a trophy of weapons, and Mercury, with a bag of coins.
The variety of ceramic forms gives an idea of the specialization of Roman cuisine. There are ollae for boiling and cooking soups, saucepans for stewing and braising, pans for baking or frying with, in some cases, sockets for long wooden handles, and mortars.
For the table, there are jugs and bottles, cups, glasses, gutti (containers used to drip liquids), and dishes that could also serve as lids.
The footed amphorae are from Ephesus or the nearby Meander Valley on the Aegean coast of Turkey. The interior was coated with resin to waterproof the walls and flavor the fine wine contained therein. They were sealed by a leather-covered cap stretched tightly around the opening.
There are a few fragments of refined black-glazed ware, the last examples of a style which, by that time, had been displaced by the success of fine red-figure ceramics, known as “sigillata”.
The large group of sealed objects in the Valle Ponti ship was a northern Italic production, spreading along the Po-Ticino axis, in Noricum (central Austria and Bavaria), and throughout the entire upper Adriatic. Of Mediterranean origin, this high technology, as applied to the traditional tall, narrow glasses for beer, testifies the Romanization of the Celtic elites.
Cups and glasses are often signed by renowned craftsmen such as Caius Acus and L. Sarius. In addition to C. Acus and Hilarus Gavi , there appear Diophanes and Aescinus who were declared free (i.e., freed slaves)s by Acus. Workshops related to Sarius were present in Ravenna, Adria, and Faenza, like that of L. L. Surus, his freedman of probable Syriac origin.