Archaeologists Find Ancient Roman Road in the Venetian Lagoon

San Giorgio Maggiore island in the Venetian lagoon in 2019.

San Giorgio Maggiore island in the Venetian lagoon in 2019.
Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP (Getty Images)

Researchers have spotted the remains of a Roman-era road at the bottom of the Venice’s famous Venetian Lagoon. The discovery gives clues to what the city looked like in antiquity, well before the legendary date of its founding in 421 CE.

The Venetian Lagoon is the water body on which Venice sits, tucked away from the Adriatic Sea thanks to a couple of wafer-thin barrier islands, Lido and Pellestrina. Over the centuries, the water level in the lagoon has gone up and down but mostly risen, erasing old features from the landscape and creating entirely new ones. That also means that the archaeological record is faltering, with hints of habitation—the remains of a tower here, a stop-and-go bit of road there—but much of it concealed under the blue-green waves. The recent team’s analysis of these huge submerged features in the lagoon was published today in Scientific Reports.

“We have to imagine a totally different landscape at that time, in order to understand why we find a road, a tower, and probably many other structures along the inlet,” said study co-author Maddalena Bassani, an archaeologist at Università Iuav di Venezia, in a video call. “It’s important to try and represent this different situation to encourage the idea of protection of this place.”

A reconstruction of how the road may have looked in Roman times (left), and the site today (right).

A reconstruction of how the road may have looked in Roman times (left), and the site today (right).
Graphic: Fantina Madricardo

The research team scanned the floor of the Treporti Channel, a waterway a few miles east of the city. They found 12 rectangular features lined up over the course of about three-quarters of a mile, ranging from about 6 to 60 feet wide. Some of the structures were over 12 feet tall, and one was massive, with an almost circular protuberance. The team suspects that the formation, which would’ve sat on the water based on previous research on water level change in the area, may have been a harbor structure, perhaps a dock.

“There was very, very little information about the world of the tidal channels, because the water is very turbid and the currents are very strong. It’s difficult for divers to go there, and it’s difficult to sample,” said Fantina Madricardo, the study’s lead author and a physicist specializing in acoustic systems at the Institute of Marine Sciences in Venice, in a video call. “We collected a huge data set … At some point, I started to analyze the data more carefully and saw that there were features that were for sure anthropogenic.”

The Venetian police conducted dives in 2020 to investigate the features the team saw and found that some of the linear structures were made up of stones similar to Roman basoli, basically paving stones, indicating that the linear features were paved—ergo, a road. No maritime archaeologists have yet been on the site, though that may yet come. Though road has yet to be dated outright, amphorae (vases) dating to first century CE were found alongside it.

One of the stones found when the diving police unit checked out the site in 2020.

One of the stones found when the diving police unit checked out the site in 2020.
Image: Squadra Sommozzatori della Polizia di Stato di Venezia

Roman remains have been found in the lagoon over the centuries, and many of those objects were repurposed for ongoing construction or new decorations, especially during the Medieval Period and the Renaissance. Much of the archaeological work in the lagoon is built on the work of Ernesto Canal, who in the 1960s spearheaded much of the early research into who inhabited the area before Venice was founded (Canal even suspected a Roman road lay at the bottom of the lagoon, according to Madricardo). But a lot of the knowledge of Roman habitation in the area was “gray literature,” Madricardo said—information that is included in places outside of the published archaeological record. That clouded the knowledge base the team was working with. Since Canal’s days, archaeological techniques like remote sensing have been developed, allowing Madricardo’s team to take high-resolution images of the lagoon’s floor without worrying about the murkiness of the water and before doing any dives.

Though the road remnants lie at various points below the water, Madricardo said that’s not necessarily where the road was when it was in use. The land on which Venice sits is prone to natural subsidence, which could be hastened by anthropogenic changes to the landscape. Venice’s sinking is an existential concern today, but it also affects how the archaeological team interprets this submerged site. Based on paleoclimatological data, they know the road sat on what was once a beach stretching into the lagoon, but just when the structure slipped under the waves is still up for debate. Being bombarded by waves would have expedited its fall, the researchers wrote, but it will probably take more study to figure out the exact events that led to the disappearance of Roman habitation near Venice.

More: Venice High Tide Floods City, Worst in 50 Years

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