More on the Origins of Venice

Article excerpt

After a rather slow start - by the end of the 1970s, the only modern excavation was the one conducted on the island of Torcello (Leciejewicz et al. 1977; see also Tombolani 1988) - urban archaeology in Venice is gaining momentum; now the Superintendency in Venice responsible for architecture and the environmental setting of monuments is carrying out excavations as a first step in the restoration of an old building. Within this framework, whose purpose is to examine sub-surface conditions and to expose properly those foundations in need of repair, it is often possible to make deep soundings and borings which reach early levels of occupation buried 2 m or more below sea level. Work of this kind beneath the church of San Lorenzo brought to light new evidence for habitation in the city going back to the 7th century AD (Ammerman et al. 1992). The aim of this note is to present new evidence on the origins of Venice from two other sites: the island of San Francesco del Deserto near Burano in the lagoon and the area that one day would comprise the Piazza of San Marco itself. Chronology is again a main topic of interest, with 19 new accelerator dates from Oxford (see Hedges et al. 1995). In the period from the 5th to the beginning of the 9th century AD - those formative years that witnessed the emergence of the city - as chronicles of later date recount (Carile & Fedalto 1978; Fedalto 1990), many events of historical importance took place in Venice. Yet from these years, very few first-hand accounts, inscriptions or other written documents have come down to us. Thus, in response to a need that the student of early Venice has felt for some time (e.g. Carile 1988: 101), there is now an increasing chance to balance or counterpose that which is said in the later narrative accounts with the more direct material evidence that archaeology has to offer. In particular, one has a better knowledge of the environmental conditions under which the early Venetians built their city on water.

San Francesco del Deserto

At this small island northeast of Venice [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], soundings were made as part of a restoration project in 1993. Since the time that Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone made his legendary visit and the gift of the island to the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi by the Michiel family in the 13th century, it has housed a Franciscan monastery. In the sounding on the north side of the church, the excavators recovered a layer, about 2.8 m below modern ground level, which contained part of a small boat and the remains of pottery and other artefacts that appear to date to the 5th century AD. The remains of the boat include a single whole rib from the frame and a piece of the hull. To judge from the rib's size and shape, the boat had a width of more than 1 m but probably was narrower than 2 m. The boat was held together [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] by thin branches of wood tied through small holes cut into the frame. Castiglioni and Rottoli (Como) identify the rib as made of oak (Quercus sez. robur) and the hull of lime (Tilia sp.), while the three 'pegs' examined are in dogwood or cornelian cherry [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] (Cornus sanguinea/mas). The tough, elastic branches of a dogwood tree, when used as withies, are well suited to the task of ligature. (The same kinds of wood are employed for corresponding parts of the Roman boat found near Comacchio (Castelletti et al. 1990), another town on a lagoon situated halfway between Venice and Ravenna.)

The pegs are of young wood. In cross-section under the microscope one can see that the wood of peg 2 comes from a small branch that is only about 1 cm in diameter, which means that the wood is only one or two years old (thus making it ideal for purposes of radiocarbon dating). In the case of boats (especially where remains may sink in soft sediments), it is important to date the craft itself and not artefacts in the layer from which the vessel was recovered. …