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The Port of Claudius

The river port of Ostia and the harbour of Pozzuoli had constituted the two poles of Rome's harbour system throughout the entire Republican period. While the second harbour was too distant and difficult to reach, the river port at Ostia was unsuitable and inadequate to manage the large volume of commercial trade because it only featured a single quay. Large-tonnage vessels were obliged to trans-ship their merchandise onto smaller boats towed by pairs of oxen up to Rome (the 'tracking' system).

The capital, which was growing demographically, suffered serious problems regarding food supply, particularly during the winter season. Claudius' predecessors had already attempted to resolve the problem of Rome's harbour: Julius Caesar had plans drawn up for radical changes to the river course to increase the river's navigability, which were never carried out, while Augustus considered a solution regarding the river mouth.

In the end the emperor Claudius decided to have an artificial harbour constructed, but the project was not well-received because of the enormous expenses involved in such an operation. Furthermore, the dangerously close Tiber would rapidly carry large quantities of silt, inhibiting the smooth functioning of the entire structure. Despite these reservations, the selected site was established at about 3 km north of the Tiber mouth. Half the basin was excavated in dry land, after which the construction progressed with the extension of two long moles out into the open sea, reaching out like pincers to embrace a wide expanse. A lighthouse was constructed using as foundations the scuttled ship which Caligula had had built to transport the obelisk for the Vatican Circus.

This was an enormous vessel that had a capacity of over 1000 metric tons and which, because of its dimensions, took up most of the left mole, according to Pliny the Elder. Other authors, including Suetonius and Dio Cassius, describe an island instead. Several canals, or ditches, were opened in 46 A.D. An attempt was made to reduce the risks of flooding by artificially connecting the last loop of the Tiber to the sea. Only in 64 A.D. was the harbour completed by Nero, who had commemorative coins minted for the occasion. In addition to the silting problem, the future of the enormous basin had already been marked by another calamity: Tacitus informs us that in 62 A.D. a storm sunk or incapacitated at least 200 transport vessels, while another hundred which had sought shelter along the Tiber were lost in a fire. The event underscored the scarce dependability of the harbour. Between 100 and 112 A.D. Trajan intervened with a new project which involved the excavation of a large basin that lay inland with respect to the Claudian harbour. The latter remained in use, perhaps with the more limited function of providing shelter within the harbour.

The Topography of the Claudian Port

Despite the substantial survival of ancient structures, the reconstruction of the port of Claudius, particularly in its southern portion, is based on evidence derived from interpretations of aerial photographs and from the study of the harbour area as represented in Renaissance cartography. From these sources we can infer that the ancient harbour basin was orientated towards the southwest with a large mole protecting it from maestrale (NW), ponente (W) and libeccio (SW) winds, prevailing weather conditions which are shared by the majority of harbours along the central Tyrrhenian coastline. The principal entrance was at the west end while the southern entrance is to be found at the height of the modern road to Fiumicino. The left mole extended along the minor branch of the Tiber where nineteenth century excavations exposed traces of concrete cores. Between the main entrance and the probable southern one, aerial photography delineates an elongated ovoid area that is much broader than the moles, which could correspond to the location of the lighthouse. The basin area is of considerable dimensions, measuring on the order of over 1200 m. by 1300 m., which corresponds to an area of approximately 150 hectares. From aerial photographs it is possible to distinguish a long and sinuous dark shape, commencing at the head of the right-hand mole and connecting to the Trajanís hexagon, which corresponds to the portís entrance channel.

Archaeological remains

The discernible remains of the right mole of the Claudian harbour, excavated in 1957, are visible behind the Museum of the Roman Ships, to the left. The structure extends for about one kilometre towards the west, is crossed by the Fiumicino Airport road and F. De Pinedo street, and continues within the airport enclosure itself. The wooden caissons utilised for the construction of the mole left evident traces in the concrete jetties. It is possible to discern the posts fitted along the external perimetre of the caissons (utilised to anchor them to the seabed), as well as their connection to the transversal beams - whose cavities had formerly been interpreted as negative traces of the deck beams of Caligulaís ship -and to the containment bulkheads of the concrete jetty. This construction system for offshore moles was described by Vitruvius and is well documented along the Tyrrhenian coast. Within the airport enclosure the mole conserves the sea-eroded remains of travertine blocks. Behind the museum towards the right, it is possible to visit a building whose walls alternate courses of brickwork and tufa blocks, the so-called Harbour Masterís Office (second century A.D.). Its function remains unclear, although it most likely constituted a service building situated at the end of the basin. There are still traces of painted decoration within the building. Proceeding along A. Guidoni street towards the exit to the Rome-Fiumicino highway, on the right, one can see the archaeological area of Monte Giulio which offers an impressive overview across most of the internal area of the Claudian port basin and where other structures facing the basin have been brought to light: a cistern, some public baths and several storage buildings. These structures, whose foundations are likely to be contemporary to the construction of the right mole, are dated to the second century A.D. and also feature later additions.

The Ships of Fiumicino - The History of Their Discovery

The vessels currently displayed in the Museum of the Roman Ships came to light during the construction of the "L. Da Vinci" international airport of Fiumicino. They were excavated and recovered under the direction of the then inspector of the Rome Archaeological Superintendency, Dott.ssa V. Santa Maria Scrinari. The wrecks were found abutting the right mole of the Claudian harbour in a marginal area of the basin which was particularly susceptible to silting. We can hypothesise that in ancient times there must have been a veritable "cemetery" where boats and ships too old and in too poor condition to be of service were abandoned.

In the majority of cases it is the bottom portion of the hull which survived, due to its having become waterlogged and subsequently sealed beneath the silt deposits from the harbour. In several points the submerged portions, not yet covered by sand and lime, were attacked by wood-boring organisms such as shipworms. In addition, the blackened appearance of the hulls is a result of carbonisation or reduction processes activated by microorganisms living within the sedimentation layers.

The discovery of the first vessel, Fiumicino 2 (Oneraria Maggiore 11), dates to 1958. In the following year excavations brought to light Fiumicino I (Oneraria Maggiore 1), Fiumicino 3 (Oneraria Minore 1) and Fiumicino 5 (the Fisherman's Boat), in addition to two fragments of hull sides which however were unrelated to any of the other hulls. The last hull, Fiumicino 4 (Oneraria Minore 11), was discovered in 1965. At first the timber structures, left exposed to the open air, suffered significant degradation; consequently to reduce these processes they were covered with mats, sand and canvas. Subsequently an annular ditch was excavated around the perimetre of each wreck and, radiating from this, transversal passages beneath each keel. In this manner it was possible to construct a timber camber with which to support the hull sides and to recover the vessels in their entirety. Transported to the interior of the museum under construction, the Istituto Centrale del Restauro (the Central Institute of Conservation) in Rome ensured the necessary consolidation measures, utilising a mixture of resins. Finally, following the definitive display of the vessels on supporting steel frames, the museum was opened to the public on November l0th, 1979.

The Ships of Fiumicino Ė Archaeology and Wooden Shipbuilding

The exceptional collection of vessels preserved at the museum of Fiumicino not only enriches our knowledge of the various ship types utilised starting in the Imperial period, but also allows us to admire the construction methodologies employed by ancient shipwrights. The ancient shipbuilding sequence was completely different from the current procedure seen in the Mediterranean region, which requires arranging an internal skeleton (frames) along a keel, which is subsequently covered with a skin of planking (the so-called "skeleton-firsf' construction). During the GraecoRoman era, instead, the outer shell of planks was constructed directly after laying the keel. The internal skeleton was only inserted later, to function as internal support (the so-called "shell-first" construction). Joinery between planking consisted of tenons, thin tongues of hardwood, inserted into apposite grooves (mortises) cut within the plank thickness.

The tenons were then locked with pegs or treenails. In this way, the self-supporting planking could maintain the desired shape and acquired an exceptional solidity. The five boats of Fiumicino were constructed according to the principles of shell-first construction, a system that is well represented in the Fiumicino 4 vessel (end of secondthird centuries A.D.) which displays a great homogeneity in its mortiseand-tenon joinery. On the other hand Fiumicino 1 and 2, sister vessels, document the use of distinctive constructive methodologies.

Amongst the more significant characteristics worthy of note, in addition to the massive use of iron nails to connect the planking to the skeleton frame, we highlight the use of bolts to join several floor timbers to the keel, and the considerable spacing between tenons, or even the actual absence of any plank joinery at all. These features indicate, amongst other things, the vessels' late date (fourth-fifth centuries A.D.). The form and construction characteristics reflect the diverse functions of the Fiumicino ships. The elegant angular profile of the Fiumicino 4 hull made it suitable for small- and medium-range coastal navigation at sea, given its modest dimensions (about 15 in. in length). The mast step to seat the foot of the mast demonstrates that the vessels had been fitted with a single square sail. A pump to remove bilge water is located in a socket within the crutches flanking the mast step. The internal planking serves to strengthen the structure longitudinally and to protect the hull from the cargo, typically composed of terracotta amphorae (two-handled jars). Fiumicino 5, a unique find of its kind for the Roman period (second century A.D.), is instead a small fishing boat featuring a central compartment within which to store and keep the freshly fished cath alive, thanks to the sea water that could be made to flood the cavity through stoppered holes along the bottom hull planking. Fiumicino 1, 2 and 3, which share similar constructional characteristics, feature rather flat wide hulls which indicate they were used for river transport. They must have been towed by animals along the right bank of the river according to a propulsion system known as "tracking", still in use along the Tiber river in the nineteenth century. Their original form can be appreciated by examining the numerous representations (on mosaics, reliefs and frescoes) of a particular family of naves caudicariae.

Daily Life on Board and Ship Equipment

Knowing about the rules and conventions that regulated life on board in ancient times is possible thanks to the analysis of written sources as well as the study of objects found on shipwrecks. In the latter case, the information is first-hand and speaks to us directly about life on board. We can learn about how the crew ate from the cooking equipment, which often preserves traces of burning, or from the tableware. On the Byzantine ship of Yassiada (Turkey), remains of the hearth, cooking utensils comprising various terracotta and bronze containers, a mortar, and food remains (animal bones) were recovered in the stem cabin. Similar finds have been made on numerous other shipwrecks that have often yielded examples of hand grindstones to make flour from cereals and thus to prepare cornmeal, soups or breads. The crew's provisions were stored in containers such as amphorae, baskets or sacks. The supply for a voyage included liquid foods (drinking water, wine, oil and garum [fish paste] and solid foods (cereals, olives, fresh or dried fruit, legumes, smoked or salted meats). Personal objects belonging to the crew or to passengers might also be stored in the cabin: clothes, shoes, rings or playing dice which, kept in little boxes or bags, helped to while away the time at sea. Medicines against seasickness were not lacking, while coins and lever scales would be used for commercial transactions, once dry land was reached. For illumination they often used oil-lamps. As religious customs were not ignored by mariners, small portable altars and images of divinities were set up on board ship. During navigation the crew, if not engaged in manoeuvres, would be involved in maintenance activities such as repairing sails with bone needles, or fishing, to enrich the modest food supply with fresh produce.

The excavation of shipwrecks allows us, at least in part, to learn about ship equipment, although the main source of information regarding most of the structures above the waterline and the rigging comes from depictions of ancient vessels (iconography). In fortunate cases wooden sail blocks, or fragments of sails and ropes, are actually recovered. One of the most common items of equipment, which however is often found in isolation, is the sounding lead. With its hollow underside filled with resin, the mariner could establish the nature and depth of the seabed as well as follow a route and recognise the best anchorages. The anchor was the most important piece of equipment on board, and usually each vessel had several of various sizes.

In Roman times anchors were constructed of wood with a lead stock for weight, or else they were made entirely of iron.

Visiting the Museum of the Roman ships

Now the Museum is situated at South of the Intercontinental Airport of Fiumicino and is connected to the city of Rome by motorway and railway. The structure of the Museum is absolutely functional: a big container 33,5 m long and 22 wide constitutes a sort of shipshed. Along the left side there are offices and service rooms.

Originally the exhibition pavilion was used as shelter for the salvaged ships. Here the hulls were conserved with resins and the damaged wooden parts were restored.
As soon as they enter the museum, viewers can survey the entire collection of ancient vessels at a single glance. The ships are supported by metal frames designed with as few pieces as possible in order to hold the delicate wooden remains intact without distorting the architectural lines of the boats.

At the entrance, to the right, the first exhibit is Fiumicino 5, the fishing boat. Vessels similar to this one in their construction have not yet been found, making the relic the only one of this kind in the world. It has also an aquarium-container located in the mid-section, while the bottom of this well has openings to let in sea water. In this way the fish caught could be kept alive until the return of the ship and their eventual sale.

If we turn toward the entrance we can see a pair of fragments from the hulls of boats of which nothing else has survived. One of these has two wales conserved.
Returning from the direction in which we came in, Fiumicino 3 is to be found to the left of the entrance. Only the only flat bottom of this little fluvial barge, massively reconstructed in modern times, remains.

A small corridor separates this barge from the cargo ship Fiumicino 4, the best preserved of the small fleet of the museum. The hull is conserved above the waterline.
To the right and to the left pieces of lapidary stone are displayed, including fragments from a sarcophagus with maritime scenes, architectonic elements, a mooring bollard and a quarry block.

Of interest on the rear wall are the reproductions of a relief from the Torlonia collection depicting the port with ships in movement (IIIrd cent. A.D.) and a copy of the Museo Nazionale Romano relief that shows a navis caudicaria, a special type of towed vessel used to transport cargo from the port of Rome up to the city.
Leaving aside the materials in the display cases, we move on to Fiumicino 1 and 2, the large flat bottomed fluvial barges. At the beginning of the corridor separating the two ships is a travertine capital found at the port of Claudius near the outlet of Trajan's canal.

In the display cases, we can see materials salvaged from the excavation of the ships and found in other excavations in the area. On the short wall to the rear and along the wall leading to the exit, visitors will finds panels illustrating in chronological order the various stages of the digs carried out in 1950-1960 and slides show examples of Roman ports in the Mediterranean.
Finally, large maps illustrate the principal routes of ancient times, as well as other major finds in European naval archaeology.

Text by: Giulia Boetto
Translation by: Claire Calcagno
Photos and documentation: Archives of the SAO

Ministry of the Cultural Activities and Heritage
Archaeological Superintendency of Ostia
Via dei Romagnoli 717 - 00119 Ostia Antica
Tel. (06) 56358099 - Fax (06) 5651500
Internet site:

Museum of the Roman Ships
Via A. Guidoni 35 - 00050 Fiumicino Aeroporto (RM)
Tel. (06) 6529192 - Fax (06) 65010089

Opening times:

From 10.02.2002 onwards, the Museum is closed for visitors, due to reconstruction works.

The first Saturday and last Sunday of every month: departure from the Museum at 9:30 for the guided tour covering the archaeological area of Portus. For all other dates, a reservation is require. It is possible to visit the archaeological areas of Monte Giulio and the so-called Harbour Master's Office by prior telephone request.

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