Going Back to the Past

Written by  Fede Berti
After having been shipwrecked, Valle Ponti's ship berths at Comacchio.
Ferrarese territory has radically changed through the centuries and Po's waters have formed a wide delta system which is constantly developing. Natural or man-made waterways and lagoon basins which have now disappeared promoted contacts between the people, movements and trade. The discovery of ancient vessels proves that delta landscape had a different shape and that it was crossed by traffic lines.

Valle Ponti's ship has a 20 metre length and a 5 metre and 70 width.
It has a large and flat bottom, a keel which is not clearly visible and, owing to the technique which was adopted to manufacture the elm wood shell, it is included among "clincker-built" hulls.
Valle Ponti's sutilis navis, in fact, derives from an ancient tradition which dates back to 2600 B.C. with Cheops' ship, and to Homer, the most ancient poet.

If, from the analysis of this indirect proof, it is clear that this kind of ship was known in the eighth century B.C. in the Aegean Sea, thanks to the discoveries which were made in different areas of the Mediterranean sea, it dates back to the period which ranges from the seventh to the third century B.C.
"Clinker-built" hull was also introduced in Rome and it was in vogue until the Fourth-Sixth Century A.C. The hull, which was manufactured according to accurate building techniques, guaranteed high nautical capacities and qualities and it was suitable for inland navigation.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discovery is the cargo which was loaded on the ship.
From the analysis of the different kind of objects which were found, it is clear that, thanks to widespread trading activities, goods and materials coming from different countries were put on Po Valley markets.
Glassware, amphoras, bronze vessels and articles, wooden products, structural tools, bags, baskets, ropes, cables and mats were mainly located abaft and along the crossroad.

The store room was presumably located abaft, as there were a thick layer of ash, a grill, dishes which had been previously used, an oil lamp, dippers, a bronze jar, and above all, residues of bricks with traces of fire and fragments of roofing and bent tiles. Even in this case, there were many amphoras.

It was not the case of forward area, where a surface layer of small fragments of vases and amphoras touched the anchor and the stock. This layer of fragments preserved the integrity of other products, such as pyxes, a mortar and wooden boxes, strigils, aryballos, a couple of bronze dishes and a couple of clay trays, a bronze saucepan in a wooden case, dippers, ink stands, wicker baskets, other oil lamps, a steelyard, a lantern, etc.: passengers were mainly concentrated in this area. Their luggage also included leather shoes and clothes, leather bags and containers, games to while the time away and weapons.
Salted or smoked meat was eaten onboard, as it is proved by the rests of mutton and pork. Lead ingots and fine tableware play a leading role: they are provided with trademark, therefore they may be roughly dated.

Lead acted as a dye and as a medicament and it was possible to achieve whips, cramps for building industry, weights, stamps, tables, lamps, hooks, cinerary urns and sarcophagi, plates for roof covering and ship coating. The 102 ingots weighing 2773 kilograms coming from Spanish mines which were loaded on Comacchio ship, were located in the central area of the hold and abaft.

Vases were produced by manufacturers in Northern Italy, according to the shapes and trademarks, while glasses and goblets came from famous ateliers.
There are also some thin wall and black-painted vases and several eastern vases, which are covered with the bright red paint which was typical of the finest dishes. There are also several fired clay vessels which are mainly suitable for cooking, while there are less bronzes, such as dishes, pans, saucepans, dippers, as they are for personal use only, therefore they are not part of marketable products.

But other rare or precious goods were marketed. Considering that many works of the ancient times have been lost and that the documentation related to popular devotion is weak and uncertain, the group of the six small temples proves to be rare.

These ex-voto temples are made up of thin pressed metal plates and are entirely decorated; inside the cell, which is provided with a door with mobile leafs, there are the pictures of Venus and Mercury. We suppose that the people who created these naiskoi were inspired by buildings, places or statues of worship. A similar handicraft production spread through the great sanctuaries, reproducing the simulacrums.

Sacred images had different functions, according to their size: the small ones could be pinned on people's neck or could be worn under the clothes, medium-sized ones could act as fixed or "travel" domestic larariums for personal or collective use, while others were worn on the clothes on certain occasions.

Those who possessed them satisfied their needs, while those who commercialised them, even making long trips, contributed to the diffusion of certain cults across countries which were far from the original places.
The ship also carried three stacks of boxwood, for a total amount of 32 logs with a length ranging from 155 to 160 centimetres and an average diameter of 17 centimetres which derived from trimmed plants which could grow for several hundred years, as it is proved by the number of growth rings.
Even wine and oil, which were contained in amphoras produced by Eastern Aegean and Italian manufacturers, were ready to comply with market demands.

We do not know where Valle Ponti's ship comes from and which is its destination: we suppose that it embarked goods at Ravenna port and that it was directed towards Po Valley. In this case, it was sailing up the Po Delta, taking the sea routes which are mentioned by reliable sources.

But why was it shipwrecked? Why was cargo abandoned? The ship was found near the coast and a river mouth. Was it berthed along a river when it was swept away by the flood? Was an under-coast storm raging over it making it ungovernable? It rapidly disappeared in a shoal and it was swept away by the weight of the cargo and the movement of the waves, sinking in the sand.