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Underwater Survey and Excavation at the Ancient Port of Gravisca, Italy

Elizabeth Shuey
Thesis: May 1978
Chair: Bass
Nautical Archaeology Program

The first extensive survey and excavation of the underwater remains at the port of Gravisca, now called Porto Clementino, was conducted in the summer of 1977, yielding new information on the design and construction of the ancient breakwater. The possible location of the ancient port of Etruscan Tarquinia and the Roman colony of Gravisca, long disputed by scholars, was focused on this site as a result of recent land excavations and earlier reports of breakwater remains in the harbor. Land excavations in progress since 1969 have revealed traces of both the Roman colony of Gravisca and earlier Etruscan occupation from the 6th to 3rd centuries B.C., along with large quantities of imported Greek pottery, indicating that this was an important center for overseas commerce in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Declining in the Late Roman period, the harbor was apparently abandoned, reviving partially from the 11th century A.D. on when it was known as the Medieval and Papal port of Corneto, the name given Tarquinia in the Middle Ages.

Underwater investigation of the site was necessary to verify the location and dating of the ancient port and to define the form of the presumed breakwater and overall design of the harbor. As a result of the survey, part of a breakwater that appears to date from the Roman period was discovered, comprising a large mound of rocks located circa 125 meters northwest of the harbor promontory and another smaller rubble mound only 20 meters from shore. This type of breakwater, which is similar to that at the nearby Roman ports of Cosa and Pyrgi and the Etruscan port of Populonia, appears to have been a simple but effective means used by the Romans to break the force of the waves and thereby create a sheltered port.

The fact that the rubble piles are separated from one another rather than formed in one continuous breakwater extending out from shore is also indicative of Early Roman design; the wave action could be kept to a minimum, but currents could pass freely between the rock barriers providing a natural means of cleansing the silt from the harbor. The local currents observed in the harbor during the survey follow precisely this pattern, although the harbor itself has silted-in considerably since it was bombed in World War II. Sherds dating primarily from the Imperial Roman period were found buried in the large rubble mound, while one Etruscan handle and a Medieval rim fragment found on the harbor floor help to affirm the temporal spread of harbor use.

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