Venice Is Much Older Than We Believed

Despite its rich history, there have been relatively few archaeological digs in Venice. Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 15 Dec 2017, 13:00

Over time, the floating city of Venice would rise from the lagoons to become one of the most pivotal and important powers in all of Europe as a hub of trade, culture, and influence. Yet for such a significant seat of power, how exactly the city first got off the ground is surprisingly murky.

Now researchers have found evidence that people were likely living on the islands scattered throughout the Venetian lagoon some 1,300 years ago, pushing back the solid evidence of habitation in Venice by almost 200 years. Their results have been published in the journal Antiquity.

There has likely been at least some form of settlement on some islands in the archipelago for a long time, as many think that Romans fleeing various invasions by Germanic and Hun groups sought sanctuary and protection in the watery landscape. But according to Venetian tradition, it was not until 828 CE that the bones of Saint Mark were brought from Alexandria to Venice, and the founding of the first Basilica took place in his honor.

A little before this time, when the seat of the doge was moved to Piazza San Marco (where it would remain until its abolition), it is thought that a town was beginning to emerge from the small villages and communities on the marsh islands. This town became known by the name Rivoalto, not the Venice we know of today.

The sediment deep beneath Saint Mark’s Basilica, however, could be shedding light on these early settlements. Archaeologists studying some sediment cores retrieved from beneath the grand basilica's mosaic floor have uncovered a handful of peach stones, and have been able to date them to between 650 CE and 770 CE, some 180 years before the first stone was laid when constructing the elaborate building.

The stones add to the evidence of these early communities, and were found in the same layer as fragments of glass retrieved from an earlier study, some 4.2 meters (13.7 feet) below the current ground level. Even 1,300 years ago, this layer was below sea level, which implies that these first residents were chucking the stones into a natural channel meandering through the islands.

What is fascinating, though, is that the stones were surrounded by sediment that is thought to have been added to the channel by people. This suggests that people were deliberately filling in the waterways in order to create more land on which to build.  

Considering its rich history, Venice is actually one of the only major European cities that has not experienced extensive archaeological digs with modern methodology. This is due mainly to the extremely high water table making the practicalities of such excavations complicated. Now, however, researchers want to expand their work and search for early building that may still survive beneath the city.

[H/T New Scientist]

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