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Eighth-century skeleton discovered near Venice

Archaeologists working on the island of Torcello, near Venice, have uncovered a medieval skeleton dating to around 700 A.D.

Diego Calaon of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice gave details of the body which was found: “The subject is a young adult, whose burial – not far from the area we imagine was used as a cemetery adjacent to the Basilica during the Early Middle Ages – maintained nearly the entire skeleton intact, with the exception of the head. We mustn’t be misled, however: the discovery of the residual parts of the right side of the skull and of the perforation coming from above (probably due to a construction pole) which occurred during modern times, indicate that the burial was complete and that the defects we see today resulted from activities which occurred later on in the area.”

Archaeological digs that took place on Torcello, an island at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon, in the 1960s and 70s, which found the remains of people dating to the High Middle Ages. Being able to analyze the biometric data of those who lived on Torcello from the sixth to ninth century presents a unique opportunity.

The burial has been excavated in an area which is particularly interesting in terms of stratigraphy: the head of a lagoon canal that separated the  Church of Saint Mary from a medieval settlement. Over time, the channel was fortified with hundreds of wooden poles, indicative of a “hunger for space” on the part of homes and craft businesses that required the enlargement and creation of new living spaces.

As the excavation has expanded, it has revealed how the eighth and ninth century were significant and demonstrative of the island’s population explosion: the presence of dense wooden houses, docks, fireplaces and production facilities, proven by hundreds of ceramic fragments from kitchen pottery (including many covering basins, the dishes of yesteryear for cooking breads and cakes in fireplaces on the ground), amphorae for oil and wine, and soapstone vessels for cooking soups and stews.

The inhabited area includes a large number of warehouses, constructed and active in the two previous centuries, from 500-600 A.D. “Torcello became a hub of movement within the lagoon precisely at this moment. Altino was no longer feasible as a port, and the warehouses that we are excavating on the island,” explains Diego Calaon, “are revealing that long before the ‘imagined’ or ‘legendary’ barbaric destruction occurred, the local elite had fully invested in creating an efficient ship yard precisely in the littoral area of the time. Warehouses were built with reused Roman bricks, some with markings on them, fashioned with stones taken from ancient Rome. The porticoed harbor warehouse visible on Torcello nowadays is exceptionally well preserved: we will be able to clean up the interiors within 5/10 days of work”.

Meanwhile, there is another project underway at a different location where a construction of large dimensions (more than 25 meters in length), which may be interpreted as a boat garage and warehouse datable to the fourteenth century, is currently undergoing excavation and study. The structure, with a solid stone foundation (again, “pieces” from Altino which were salvaged for use here in the lagoon) sits opposite a very old and sturdy stone-laid riverbank, which was subsequently reinforced by an outward-facing jetty reaching where the Sile river used to flow. Between the riverbank and the warehouse, the obvious and abundant characteristics of a medieval shipyard for organizing and holding boats, probably for fishing, with traces of poles for hauling, for lateral mooring and, probably, for preparing pitches.

Click here to learn more about the Torcello Abitata project

Top Image: This is the skeleton discovered during the excavation in Torcello Island, Venice, Italy. Photo: Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

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