Infectious Diseases


Venetian Island Rescued From Lagoon

By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Layout of the Island  In depth: Explore the History Guide -

Aug. 21 — A submerged island will resurface Wednesday from the Venetian lagoon, along with two unique 700-year-old ships.

In an engineering task never attempted before, archaeologist have surrounded the island of San Marco in Boccalama, which began to sink in the 1300s, with a circular screen attached to wooden stakes. Inside the barrier, the water is being pumped away to bring the two-acre island and the shipwrecks to light.

In a desperate attempt to shore up the island's foundations, the monks who inhabited the island around 1328 filled with mud and sank a 125-foot Venetian galley and a 79-foot long transport ship. A document from Prior Nicholas to the Senate requesting government protection testifies the monks' concern for the rising sea.

The plan worked for less than a couple of decades: the island was already deserted in 1348, when it was used as a cemetery for The Black Plague. Finally, San Marco succumbed to the lagoon and was totally forgotten until 1969, when it was rediscovered in six feet of water.

"The monk's engineering feat preserved the shipwrecks in a unique way. These ships carried light cargoes, such as spices, so they could not be grounded and preserved at the bottom of the ocean. No other galley has ever been found. Now we can finally unveil the secrets of the Venetian master shipwrights," said Marco D'Agostino, the underwater archaeologist who discovered the ships in 1996.
The island's location.

Known as the "queen of the Mediterranean," the galley was used in the High Middle Ages for war and trade. Propelled by hundreds of oarsmen, it begun to decline in the 16th century when it was substituted by cheaper galleons.

The other shipwreck is even more intriguing. "It is of a kind never before encountered. Since it has a flat bottom, it was probably used for commerce," said D'Agostino.

Once shipwrecks and the island emerge from the muck, it will take the archaeologist a week to clean them. Then only two to three weeks remain — any longer exposure to the air could damage the ships — to carry out aerial analysis and tests. 

At the end of this elaborate project, San Marco and the ships will be sunk once more: salvaging the wrecks would cost too much.

"It will be nice to see the 14th-century vessels resurrected, if only to show the kind of ships that the Venetians used before they created the problems from which they are now suffering," said Edmund Penning-Rowsell, professor of geography and environmental planning at Middlesex University, U.K. 

Picture(s): Courtesy of Magistrato alle Acque di Venezia - Consorzio Venezia Nuova


  • Discovery Channel, News Brief, August 20,2001 -

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Created: Monday, August 20, 2001; Updated: Thursday, December 20, 2012
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