The Lake Nemi ships

One of marine archaeology’s most remarkable finds and the subsequent act of vandalism that robbed the world of two of its most extraordinary maritime artefacts.

by Alan Lucas


European marine museums have on display many parts of ancient ships found beneath the sea, under bogs, old breakwaters and so on. Some display almost entire bottoms whose topsides disappeared aeons ago to the onslaught of worm, collision and currents. 

But the Lake Nemi Ships were unique for the fact that their hulls were recovered intact. They had been underwater for 1900 years!

The two ships were found on the bottom of Lake Nemi, Italy, with much of their tophamper strewn around the lake floor. They were close together which, together with their good condition, suggests they were probably scuttled or simply sank from disuse.

The larger of the two vessels measured 240 feet long with a beam of 78 feet and was propelled by a bank of oars as well as one or more sails. Typical of the era, a single, large squaresail was probably used, although a split raffee may have been set above it.

The smaller vessel appears to have been towed by the other for there was no evidence of the ancient equivalent of rowlocks.

There was, however, evidence that it carried a squaresail set from a single mast, similar to its bigger sister.

Both were flat bottomed and therefore rated as barges intended for inland waterway use only. They seemed to have no commercial purpose, as we will see later. Their recovery, however, is a fascinating story, best told in L. Sprague de Camp's 1960 book, The Ancient Engineers.

They were discovered in 1444, soon after which the renaissance architect, Leon Battista Alberti sent divers down to inspect the wrecks and assess them for salvage. The subsequent attempt failed.

In 1535 another attempt was made by Francesco De Marchi who daringly descended in a bell made of timber strapped with metal hoops designed by Guillaume of Lorraine. Sublimely ignorant of the dangers of diving in those days, De Marchi suffered nose bleeding, got tangled in his harness and was obliged to fend off hordes of small fish intent on nibbling his cheese sandwiches taken along for sustenance!

De Marchi nevertheless located the wrecks and brought numerous objects to the surface, many of which found their way into private collections or were snaffled by the peasants to be put to more practical purposes. Not until the twentieth century were the hulls themselves fully recovered.

Between 1927 and 1932, Italian archaeologists used an ancient Roman drainage tunnel to empty the lake, exposing the two ships to full view. The epic recovery had its setbacks when a salvage barge sank and the lake accidentally refilled during the work, but it was eventually successful. Using a four-rail track system laid out over the mud, the vessels were dragged to higher ground, clear of the soon-to-be returned water.  

As well as the hulls and their contents other objects scattered around the site were also recovered, including bronze and marble ornaments, tiles and utensils. Close examination disclosed that both ships had been sheathed in three layers of lead sheeting and the topsides were protected by paint and tarred wool. They were steered by 37 foot long quarter oars, with the larger ship using a total of four; two off each quarter and two from the shoulders, presumably to assist when manoeuvring.
  As a result of the weight of bronze and marble ornamentation, plus damage during earlier salvage attempts, the superstructures had collapsed, leaving their exact function open to debate.
  One theory has it that the barges were playthings of the mad emperor Caligula only to become redundant under the more sedate leadership of Claudius. It is also possible that they were floating temples, possibly honouring the Egyptian mothergoddess Isis.
  But there can be very little doubt that Caligula was in some way involved because a lead pipe found on one of the wrecks read; ‘Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus’. This was Caligula’s full name and he ruled from AD 37 to AD 41. This probable period of their building is also reinforced by the dates on a number of tiles taken from the wrecks.
  Of considerable technical interest was the discovery of a pair of turntables which revolved on small wheels arranged around a circle. These may have been rotating bases for statues, giving credence to the floating temple theory. Whatever their true purpose, they were proof positive that frictionless bearings had been designed and used long before Leonardo da Vinci envisioned similar devices 16 centuries later.
  Also found on board were a remarkable bilge pump that worked like a modern bucket dredge and two anchors, one of oak with iron-tipped flukes and a stock of lead (possibly lead sheathed) and the other of iron and timber with a folding stock of a type not seen again until the 18th century.
  These remarkable ships have largely been ignored by history, possibly because they were destroyed during World War II.
  During the German retreat, troops burned 80,000 books and manuscripts of the Royal Society of Naples and then similarly destroyed the two Nemi Ships. This vindictive behaviour may have been pay-back for the Italian capitulation or just a few troops venting their anger; but either away it was an unforgivable act of vandalism that robbed the world of two of its most extraordinary maritime artefacts.
  Today, at Lake Nemi, about 30 kilometres south of Rome, they are remembered in a small museum containing one fifth scale models plus a few of the original relics.