Rare 1,300-year-old skeleton found on an island near Venice

Rare 1,300-year-old skeleton found on an island near Venice

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The discovery of an 8th-century ‘slave’ skeleton on Venice’s tourist island Torcello could unlock secrets of its remarkable thousand-year-old history.

Torcello was first settled in the year 452AD and is believed to be the gateway from which Venice was populated.

In the 10th century, this tiny island was densely populated, with between 10,000 to 35,000 people living in well-constructed made wooden huts.

During the 1960s and 70s, numerous cemetery sites on the island were excavated but there seemed to be few clues to what life was like before 1000AD.

Now, scientists have revealed the body of a young adult – believed to be a slave –who died on the island in around 700AD when it was a bustling ship building port. 

Researchers hope this find will give an insight into what life was like when this popular little island – now home to just a few dozen people – was heaving with people.   

After the destruction of the Roman Empire, the island lagoon was populated by Veneti who were taking shelter from reoccurring barbarian invasions.

From then on it rapidly grew as a vital hub for trade and this latest find could provide information about a time which currently little is known about.  

Lead archaeologist Diego Calaon from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice says the ‘entire skeleton [is] intact, with the exception of the head.’

He trusts that the perforation of the skull was caused by a construction pole in modern times. 

Dr. Calaon says this indicates that ‘the burial was complete and that the defects we see today resulted from activities which occurred later on in the area’.

The burial, in a cemetery adjacent to the old Basilica, is particularly interesting in terms of its locations.

It is at the head of an ancient lagoon canal that isolated the island of the Ancient Church of Saint Mary from the inhabited area of the medieval settlement. 

Over time the channel that separated the island of the Ancient Church with the occupied medieval settlement was fortified with hundreds of wooden poles. 

This expansion, which happened during the 8th and 9th century, suggests the inhabitants at the time had ‘hunger for space’ and a need to create new living spaces.

Archaeologists discovered fireplaces, as well as kitchen pottery including dishes and covering basins.

They also discovered amphorae for oil and wine and soapstone vessels for cooking soups and stews.

At the moment experts do not know where this community came from and whether or not the burial was isolated or connected directly to the Church.

Scientists are hoping to clear up these questions with DNA and biometric investigation.  

There were also 2 large warehouses on the island at the time that had been constructed in the 2 previous centuries between 500 – 600AD. 

Torcello became a hub of movement within the lagoon precisely at this moment’, said Dr. Calaon. 

‘Warehouses were built with reused Roman bricks, some with markings on them, fashioned with stones taken from ancient Rome time.

He said 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 region of the time.

‘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’.

 

Scientists believe the man was a young adult when he died during the early Middle Ages and his body was found in a cemetery adjacent to the old Basilica

Scientists believe the man was a young adult when he died during the early Middle Ages and his body was found in a cemetery adjacent to the old Basilica

Having a specimen from 700AD gives a unique opportunity to study the ancient island residents who lived in well-constructed wooden huts that were densely packed

Having a specimen from 700AD gives a unique opportunity to study the ancient island residents who lived in well-constructed wooden huts that were densely packed

During the 1960s and 70s many cemetery sites on the island were excavated but only relatively modern burials from the High Middle Ages (between 1000 and 1250AD) were found

During the 1960s and 70s many cemetery sites on the island were excavated but only relatively modern burials from the High Middle Ages (between 1000 and 1250AD) were found
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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

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