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Five-year underwater arhaeological research of Veštar harbour near Rovinj completed

Five-year underwater arhaeological research of Veštar harbour near Rovinj completed

The archaeological research undertaken at Veštar Cove is the first organised research of underwater archaeological finds at this site. The research was initiated in 2008 when the cove was investigated with the aim of organising future excavation, with the final campaign conducted in May of 2013. The research was conducted by the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar. Participating in the project from the first to last campaign was the Bavarian Society of Underwater Archaeology and the Heritage Museum of Rovinj, with the continual support of the City of Rovinj Tourism Board. Personnel of the Croatian Conservation Institute also participated in the first three campaigns with the support of the Conservation Office in Pula.

Veštar is a relatively well-protected cove located to the south of Rovinj. As a Roman period settlement, Veštar (Vistrum) developed on the foundations of a large villa rustica estate. This estate used the mole on the southern shore (Mole 1). Based on onshore archaeological finds there was likely a small village settlement here in the Late Roman period, with a more significant settlement developing in the Early Medieval period, abandoned in the early 7th century when the inhabitants migrated to Rovinj (6th century Ravenna Archbishop Maximianus was a native of Veštar). In the 15th century Veštar was first used as a harbour (Porto Vistrum), likely for the town of Bale and the broader hinterland.

Veštar Cove
Mole 3

By the first research campaign the existence of a Roman mole on the southern shore, Mole 1, had been confirmed. The mole was constructed of large stone blocks with a fill of smaller stone. With a length of 50 metres, this mole is among the longest in Istria. The width of the mole varies from 5 metres at its foot to 10 metres at its head. The mole is built on a silty bottom by the laying of two to three courses of coarse blocks as a foundation. There are traces near the head of the mole of its reconstruction or extension (widening).

Excavations in trench A
The find of glass rods

Two trenches were excavated alongside the mole to ascertain the thickness of the archaeological layer. One trench was set to the eastern, leeward side of the mole, and the other at its head. The excavation depth from the current seabed in one trench is 1.5 metres and 2 metres in the other. The research of the Roman mole was completed with the identification of the archeologically sterile layer in the trenches.

The finds in the first layers of the trenches include Post Medieval pottery and building material (brick). Particularly interesting is the find of glass rods of various colours – raw material for the manufacture of glassware. The find of this raw material confirms the existence of a glassmaking workshop. In the deeper layers the finds are exclusively Early Roman. They consist of fragments of tegulae, imbrices and parts of stone furnishings such as columns, capitals or doorposts. Frequent among the potsherds are fragments of amphorae of the types common to the northern Adriatic (Dressel 2-4 and 6B, Forlimpopoli, Portorecanati), fragments of thin-walled ware and some sherds of small sigillata vessels and several parts of oil lamps and weights for the most part among the coarse pottery. Metal finds are rare: two corroded bronze coins and one tool of unknown use. The mole was built during the 1st century and was abandoned in the early 3rd century. It appears that it was then demolished and its superstructure removed.

The oil lamp find in situ
The eastern side of Mole 3

Many of the finds collected onshore date to the period following the collapse of the Roman mole, from the 3rd to 7th century (the settlement of Veštar) and to the Post Medieval period, from the 15th to 18th century (port of Veštar). The finds collected indicate the conclusion that there must have been several moles in the cove. The question that arose was where a mole or other dock structure used in the centuries that followed was located.

Upon investigation of the terrain and old maps on which Veštar is almost always cited as a port it was concluded that the second mole was most likely located at the top of the cove. An underwater inspection of the cove was undertaken during which a seemingly unnatural concentration of stone blocks was observed in the northeast section of the cove. This structure was designated as Mole 2. The stone blocks were scattered over a large area, but an inspection of maps and aerial photographs indicated with a very high level of certainty that this was the site of a large mole. Dives were conducted at the position, but it was difficult to set the position of a trench as the blocks were arranged in places and randomly scattered in others. It is possible that this is the result of the subsequent demolition of the mole and the removal of blocks. Research of Mole 2 was, therefore, abandoned.

There are large stones in the southeast part of the cove that jut out of the water at low tide. These are the perimeter stones of a Post Medieval mole, designated Mole 3. The area of the mole is covered with diverse ceramic debris such as fragments of brick and pottery. We find traces of workshop activity here: debris from pottery kilns and scorched clay that is in places scorched to the point of giving a vitreous effect. This supports the hypothesis that Post Medieval engraved pottery was manufactured at Veštar. The excavation of two trial trenches established the positions of the edge and head of the mole. At the same time a trench was excavated to the east side of the mole. Based on a preliminary inspection the archaeological ceramic finds collected in the trial trenches and trenches are from the 17th to 18th century period (sherds of engobed, engraved and glazed pottery). We can associate Mole 3 with a collapsed stone structure onshore (perhaps a customs post or port authority). Only by conducting onshore archaeological research can we ascertain the precise nature of the association.

All of the researched structures were documented by sketches and photography and their positions measured with a geodetic instrument (total station). The positions of the identified wall structures on the shore were also measured.

Documentation with a geodetic measuring instrument (total station)
Packaging the finds on the shore

All of the finds collected are in the process of further processing or have already been processed. The ceramic, metal and glass finds were desalinated, restored and conserved at the workshop of the underwater finds restoration and conservation department of the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar. Animal bones were transferred to the University of Zagreb's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine for archaeozoological analysis. These lengthy processes are followed by the scientific analysis of these finds.

An exhibition was staged at the Heritage Museum of Rovinj in 2011 of finds restored to date as the result of three years of research of the seabed of Veštar Cove. A comprehensive colour publication was printed for the occasion summing up the results of the research campaigns from 2008 to 2010 (Publications). The release of a publication of this type is also foreseen for the finds not yet published.

Many finds were collected in the cove outside of the core research area of diverse forms and functions and from various periods. The finds represented are from the Early and Late Roman period, the Byzantine period and from the Late Medieval and Early Post Medieval periods.

Veštar Cove is a developed tourism destination and the site is, therefore, exposed to systematic devastation. The underwater research conducted identified, from year to year, damage to researched positions and the removal of underwater finds by tourist divers. It was determined that archaeological layers are being destroyed by the expansion of illegal anchorage sites, the digging up of the seabed in search of shellfish and that architectural remains are exposed to the washing action of the sea. Also observed was the potential danger of the expansion of a tourist caravan park towards the part of the cove with archaeological remains. The research established the existence of a large Roman period mole built in the 1st to 2nd century period and the existence of a Post Medieval mole from the 17th to 18th century period, while the presence of a third mole is hypothesised. The find of glass rods and fragments of scorched clay indicate the presence of glassmaking and pottery workshops. A complete image of this rich site could only be produced if archaeological research was also undertaken on land. Consolidating, for example, the blocks of the Roman mole would secure it against devastation and render it attractive for diver visits and would provide for the undisturbed coexistence of the tourism area and the valuable cultural heritage ruins.

Marina Šimičić

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