Early Roman Empire   :|:   Document

The Julia Felix, a shipwreck in front of Grado

ref. : en.1965.2019 | 23 March 2019 | by Francis Leveque
épave | IIe century AD
Aquilée (Aquileia), Italie du nord ( Italie )
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This ship bears witness to the Roman circular economy where everything was recycled at best (here glass and packaging / amphorae). We also discover a way to transport live fish in an aquarium.

The Julia Felix is a Roman boat of the second century A.D. sank in the waters of the Adriatic, about 6 miles (10 kilomètres) off the island of Grado. Its ancient name is not known but was given the name «Julia Felix» to this wreck.

It was found in 1986 by Agostino Formentin, fisherman of Marano Lagunare, 16 meters deep on the sea floor. The cargo of amphorae was damaged in the most superficial part by the crampons of the fishing boats.

The boat, 18 meters long and 5-6 meters wide, has been found intact with its load of 560 amphorae.

The excavations were conducted by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Ambientali Architettonici Archeologici Artistici e Storici del Friuli-Venezia Giulia, with the coordination of the Servizio Tecnico per l’Archeologia Subacquea del Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali.

Three bourds of various sizes have been recovered, which then as today were used to join the peaks. Even the bollards are three - two fixed and one mobile - one of which is particularly valuable as it depicts the carved image of a female bust. Pulleys were probably used to maneuver the mast of the square sail of the mast

Near the keel is a lead pipe at least 7 cm wide and 1.3 meters long, piercing the hull. Archaeologists believe that it was possible to pump seawater for use on board, presumably to transport live fish. They consider the presence of an aquarium behind the mast of the ship, measuring about 3.5 x 1 m for a capacity of about 7 cubic meters. If properly maintained, it could maintain at least 200 kg of live fish such as seabass or sea bream.

«Historians believe that, prior to the invention of the freezer, the only possibility for the fish trade was to salt it or to dry it; now we know that it was also possible to keep them alive for a long distance», explains researcher Carlo Beltrame, an archaeologist at Ca ’Foscari University in Venice. Pliny the Elder spoke about the transport of parrotfish from the Black Sea to the coast of Naples.

The Grado ship is an emblematic case of trade in redistribution and re-use.
The ship carried a load of food (fish in brine) and glass fragments, perhaps intended for the artisans of nearby Aquileia. A barrel full of broken glass was also found, intended for recasting, an economically advantageous practice since recycled glass has a lower melting temperature and therefore consumes less wood.

The ship contained more than 600 amphorae largely reused, coming from various Mediterranean regions: Eastern Aegean, Tripolitania, Tunisia, Campania, Emilia Romagna, upper Adriatic.
«This included at least 566 amphoras belonging to four different classes, among which were 204 examples of the African 1 (an oil container from Tunisia), 23 examples of the Tripolitanian 1 (an oil container from Tripolitania), 154 examples of the Knossos 19/Dressel 5 (a wine container from the Aegean), and 185 examples of the Grado 1 (a fish products container from the upper Adriatic). These were arranged in the hold by class, with the African 1s placed amidships, the Tripolitanian 1s towards the bow, the Knossos 19s towards the stern, and the Grado 1s arranged in various free spaces that remained near both the bow and the stern. This arrangement suggests that all of the containers were brought aboard the ship at the same time» [1]

The amphorae, arrived in various ways and from different places in an emporium, had been emptied of the original content (Aegean wine, Tripolitan and Tunisian oil, Adriatic wine, etc.) and stored to be reused by the manufacturer of the goods. They contained the sauce, garum, as indicated in the painted inscriptions (real labels) on the neck of the containers.

Some artifacts have also been found on board, including two bronze heads of Poseidon and Minerva. Some games including a die. A box of fishing hooks. Glass, much of it waste glass, packed in a barrel which had disintegrated; some square bottles with the base mark «C SALVI GRATI».


The wreck of Julia Felix, recovered in 1999, is undergoing restoration and study.

To house the remains of the ship, recovered in 1999, in Grado the construction of a Museum of underwater archeology was started, in the former Scaramuzza school of Grado.

For the exhibition in Trieste, in 2018, a cross-section of the vessel was made by the ERPAC, a historically faithful reproduction, with part of the original cargo.

[1J. Theodore Peña, 2018


Bibliography :

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  • P. Dell’Amico, L. Fozzati, P. Lopreato, E. Mitchell, E. Tortorici, Julia Felix: la nave di Grado, in Archeologia Viva , vol. 23 , 1991
  • R. Auriemma , Le anfore del relitto di Grado e il loro contenuto , in Mélanges de l'école française de Rome , vol. 112-1 , 2000
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  • C. Beltrame, Fishing from Ships: Fishing Techniques in the Light of NauticalArchaeology, in Aancient Nets and Fishing Gear, Cadiz, November 15-17, 2007, Cadix , 2010
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