Roman ship carried live fish in tank

June 6, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier report
Image credit: S. Parizzi/[i]International Journal of Nautical Archaeology[/i]

( -- A new report published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology shows that Roman fishing ships may have used a pumping system to supply oxygenated water to an onboard fish tank. Due to a lack of refrigeration, historians have long assumed that Roman ships caught fish and delivered it locally before the fish rotted, but this new discovery would have enabled them to keep the fish alive and transport them to buyers throughout the Mediterranean.

The wrecked fishing ship was discovered six miles from the coast of Grado, Italy and dates to second century AD. It was discovered in 1986 and brought up in pieces in 1999. It is currently located in the Museum of in Grado. The ship was 16.5 meters long and was carrying small containers filled with processed fish.

The find that has stumped until now was a lead pipe at the stern of the ship that went into a hole in the hull. The remaining piece of pipe is 1.3 meters long and between seven and 10 centimeters in diameter. They now believe the pipe was connected to a piston pump that was hand-operated. Archaeologists have seen such technology from the Romans but never on a ship. They have not, however, recovered a pump from the wreck.

It was originally believed that this pump could have been used to collect bilge water from the bottom of the ship or used to pump into the boat for cleaning or fighting fires. However, Carlo Beltrame, a marine archaeologist from Ca’ Foscari University, believes that chain pumps would have been used for the bilge water and that this ship was not large enough to need a system like that for cleaning or fires.

While they have not yet located a tank, they have calculated that the ship could have held one with about 4 cubic meters of water. The pump would have allowed it to pump and replace the water every 16 minutes, keeping it well oxygenated for fish transport.

This find would completely change what historians had believed to be true for the fishing market in Roman times. This opens up the possibility that they were transporting and marketing beyond their local market far earlier than previously thought.

Explore further: Fishing boat crew acquitted

More information: A Presumed Hydraulic Apparatus for the Transport of Live Fish, Found on the Roman Wreck at Grado, Italy, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2011.00317.x

The Roman wreck found off Grado, not far from the city of Aquileia in the north Adriatic Sea, was recovered in 1999. The ship carried various kinds of amphoras with processed fish. A lead pipe, inserted in the hull near the keel, is curious evidence which the authors try to explain. The pipe could be connected to a piston-pump to suck water. A theoretical reconstruction demonstrates how this apparatus could work and that it could be used to feed a tank to allow trading in live fish over a long distance.

Related Stories

Fishing boat crew acquitted

November 6, 2005

The crew of a fishing vessel have been acquitted in Australia of illegal fishing for the Patagonian tooth fish, known on restaurant menus as Chilean seabass.

Recommended for you

Chimpanzees shed light on origins of human walking

October 6, 2015

A research team led by Stony Brook University investigating human and chimpanzee locomotion have uncovered unexpected similarities in the way the two species use their upper body during two-legged walking. The results, reported ...

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jun 07, 2011
The ancient Roman innovations and engineering feats are always impressive.

The Greeks and Romans could conceivably have experienced their own industrial revolutions if circumstances had been slightly different. The Greeks had working steam engines for example, but they considered them novelties and toys.
4 / 5 (1) Jun 07, 2011
Not "circumstances" but their logic prevented significant technical advance.

See Randian Objectivist David Harriman's The Logical Leap (Penguin-NAL, 2010).

Not unlike what we are facing in post-modern magical thinking as the rational is abandoned.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.