New Research Has Unraveled the History of the Lost Harbor of Pisa

The ancient harbor of Pisa.

Although it has been described as one of Italy's most influential seaports during the Middle Ages, little is known about the relationship between Portus Pisanus's environment and its history. (Image: via Cornelis Meyer, 1685)

New insights into the evolution and eventual disappearance of Portus Pisanus, the lost harbor of Pisa, have been revealed. Although it has been described as one of Italy’s most influential seaports during the Middle Ages, little is known about the relationship between Portus Pisanus’s environment and its history.

To understand the role those long-term coastal dynamics, sea-level rise, and a changing environment played in the harbor’s evolution, researchers reconstructed relative sea levels for the eastern Ligurian Sea over a 10,500-year period. The research, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, was led by David Kaniewski, and was also coupled with historical maps with geological data to reconstruct the morphology of the coast around the Pisa harbor basin.

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Map of Pisa and the mouth of the Arno River.
Map of Pisa and the mouth of the Arno River. (Image: via Cornelis Meyer, 1685)

They analyzed biological samples from sediment layers to investigate how seawater, freshwater, or agricultural activities may have influenced the environment in the area, before comparing and contrasting their data with written sources and archaeological data. The findings suggest that at approximately 200 B.C., a naturally protected lagoon with a good connection to the sea developed south of the city of Pisa that would have benefited navigation and trade, and facilitated the establishment of port complexes.

Pisa lost its importance

The lagoon hosted Portus Pisanus well beyond the 5th century A.D., but its degree of sea connection began to decline from around A.D. 1000-1250, as coastlines shifted toward the sea. It was cut off from the sea and disappeared around A.D. 1500 when the basin developed into a coastal lake and Portus Pisanus was replaced by the maritime harbor of Livorno. Dr. Matteo Vacchi, from the University of Exeter, said in a statement:

Provided by: University of Exeter [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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