Summer School in Classical Archaeology

The harbour of Vada Volaterrana


The Etruscan and Roman city of Volaterrae – the current Volterra, in the core of Tuscany – was connected to the coast by the Cecina River valley; North and South of the river’s mouth, a harbour system capable of ensuring the arrival of the goods and the export of local products developed over the centuries.

The coastal region was characterized by lagoons fed by numerous small streams and bays protected from the sea currents and the dangerous shallow waters off the coasts; this environment, now disappeared, was really suitable for ports trade activities.

The main harbour in this port system was located further North of the mouth of the river, at S. Gaetano di Vada, where the University of Pisa is digging, since the 80s, a commercial quarter of Roman age. The Latin placename Vada Volaterrana is reported in many ancient literary sources (e.g. Cicero) and in some Late Antiquity pilot books (e.g. the Itinerarium Maritimum Antonini) which indicate the precise position of the landing along the Etruscan coast.


3D restitution of the warehouse (horrea) and excavation of one of the cells.

3D restitution of the warehouse (horrea) and excavation of one of the cells.


The quarter was built, according to a plan, during the Augustan age. Many buildings have been unearthed in time: two thermal baths, a large warehouse (horreum) with 36 cells at least, a large water tank, a monumental fountain – used for watering the animals used in transportation of goods at the warehouse – and the head office of the guild (collegium) in charge of port activities management. The corporation’s member were worshippers of the Eastern god Cibele, whose lover Attis’ statue was found in the cold pool (frigidarium) of the main bath house, where it was intentionally thrown in broken pieces in Late Antiquity. The statue, dating from the first half of the IInd cent. AD, is made using a white marble from Asia Minor.

In the Southern part of this area stands an interesting building dating to the IInd cent. AD, whose pourposes are still unknown; three large apses, decorated with remarkable wall paintings, sorrounded an open squared courtyard.

The findings of amphoras, pottery, coins, glass vessels and marbles testify the intensive trade activities; every kind of goods arrived from the entire Mediterranean Sea basin, to be redistributed from the port to the countryside and the city of Volaterrae, and here local products were shipped out. The production of wine was especially developed; many workshop, where the transport amphoras are known throughout the territory, from which were made. The main trade route of Volterra’s wine led to the South of France and, further North, to the river Rhine, where the wine was consumed mainly by Roman legionaries stationed in the camps guarding the borders of the Empire.

During the VIth cent. the area of S. Gaetano was gradually abandoned and partially occupied by a cemetery, whose grave goods date from the late VIth to the early VIIth century. AD, when the settlement was finally abandoned.


Plan of the Vada Volaterrana harbour quarter (end of Ist cent.  BC-VIIth cent. AD)

Plan of the Vada Volaterrana harbour quarter (end of Ist cent. BC-VIIth cent. AD)