ITALIAN MASTER BUILDERS
Archaeology|November/December 2021
A 3,500-year-old ritual pool reflects a little-known culture’s agrarian prowess
DANIEL WEISS

On a hilltop at the edge of the town of Noceto on northern Italy’s Po Plain, a 2004 construction project had gotten just a few feet into the ground when a wooden structure began to emerge. A team of archaeologists led by Mauro Cremaschi and Maria Bernabò Brea was called in to investigate. “At the beginning, we thought it was probably some sort of residential building,” says team member Andrea Zerboni, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Milan. “But soon after we started the excavation, we noticed that the sediments inside the structure weren’t related to domestic activity.” Rather than material such as ash and charcoal, typically found where people lived or worked, the structure was filled with natural sediments of the sort that would be found in a lake. The structure they were excavating was not a building at all, the researchers realized—it was an artificial pool. What they have learned about this pool in the years since has provided surprising new insights into the social organization and ritual practices of a culture that thrived in this fertile region for centuries during the second millennium b.c. before disappearing. “The Noceto pool is unique in Italy—it’s unique in the world,” says Zerboni. “Building such a structure implies very careful planning, coordinating the work of many people, and a very clear architectural plan. We don’t expect to find such majestic structures from prehistory.”

When they reached the bottom of the pool after several years of careful work, the archaeologists marveled at the feat of ancient engineering before them. Twenty-six wooden poles were arranged vertically to form a tank measuring roughly 40 feet long, 23 feet wide, and at least 16 feet deep. More than 240 interlocking boards lined the pool’s earthen walls and were held in place by the poles. The poles, in turn, were pressed against the walls by two networks of horizontal beams that crossed the pool perpendicular to each other. And, for good measure, a pair of long beams were arranged diagonally to buttress the four corner poles. As the researchers would learn, the pool’s builders had good reason to take extra care to ensure the soundness of their design. “When we arrived at the bottom, we said, ‘OK, our job is done, we have finished the excavation,’” says Zerboni. “But we dug a few more trenches just to check what was below the tank, and we found evidence of another wood structure.” This turned out to be an earlier attempt at building a somewhat larger tank, which had collapsed before it was completed. It’s unclear whether the earlier design simply couldn’t withstand the pressure of the earthen walls or whether one of the area’s frequent earthquakes contributed to its demise. In any case, the upper tank, whose design included additional supports, held strong for millennia.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM ARCHAEOLOGYView All

Archaeology's Top 10 Discoveries of 2021

Discoveries

10+ mins read
Archaeology
January/February 2022

A Brush With Genius

An unprecedented find in central China brings to life the early years of a master calligrapher

10+ mins read
Archaeology
January/February 2022

THE ROOTS OF VIOLENCE

In the early 1960s, archaeologists from around the world descended on the Upper Nile Valley.

3 mins read
Archaeology
January/February 2022

Under the Holy City

A long-running excavation in Jerusalem unearths evidence for two of the city’s least-known eras

10+ mins read
Archaeology
January/February 2022

TURNING SALT INTO GOLD

In the Austrian Alps, generations of miners toiled to extract the ancient world’s most valuable resource

10+ mins read
Archaeology
January/February 2022

OFF THE GRID

OPLONTIS, ITALY

2 mins read
Archaeology
January/February 2022

AT FACE VALUE

Researchers are using new scientific methods to investigate how artists in Roman Egypt customized portraits for the dead

10+ mins read
Archaeology
January/February 2022

When Isis Was Queen

At the ancient Egyptian temples of Philae, Nubians gave new life to a vanishing religious tradition

10+ mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021

ITALIAN MASTER BUILDERS

A 3,500-year-old ritual pool reflects a little-known culture’s agrarian prowess

7 mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021

Piecing Together Maya Creation Stories

Thousands of mural fragments from the city of San Bartolo illustrate how the Maya envisioned their place in the universe

10+ mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021