Giant Water Tank In Italy Linked to Prehistoric Ritual Practices

Giant Water Tank In Italy Linked to Prehistoric Ritual Practices


Scientists applying a precise form of radiocarbon dating technology have successfully dated an important and mysterious below-ground monument located in northern Italy. The prehistoric water tank is obscure in its purpose, but the experts think they have it cracked.

Using their own patented methodology, experts at the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory in Ithica, New York have identified an ancient wooden water tank known as the Noceto Vasca Votiva as a relic of the mid-15th century BC. This means the in-ground reservoir was built nearly 3,500 years ago, by ancient inhabitants of a fertile agricultural valley near the modern village of Noceto in the Parma province.

Since it was discovered 17 years ago, there has been speculation about who built the Noceto Vasca Votiva and why. Now that researchers know when it was constructed, they are closer to answering these questions than ever before and have just published their findings in the journal PLOS One .

The Discovery of the Remarkable Noceto Vasca Votiva

Archaeologists found the Noceto Vasca Votiva during excavations that took place in 2004 and 2005. The site where it was unearthed in Italy’s Po Valley produced a prodigious collection of artifacts from ancient times, including pottery, figurines, wooden tools, and organic materials such as seeds, dried fruits, and animal bones .

Some of the Bronze Age vessels and wooden items, deposited in the upper tank at Noceto

Some of the Bronze Age vessels and wooden items, deposited in the upper tank at Noceto (in situ). (© 2021 Cremaschi et al./ PLoS ONE )

But the Noceto Vasca Votiva was the most intriguing discovery by far. It was an artificial basin constructed entirely from wood, its size and shape reminiscent of a backyard swimming pool . The rectangular holding tank measured 40 feet (12 meters) long by 23 feet (seven meters) wide by 13 feet (four meters) deep. Its sides were made from oak paneling, reinforced and supported by solid oak beams that formed horizontal, vertical, and crisscrossing patterns up the sides and across the basin floor.

The structure was installed on top of a small hill on the southern edge of the Po Valley. The monument was apparently used for a just a few decades, before being abandoned for reasons unknown. Despite its obvious antiquity, the Noceto Vasca Votiva was largely intact and relatively easy to salvage. This is a testament to the high quality of the wood that was used to make it.

Ten years after the initial discovery, archaeologists exploring further were astonished and delighted to find the remains of another tank below the top section. This lower tank had collapsed, and the upper tank had been built directly on top of it, obscuring its presence. Apparently, the builders had learned from their mistakes the second time around, adding multiple oak support beams that ensure the upper tank would last indefinitely.

Details of the basal network of beams from the lower tank at Noceto

Details of the basal network of beams from the lower tank at Noceto. (© 2021 Cremaschi et al./ PLoS ONE )

The Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory Comes to the Rescue

From the beginning, the Italian archaeologists who found the in-ground monument were convinced it had been used for some type of ritual purpose. They had no way to prove this, however, since they couldn’t date the tanks to a specific time period. With that information in hand, it would be much easier to make an informed guess about how the prehistoric water tanks had been used.

Seeking an exact date of construction, or something close to it, the Italian researchers contacted the experts at the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory to ask for assistance.  

The innovative Cornell laboratory is led by Sturt Manning, a professor of arts and sciences affiliated with the Cornell Classics department. His team was eager to join the project, convinced they could produce the precise results their Italian colleagues were seeking.

To obtain these results, they used a form of radiocarbon dating they invented called “wiggle-matching.” Their technique is essentially a sophisticated form of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), which compares readings taken from wooden artifacts with radiocarbon tree-ring data collected from ancient trees and wooden artifacts found around the world. The results obtained through this methodology are accurate to a 95 percent probability, which makes nearly exact dating possible.

In this instance, the Cornell researchers used radiocarbon tree-ring data collected in North America, Ireland, and Germany to create a dating record spanning a period of several hundred years. Within that timeframe, they were able to date the construction of the lower and upper tanks of the Noceto Vasca Votiva to the years 1444 BC and 1432 BC respectively. The ‘wiggle-matching’ method developed at the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory is impressively accurate, and in this instance the margin of error for these specific dates is just four years.

Overhead photogrammetric plan image of the upper tank at Noceto.

Overhead photogrammetric plan image of the upper tank at Noceto. (© 2021 Cremaschi et al./ PLoS ONE )

Why Was the Noceto Vasca Votiva Built? A Possible Explanation

The basin was constructed at a time when prehistoric Italy was going through a period of rapid societal and cultural change.

Populations were expanding and living in a more concentrated fashion. As the material needs of settlements grew, trade networks were beginning to form across longer distances. The world of prehistoric Italy was becoming more urbanized in its scale and outlook.

“You’ve had one way of life in operation for hundreds of years, and then you seem to have a switch to fewer, larger settlements, more international trade, more specialization, such as textile manufacture, and a change in burial practices,” Sturt Manning told the Cornell Chronicle .

He believes these changes may have had something to do with why Noceto Vasca Votiva was constructed.

“There is something of a pattern all around the world,” he explained. “Nearly every time there’s a major change in social organization, there tends often to be an episode of building what might be described as unnecessary monuments … Stonehenge marks a major change in southern England. Noceto is not the scale of Stonehenge, but it has some similarities – an act of major place-making.”

During tumultuous times, when traditional ways are being uprooted, the population might feel great motivation to hold onto to something solid and timeless. Something spiritual in nature, that can unite people across generations regardless of any lifestyle changes that might occur. A force capable of granting favor and of assuring good fortune during a time of stressful transition.

The characteristics of Noceto Vasca Votiva support the assertion that it was used for ritual rather than practical purposes. It was too far from the center of the local settlement to have been used as a source of drinking or bathing water. It had no channels or outlets for irrigation, at a time when irrigation systems were being built everywhere.

Most revealing of all, many of the artifacts found at the site, including many ceramic pottery pieces, organic food remains, figurines, and small personal items made from stone or wood, were found inside the large water tank. This shows they were deliberately put there, presumably by individuals seeking blessings from a higher power.

“It’s tempting to think it was about creating a reflective surface that you can see into, and where you put some offerings, but you’re also looking at the sky above and the linking of land, sky and water (rain),” Manning said.

At that time, the climate in Italy had become increasingly arid. In response, people in the region had built extensive irrigation and water management systems to keep their crops growing and prevent their culture from collapsing. In these circumstances, divine assistance from the powerful spirits of nature would have been most welcome, the blessings of the spirits of the water would have been especially coveted.

Top image: Excavation of the prehistoric water tank found at Noceto.      Source: Italian Ministry of Culture / Cornell / PLoS ONE

By Nathan Falde

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