FIZINE IN ROMAN TIMES: Insights from the Archaeological Study of Slovenian Istria
The rural area of Slovenian Istria, along with the Coast, was densely populated and integrated into the social and economic networks of Italy and the entire Roman Empire during antiquity. Broadly speaking, it lies in an extremely important area of the northern Adriatic, where numerous maritime and land routes intersected. Specifically, the region fell under the territory of Tergeste (ancient Trieste). It was divided into several land estates dedicated to the cultivation of grain, wine, garum (fish sauce), and olive oil. The coastal areas were particularly vibrant, with luxurious villas (known as maritime villas) featuring private ports and numerous economic buildings that provided comfortable living for the estate owner or administrator.
The influx of Roman colonizers in the 1st century BC following the Istrian Wars profoundly impacted the local population and ushered in cultural, religious, architectural, craft, and fashion influences. These newcomers, comprising affluent members of Roman society, injected capital into the region and contributed to its economic prosperity. They established economic complexes in strategic locations such as Jernej Bay, Simon Bay, Fizine near Portorož, and Fornače, engaging in extensive trade activities that encompassed goods sourced from across the Empire alongside land cultivation and exploitation of the sea.
Fizine (the Roman settlement Ad Figulinas) is believed to have had one of the calmest anchorages on the Istrian coast during Roman times. It housed a small settlement with a fish farm, docks, and a coastline arranged for the mooring of merchant ships. The assumption that a Roman settlement was located here dates back to the 19th century. The first archaeological excavations were carried out by the team of the Maritime Museum of Piran in 1963 and 1964. In addition to the underwater walls of Roman architecture, several fragments of amphorae and other ceramic vessels were discovered. Subsequent investigations in 1984, 2004, and 2005 corroborated the existence of a fish farm, docks, and a harbor structure located just a few meters from the present-day coast. Additionally, rescue excavations preceding the construction of a gas station in 1998 revealed that the harbor settlement extended uphill from the bay, with artifacts characteristic of port settlements discovered, such as cast bronze shipbuilding nails, spikes, and clay weights used for fishing nets. The settlement, established in the 1st century BC, reached its zenith in the 4th and first half of the 5th century. However, by the 6th century, it experienced a decline while witnessing the construction of early Christian sacred structures atop the remnants of other coastal settlements.
RESEARCH IN 2017-2018
To further enhance our understanding of the Roman period in this area, a comprehensive underwater archaeological study was conducted by the Underwater Archaeological Consortium in 2017 and 2018, as part of the pier’s overall renovation project, led by the Faculty of Maritime Studies and Transport at the University of Ljubljana. Prior surveys yielded intriguing findings, including the discovery of a well-preserved wooden post measuring approximately one and a half meters. Radiocarbon dating placed it in the late 3rd or 4th century, aligning with the peak period of the Ad Figulinas harbor settlement. It was notable that the wooden post had been repurposed as one of the stakes to which boats were secured, as anchoring with traditional anchors was not feasible due to the region’s muddy seabed.
Excavations following the surveys in late 2018 unveiled two additional stakes used for boat mooring. Furthermore, various artifacts indicative of port contexts were unearthed, predominantly located in sediments at depths ranging from 0.8 to 1.1 meters beneath the present seabed. Of particular significance was the discovery of an almost completely preserved amphora from the 4th century, originating from North Africa, underscoring the far-reaching trade networks that connected Ad Figulinas to distant regions. Additionally, the unearthing of tubi fittili—Roman architectural elements associated with arched ceilings—likely imported from North Africa.
Towards the southeastern part of the excavation area, a substantial concentration of various stones, construction debris, and household waste was identified. This assemblage extended beyond the excavation boundaries, manifesting as an anomaly in an otherwise homogeneous muddy seabed. The presence of these artifacts suggests that the settlement located uphill above the coast was associated with the harbor, further solidifying the relationship between the two.
RESEARCH IN 2021
Underwater archaeological excavations for the purpose of the broader pier construction and aquatorium development continued to autumn 2021. The Underwater Archaeological Consortium has once again brought together a team of archaeologists and underwater research experts from the Institute of Underwater Archaeology, STIK Group, Department of Archaeology at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, CPA Ltd., Avgust Ltd., and this year, the Consortium has also welcomed the participation of the Center for Preventive Archaeology from the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia.
The ongoing research is poised to make significant contributions to our understanding of the port complex and fish farming practices in Fizine, shedding further light on the historical knowledge of Slovenian Istria and the Coast during the 1st century BC and the Late Roman period. The findings from these research endeavors will be showcased in part at the eagerly anticipated exhibition, “Secrets of Fizine,” which is being collaboratively organized with the Maritime Museum “Sergej Mašera” Piran. For a glimpse of what is in store, a preview of the exhibition under the same title is already available for viewing at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_6g71VXcIw&t=56s.