Drop Anchor! Antiquity Period Anchors from the Holdings of the Archaeological Museum of Istria

Stone Anchors

The anchor is a device cast from a ship or boat with the purpose of digging into the seabed with its weight and stabilising a vessel in order to prevent it from being moved by winds, waves, and marine currents.

The anchor was developed to complement the invention of watercraft and it was and remains an essential part of a ship’s equipment. During the earliest phases of navigation, it took the form of a stone used to moor a boat, which was later shaped and hollowed such that a rope could be tied off to it. Early marine navigation—which saw vessels moving primarily along coastal routes—had sailors use baskets filled with stone for anchorage.

Funerary models of ancient Egyptian ships, equipped with stakes and papyrus rope, offer a vivid image of prehistoric anchoring practices.

We find written mentions of the earliest form of the anchor (Greek eune)—a carved stone attached by a cord of animal or plant material (Fig. 1, 1)—in Homer’s Iliad (Il. I, 436; XIV, 77) and in his Odyssey (Od. IX, 136; Od. XV, 498), from the 8th to 6th c. BCE period.

In Odysseus’ adventures on the seas, the anchor is mentioned in the following verses.

“[A]nd in it, too, is a harbor giving safe anchorage, where there is no need of moorings, either to throw out anchor-stones or to make fast stern cables, but one may beach one’s ship and wait until the sailors’ minds bid them put out, and the breezes blow fair.”
(Od. IX, 136, from: Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH. D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919)

“[…] [D]rawing near the shore, furled the sail, and took down the mast quickly, and rowed the ship to her anchorage with their oars. Then they cast out the mooring-stones and made fast the stern cables […]”
(Od. XV, 496, from: Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919)

The stone anchor is also mentioned by the Alexandrian poet Apollonius of Rhodes (3rd c. BCE) in his Argonautica (Arg. I, 955) and by Oppian of Anazarbus (2nd c.) in his Halieutica.

The further evolution of the anchor, following the simple stone, saw the development of irregular ovoid, cuboid, and conical forms, with perforations through which a cord could be tied. A stone anchor with such a hole is mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th c. BCE.

Fig. 1 Diagram showing the development of stone and stone-and-wood anchors. Nos. 1 through 7, 10 and 11 are archaeological and ethnological artefacts, no. 8 shows the possible appearance of an anchor, and no. 9 is a reconstructed stone-and-wood anchor (from: Kapitän 1984, 35).

We see a depiction of a perforated stone anchor in a figural scene on a jug from Cyprus dated to the 8th/7th c. BCE (Fig. 2). The scene shows an anchor deployed from the prow of a vessel using a long pole, the opposite end of which likely had a counterweight for balance at the stern (Fig. 3). The weight of such an anchor would have slowed the vessel, but would not have held it in place.



Fig. 2 A painted pottery jug from the Karpas peninsula in the northeast of Cyprus (750–600 BCE) with an anchoring scene. British Museum (source: www.marine-antique.net/Pichet-chypriote-2-1066).




Fig. 3 A Detail from the Cypriot pottery jug showing a sailor and anchor (8th c. BCE), British Museum (from: Votruba 2019, 223).




Stone-and-Wood Anchors

From stone anchors with a single hole, we see the development of stone-and-wood anchors of trapezoidal or rectangular form with at least three holes into which pointed branches or other wooden elements were inserted with the objective of achieving better anchoring to the seabed (Fig. 1, 5).

These are the first anchor forms that allowed for embedding and “hooking” into the seabed (Fig. 5).

This type of stone-and-wood anchor was broadly prevalent across the whole of the Mediterranean during the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE.

Various forms of stone anchors have been found, primarily in the eastern Mediterranean; in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Crete (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 A 14th c. BCE Phoenician wreck at the Uluburun site (Turkey) carried stone anchors as part of its cargo (from: Pulak 2008, 306).



Fig. 5 This anchor type was broadly prevalent; the inserted wooden elements provided for better “hooking” into the seabed (from: Avilia 2009, 17).




Fig. 6 The Zambratija boat is the oldest known sewn boat in the Mediterranean, dated to the period of the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age (photo by: Ph. Groscaux).




The materials and forms of anchors have gradually changed, i.e., developed over the centuries, and these stone anchors are considered the forerunners to our present day anchors. They have been used since prehistoric times when people used monoxylons, from which the sewn boats were developed, like the one discovered at the Zambratija cove site near Umag, dated to the 12th to 10th c. BCE (Fig. 6).

Stone-and-wood anchors were used in the Bronze Age, the Hellenistic period, and through the Roman period. And while the development of anchors remained abreast of the development of ships, the practice of employing stone-and-wood anchors was retained in places into the medieval period. At Mediterranean harbours, like those at Agde in the south of France, Apollonia in modern Israel, and at Palermo on Sicily, wooden spikes were preserved on anchors of this type dated to the 12th to 13th c. period.

Through the development of stone-and-wood anchors we also see the evolution of the use of long stones in the form of a beam that was attached to the wooden arms of an anchor (Fig. 1, 7–9). The stone beam had a groove along the middle (Fig. 7) where an arm of firm wood would be tied off. Initially there was one such branch, later there were two, forming one-armed and two-armed anchors with stone stocks.

Fig. 7 An anchor with a long stone found in 1967 along the western shore of the Fraškerić island near Pula at a depth of 25 m.




Stocked Anchors

The further development of anchors followed the development of Roman shipbuilding. Around the year 500 BCE stone-and-wood anchors were supplanted by stocked anchors. The use of lead, a soft metal, for the fabrication of parts of an anchor saw widespread use as it significantly sped up the process of making anchors; with its low melting point of 327.5 degrees C lead was easily shaped.

Stocked anchors consist of a lead stock, a wooden shank, wooden arms (often with metal reinforcement at the ends) and lead collars (Fig. 9).

Depending on the size of a ship the lead stock varied in size and weight. It gave the anchor most of its weight, and consisted of two equal arms, with a square opening at the middle through which the wooden shank was inserted, which was then joined to the lead stock by pouring lead. In the initial phases of the production of these anchors the stocks were fixed in place; later moveable types were developed.

The mark of the workshop at which they were cast, or of the craftsman (maker’s mark), or of the owner or commander of a ship, was often present on the stocks of anchors, and they often bore dedications to deities and apotropaic imagery (Fig. 10).

Astragali (Greek astrágalos, Latin talus), the “knuckle bones” of sheep or goats used as pieces in games of chance (Fig. 11) or in soothsaying, were among the favoured apotropaic symbols. Each of the four sides of an astragalus was assigned a numerical value. Based on the rules of a game the numbers on cast astragali denoted a winning or losing combination. The game involved casting four of these bones. The convex side was worth three points, the concave side four, while the two narrower sides were worth one and six points respectively. If all four cast pieces gave one point, this was referred to as the canis (dog) and was the worst throw one could make. A lucky cast of the pieces had all of the pieces fall on a different side. This was the iactus Veneris (Venus’ throw). Consequently, it was the iactus Veneris that was depicted on cast anchor stocks to ensure good luck at sea.

The present day form of the anchor is the result of the long history of the development of navigation, and the selection and use of the available materials for their fabrication.




Fig. 8 Ancient anchor elements (central shank and wooden arms affixed to the shank with treenails) found at the Caska cove on the island of Pag (source: https://gradskimuzejnovalja.hr/

Fig. 9 A reconstruction of a Roman period anchor (source: https://www.catawiki.com/en/l/43574231-ancient-roman-lead-anchor).





Fig. 10 A lead anchor stock with a depiction of astragali (source: https://museum.wales/media-dams/d3a8e5ec-f303-3b4f-8c22-191bff91084f/large/).




Fig. 11 A fresco showing a game of chance at an inn on the Via di Mercurio in Pompeii (from Muzeji svijeta: Pompeji i Herculaneum – život i umjetnost).




Anchor Symbolism

The symbolic significances of anchors, although a simple device, are fascinating and powerful, and found across diverse cultures and civilisations.

Given that the weight of the anchor holds a ship steady, it symbolises permanence, endurance, calmness and fidelity. In the Roman world the oxymoron festina lente, a Latin translation of a Greek proverb propagated from the time of the emperor Augustus, meaning “make haste slowly”, is associated with the image of a dolphin and anchor (Fig. 12, Fig. 13). What it denoted was the exercise of wisdom and thoughtfulness in making a quick decision.

In Christian iconography the anchor is associated with hope that remains in difficult moments. In his Epistle to the Hebrews Paul says of hope: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” (Hebrews 6:19, ESV Bible, 2001). Anchors as symbols of Christian affiliation were painted on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. In the iconography the anchor symbol is sometimes shown with the Roman pope Clement, who, as the legend has it, was tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea. The anchor symbol is also associated with Nicholas, the patron saint of children, travellers and mariners.

Fig. 12 A detail of the 2nd c. Punishment of Dirce mosaic pavement in Pula; photogrammetric image made by AGG d.o.o. Pula, Archive of the Archaeological Museum of Istria.

Fig. 13 An imperial Roman coin (79–81); Archaeological Museum of Istria (photo by: E. Trbojević).



Recovered Anchors at the Archaeological Museum of Istria

The holdings of the Archaeological Museum of Istria include a number of recovered stone and lead anchors. The oldest intact stone anchor was found in 1966 in the waters off the Stoja cape near Pula (Fig. 14). From the archives we learn that the anchor was found by Mr Čerin, a diver with the Underwater Activities Centre (CPA) in Pula, in the frame of an underwater archaeological survey performed for the museum by divers of Pula’s Uljanik diving club and the CPA. The anchor was discovered on 26 August 1966 as a discrete find at a depth of 15 m, and raised from the seabed.


Fig. 14 A stone anchor recovered in 1966 in the waters off the Stoja cape (Archaeological Museum of Istria).

Fig. 15 A lead anchor stock found in the course of recreational diving in the waters of Istra County (photo by: L. Lorencin).

The museum holdings also include stone-and-wood anchors with three holes, two of which were sockets into which wooden elements were inserted, and the third of which was used to tie off a cord. These are partial specimens taken from the waters off the Kaval cape near Kavran in the course of recreational diving in 2004, and an anchor recovered from the seabed of the Lim ria in 2009 in the course of an archaeological survey ahead of the installation of a gas pipeline between Vodnjan and Umag.

Another interesting find is that of a trapezoidal anchor with three holes recovered in the course of rescue archaeology supervision during the construction of the Fažana bypass in 2004.
An intact stone anchor was recently donated to the museum by diver Anton Prekalj of the Ugor diving club of Vrsar. He extracted the anchor in the course of recreational diving in the area between the Lunga islet and the cove facing Vrsar. This anchor is presented in this instalment of our Window to the Past.

The museum holdings also include a number of lead anchor parts; our Window to the Past presents a lead anchor stock and a lead collar recovered at unknown sites.

The anchors held at the Archaeological Museum of Istria constitute only a fraction of the anchors found in the waters of Istra County, with most kept in private collections, especially antiquity period lead anchor stocks.

Finds of these artefacts bear witness to anchorage sites and harbours, and to navigation zones at which incidents related to manoeuvring or inclement weather saw the loss of an anchor (Fig. 15).

The ideal archaeological situation is when the find of an anchor is accompanied by the discovery of a shipwreck or a ship’s cargo, as that provides context to the site, data on the port at which a vessel was loaded, the period in which it sank, and a hypothetical navigation route.
The recovered trapezoidal anchors with perforations kept at the Archaeological Museum of Istria were discrete finds, however their appearance points to the anchor forms used throughout the prehistoric period and also, likely, throughout the Roman period. The stone anchors held by the museum are made of limestone and sandstone, i.e., of stone of local origin, which indicates that they were made locally.

Finds of lead anchor stocks, due to the known archaeological data and the context of their use on Roman ships, present a clearer picture. They may indicate an anchorage site, a location at which an anchor was lost during an unsuccessful manoeuvre at sea, or a place where an anchor was accidently lost at sea.





I wish to thank my colleagues Silvana Petešić for providing the depiction of the Punishment of Dirce mosaic pavement, and Erika Trbojević for the data on coins with anchor imagery. Thanks also go to diver Anton Prekalj from the Ugor diving club from Vrsar.


1. Stone anchor
Description: Trapezoidal stone anchor with round perforation for a cord and two square perforations to receive inserted wooden elements. Partially covered by marine organisms.
Dimensions: height 31.5 cm, width 28.5 cm, thickness 6 cm, diameter of the cord hole 3.7 cm, square socket 1:
6.5 × 4.1 cm, square socket 2: 6 × 4 cm.
Inv. no.: PV-2090.
Findspot: the waters between the Lunga islet and Vrsar.
Material(s)/technique(s): limestone, carved.
Date: Bronze Age to Roman period.






2. Lead stock
Description: Lead anchor stock. Sporadic marine fouling.
Dimensions: overall length 86.5 cm, arm 1: length 37.5 cm, width 5–6 cm; arm 2: length 36 cm, width 4.5–6.5 cm; square socket: 11 × 15 cm.
Inv. no.: PV-2091 A.
Findspot: unknown.
Material(s)/technique(s): lead, cast.
Date: 1stC BCE–late 4thC.




3. Lead collar
Description: Lead anchor collar with oblique ends. Partially covered by marine organisms.
Dimensions: height 4 cm, width 43–34 cm, length 8 cm; inside gap overall: height 4 cm, width 6 cm, length 33 cm, divided into three gaps for the insertion of the shank and arms: outer gaps each 12 × 6 cm, central gap 9 × 6 cm.
Inv. no.: A-6581/b.
Findspot: unknown; recovered in the course of an underwater campaign of AMI and CPA.
Material(s)/technique(s): lead, cast.
Date: 1stC BCE–late 4thC.




4. Coin
Description: silver Roman denarius minted under Titus, diameter 1.8 cm, thickness 0.12 cm, weight 3.04 g.
AV: Bust right. Legend: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M. RV: In the field a dolphin coiled around an anchor. Legend: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P. Mint: Rome.
Inv. no.: N-909.
Findspot: unknown, pre-1996.
Material(s)/technique(s): silver, die-struck.
Date: last third of the 1stC/80 CE.





AVILIA, F. 2009. La Storia delle ancore, Milano.
Biblija. 2009. Kršćanska sadašnjost, Zagreb.
BASS, G. F. 1987. Oldest Known Shipwreck Reveals Bronze Age Splendors, National Geographic, Vol. 172, No. 6, December 1987, 693-733.
BULJAN, I. 1985. Sidra i lanci. Sidro, Pomorska enciklopedija, 7, 264.
CHEVALIER, K., GHEERBRANT, A. 1983. Rječnik simbola. Mitovi, sni, običaji, geste, oblici, likovi, boje, brojevi, Zagreb, 593-594.
FROST, H. 1963. From rope to chain: on the development of anchor sin the Mediterranean, The Mariner’s Mirror, 49.1, 1-20.
FROST, H. 1970. Bronze age Stone – Anchors from the Eastern Mediterranean: dating and identification, The Mariner’s Mirror, 56.4, 377-394.
GIANFROTTA, P. A. 1980. Ancore romane, Nuovi materiali per lo studio dei traffici marittimi, Memoirs of American Academy in Rome, XXXVI, 297-309.
HOMER, 2006. Ilijada, Odiseja, Zagreb.
KAPITÄN, G. 1984. Ancient anchors – technology and classification, International journal of Nautical Archaeology, 13, 1, 33-44.
KAPITÄN, G. 1989. Archaeological Evidence for Rituals and customs on Ancient Ships, Tropis I, Piraeus, 147-162.
KONCANI UHAČ, I., BOETTO, G., UHAČ, M. 2019. Zambratija - prapovijesni šivani brod. Rezultati istraživanja, analiza i studija, Monografije i katalozi, 33, Pula.
Leksikon ikonografije, liturgike i simbolike zapadnog kršćanstva (ur. A. Badurina). 2000. Kršćanska sadašnjost, Zagreb.
MLAKAR, Š. 1967. Privremeni inventar nalaza amfora i drugih predmeta CPA Pula, od 1. srpnja 1965 do 10. prosinca 1967. Arhiva Arheološkog muzeja Istre, Pula.
Muzeji svijeta : Pompeji i Herculaneum – život i umjetnost. 1983. Zagreb.
PULAK, C. 2008. The Uluburun shipwreck and late bronze age trade, u Beyond Babylon: Art, trade, and diplomacy in the second millennium BC, New York, 289-310.
SEAR, D. R. 1988. Roman Coins and Their Values, London.
VOTRUBA, G. F. 2019. Building upon Honor Frost’s Anchore – Stone Foundations, u In the Footsteps of Honor Frost. The life and legacy of a pioneer in maritime archaeology (ur. L. Blue), Leiden, 213-244.



Drop Anchor!
Antiquity Period Anchors from the Holdings of the Archaeological Museum of Istria

Carrarina 4, Pula
 Window to the Past
1. 2. 2022. - 1. 6. 2022.

 Exhibition and text author:
Ida Koncani Uhač

 Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:
Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design:
Vjeran Juhas

Philippe Groscaux, Vjeran Juhas, Ida Koncani Uhač, Lucio Lorencin, Erika Trbojević

Cleaning a lead anchor stock and collar:
Luana Brhanić

Exhibition coordinator:
Monika Petrović

Translation in Italian:
Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation:
Neven Ferenčić

Croatian language editor:
Milena Špigić

Irena Buršić, Adriana Gri Štorga, Ida Koncani Uhač,
Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović

Print: MPS Pula

 Print run: 500

 Pula, 2022.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.