The Stone Dolphin from the Roman Port of Pola: Protector of Mariners and Guide to the Afterlife

On the Significance of Antiquity Ports and the Role of Pula

Roman ports (portus) were strategic hubs of economic activity that linked the mainland territories with the open sea. There are a number of aspects in which the importance of antiquity ports is evident. Among the critical attributes are the geographic, societal and economic significance of the ports. Also relevant are the decisive topographic factors that impacted planning and siting (location) ahead of port construction. These are determined by the favourable geographic locations of havens on navigation routes—and we find these in abundance along the shores of the Istrian peninsula. In this context the bay at Pula is one of the better-protected natural inlets on the Adriatic coast, offering protection from winds blowing from the south, southwest and northeast. During the Roman period it was a site at which mariners, along with work related to commercial activity—including administrative and legal affairs, could also undertake repairs to seafaring vessels or address issues related to navigation.

The success of port operations was contingent on economic and commercial factors. Good road connections between commercial hubs (cities/ports) and the ager had to be provided if a stable economy was to be achieved.

It is evident that all of the above cited factors were influential in the siting and development of all the major ports, including those on the eastern shores of the Adriatic such as Dyrachium, Epidaurus, Narona, Salona, Jader, Pola, Tergeste, Aquileia and Ravenna. The Augustan reorganisation of the empire, which saw Istria incorporated into the Regio X Venetia et Histria, was followed by the construction of a network of major ports in the

northern Adriatic.

The port at Pula draws its origins back into prehistory thanks to its strategic position and a source of fresh water just north of the maritime zone, and it was likely a destination of watercrafts such as the fast rowing boat from Zambratija. In his work Geographica from the first century BCE Strabo offers the first insight into the port at Pula, writing that it is “situated in a harbour-like gulf which has isles with good mooring-places and with fruitful soil.”

On the whole the construction of ports in antiquity was a costly outlay dictated by the open market, policy and economic reality, and at times by its military and political significance. Construction of ports was regulated under the law, with various societal institutions playing a major role. During the republican period, and even in the subsequent imperial era, investment into public structures, which included building ports, saw construction often sourced out to private contractors (redemptores) by the censors or aediles, with a locatio conducto contract stipulating the obligations of the parties involved.

From the societal aspect the port was a point of intersection of diverse cultures with the objective of exchanging commercial goods or the export and distribution of regional products, something particularly evident in the case of the artefacts in the archaeological layers of the port at Pula.

The ports of the Roman world, however, were also sites of a species of architectural stage design in which the citizens and the municipal administration invested into the appearance of the buildings. They were often linked with a forum and could be graced with porticos with colonnades and sculptures of deities personifying the sea. Marine deities such as Poseidon, Nereus, Triton, Glaucus or the Nereids (sea nymphs), the best known of which are Amphitrite and Thetis, were worshiped by seamen, fishermen and traders who appealed to them for salvation, whether in seafaring or in the transition of the spirit to the land of the dead.

Section of the altar mensa from the portico of the Forum in Pula depicting Triton with an anchor in the company of a dolphin,

1st Century, Archaeological Museum of Istria

The Stone Dolphin from the Roman Port of Pola

We do not currently have epigraphic evidence of the building of the port at Pula, which most likely acquired its architectural form at the height of the construction of the colonial city of Iulia Pola Pollentia Herculanea at the end of the late republican period (from 47 to 44 BCE), and most of the data pertaining to the port structures, their appearance, the daily life of the seamen, the tradespeople and the inhabitants of antiquity period Pula, and regarding maritime navigation and the types of ships used, has been collected in the course of rescue archaeology excavations conducted in 2012 and 2013 in Pula’s Flaciusova Street area.

In early 2013 the remains of wooden boats were discovered beneath the present day road. A few months later this was the site of the excavation of two Roman sewn boats, built using a technique characteristic of the north Adriatic sphere. The boats were named Pula 1 and Pula 2 and have been dated to the period from the late second to early third century.

The excavations showed that the boats were located at the top of the harbour, likely a haven situated during the Roman period in the southeast end of the bay. Over the following centuries the layers were covered by deposits of alluvial sediment from the Prato Grande or Pragrande creek at the south and east perimeters of the city. As a result of glacioeustatic and hydrological processes, and human activity in the past, this area is now about 160 metres from the current shoreline.

In the archaeological layers of Roman ports like the one at Pula we most often recover material that was inadvertently or deliberately jettisoned into the sea. These finds offer insight into the port’s appearance and time of use, provide data on seafaring and commercial contacts, and help us interpret the everyday habits of the denizens of antiquity period cities.

One such find is an interesting stone sculpture of a dolphin, on exhibit in the Window to the Past series. The sculpture is likely from an unidentified artistic composition that graced the port architecture. Although no direct evidence was found on the sculpture that would confirm that it was part of a larger composition, its form and the position of the body lead us to hypothesise that it was to be interpolated alongside a statue. The dolphin may have stood in a vertical position, head down, with its tail abutting the leg of a statue of a marine deity or nymph.

The dolphin is done in limestone, with visible traces of carving. The presence of date shells (Litophaga litophaga) on the side of the body and the growth of European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis) on the tail and pectoral flipper area indicate that part of one side of the sculpture, after it fell into the sea, projected out of the seabed. For a brief period this side was evidently exposed to marine activity and shellfish that were established on the sculpture. Thanks to the silt that covered the find in later periods in which the port was active, the dolphin has been preserved almost entirely intact and in good condition. Based on other finds recovered from archaeological layer SU 03 the sculpture has been dated from the late second century.

Reconstruction of a composition with a dolphin, drawing: Ivo Juričić

Sculpture of Venus, Roman, 2nd Cent. (The Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Dolphin Symbolism in Antiquity

The dolphin was one of the popular figures in Greek and Roman art. It was depicted in numerous mythological tales, and was associated with water and transformation. The transformation symbolism is associated with the legends in Greek mythology that are described in Homer’s hymns from the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. This is the myth that recounts an episode in which pirates seized Dionysus with the intention of selling him into slavery. To punish his captors Dionysus turned into a lion and the terrified pirates jumped into the sea. The merciful Dionysus turned the pirates into dolphins and from that day forward, as an act of redemption, dolphins accompany ships at sea and assist the shipwrecked in distress. Dolphins are thus associated with seafaring and are usually depicted as companions of marine deities that assisted seamen and ships.

Among the Homeric hymns is one that tells the story of the god Apollo turning into a dolphin in order to help ships find harbour. In legend we hear of Apollo’s son Eikadios, who was shipwrecked and helped ashore by a dolphin.

Pliny the Elder recounts a lovely tale in which the protagonist is a Roman boy that found a companion in a dolphin. The story tells of a boy that had to cross a bay to get to school and that befriended a dolphin that helped him make the crossing.

There are frequent depictions in antiquity of a person or an Erote riding a dolphin. This was based on the belief that dolphins represented a link between the land of the living and the land of the dead, and between the domains of the deities and humans, and that they carried the deceased on their backs into the afterlife.

Detail of a mosaic in Ostia (Piazzale delle Corporazioni), 2nd Century,

photo: Ida Koncani Uhač




Description: Stone sculpture of a dolphin with a prominent head and expressive almond-shaped eyes. The pectoral flippers, one to each side, are done in low relief at the lower end of the head, extending from the area of the closed rostrum. A small section of the dorsal fin is preserved. The peduncle/flukes are done as a spiral and sculpted in clearly visible low relief. The entire sculpture has a gently curved form. Traces of carving are visible on the sculpture. One side of the body of the dolphin sculpture has been degraded by marine activity, with remains of mollusc shells present. Inv. No.: PV-2001 A.

Material(s)/technique: limestone, sculpted

Dimensions: length 66 cm, width 23.5 cm

Site/find date: Flaciusova Street - boat 2013, 16 July 2013, SU 03





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The Stone Dolphin from the Roman Port of Pola:

Protector of Mariners and Guide to the Afterlife


Carrarina ul. 4, Pula 

Window to the Past

2.10. - 3.12.2018.

Exhibition and text author by: 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

Drawing: Ivo Juričić

Photographers: Tanja Draškić Savić, Ida Koncani Uhač

Restoration of the sculpture: Andrea Sardoz

Exhibition coordinator: Monika Petrović

Translation in Italian: Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation: Neven Ferenčić

Proofs: Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović, Irena Buršić

Print: MPS Pula

Print run: 700

Pula, 2018.

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