The Consorzio Venezia Nuova (CVN)--the consortium responsible for safeguarding Venice--often finds itself repairing damage caused by the earlier Venetians homemade protection efforts.

For instance, the 16th-century inhabitants diverted rivers to the Adriatic to prevent the lagoon from silting up. But the silt feeds the sand and mud banks on which the city stands, and without the inflow of sediment the city gradually began to sink. To counter this, the CVN is planting eelgrass on the regions salt marshes to consolidate them against erosion. So far the engineering group has reconstructed 400 hectares of marsh, half of the target. During the reconstruction, workers discovered 17 abandoned dams, made in desperation by early Venetians from bauxite waste. The CVN had to quickly construct waterproof barriers around the dams to protect the lagoon from pollution.

The CVNs most intriguing find, made during a submarine survey in 1996, was a 14th-century galley. The galley was submerged intact beside the sunken island of San Marco in Boccalama. In June 2001 the CVN, in collaboration with NAUSICAA (the Veneto Superintendency for Archeology), began work to expose the galley and a rascona, another cargo boat that was found at the site. Excavators surrounded the island with sheet piling and pumped water away from the region, revealing the immersed treasures.

Archeologists had first rediscovered the lost island, which housed an Augustinian monastery, in the 1960s. Current Venetians may well sympathize with the plight of the monks--a document from around 1328 from Prior Nicholas to the Senate calls for government help against the rising sea. The monks were sent the 125-foot galley and the 79-foot rascona, which they filled with ballast and sunk in a frantic attempt to raise the islands banks. Ironically, although the sunken ships helped relieve the monks predicament for a few years, this action may have helped preserve the vessels themselves over the long term--for the past seven centuries. The San Marco galley, for example, is the only surviving boat of its kind in the world.

Historians believe that the monks abandoned the island soon after the ships were sunk, and the monastery was then used as a mass grave for victims of the 1348 plague epidemic before being completely covered by the rising lagoon in the 16th century. Sure enough, excavators, plowing the site for more relics, began to find a number of skulls of the gente piccola, or "minor folk." But no sooner was it opened than the window into Venices gruesome past was closed again. The island and the ships were resubmerged in October 2001 to protect the wood from air and sunlight until a proper salvage operation, which has not yet been scheduled, can be mounted. The galley will then be moved to Venices nautical museum. Until then, the lost island serves as an eerie warning of what may lie in store for Venice. --Zeeya Merali

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