Coal Miners Discover Ancient Roman Boat in Serbia

Measuring nearly 43 feet long, the ship’s remains were found near the bustling Roman city of Viminacium

Miomir Korac
Miomir Korac, the lead archaeologist working on the newly unearthed ship DPA / Picture Alliance via Getty Images

For the second time since 2020, coal miners in Serbia have stumbled upon an ancient Roman boat. 

The boat’s exact age is still unknown—but based on previous finds, researchers think it could date to around the third or fourth century C.E., lead archaeologist Miomir Korac tells Aleksandar Vasovic of Reuters

Back then, a bustling Roman city called Viminacium sat not far from the Danube River, some 45 miles east of Belgrade. Today, the surrounding area is a rich archaeological site: Researchers have been working there since the first excavations began in the 1880s, according to the Viminacium archaeological park’s website. Once the ship is fully excavated, researchers hope to display it alongside other artifacts found at Viminacium.

Removing it, however, will take some doing. 

“Our engineer friends ... will prepare a special structure that will be lifted by a crane, and ... the entire process of gradual conservation will follow,” Mladen Jovicic, a member of the archaeological team working on the ship, tells Reuters.

Miners uncovered the first traces of the ship last month. They alerted archaeologists, who began careful excavations. Moisture in the wood and surrounding sand had helped preserve the remains, which measure nearly 43 feet long (though the ship was likely longer in its day). “A great danger was the strong sun that threatened to dry out the ship too quickly,” a spokesperson tells Maja Miljević-Đajić of the Serbian publication Sve o arheologiji, per Google Translate. Keeping the wood wet during the dig became a priority.

At the height of its dominance, the vast Roman Empire was divided into provinces with capitals and governors. The ancient city of Viminacium was the capital of the Moesia Superior province. The archaeological team theorizes that the boat once sailed on a tributary that connected the Danube River to Viminacium, which had a population of some 45,000 residents. 

A similar incident took place in 2020, when Serbian miners accidentally unearthed the remains of three ships in the area. In that case, mining equipment caused extensive damage to the discovery. 

“Approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of the ship was damaged,” Korac told Kiona N. Smith of Ars Technica at the time. “But the archaeological team collected all the parts, and we should be able to reconstruct it almost in full.” 

Those vessels showed no damage from battle or fire, leaving archaeologists with many unanswered questions about what happened to them. One possibility is that they “were either abandoned or evacuated. They did not sink suddenly with cargo,” Korac added. “If these happened during the barbarian invasion and withdrawal of Roman troops, the ship could be abandoned and sunken in order not to fall into the hands of the enemy.”

Many more discoveries await researchers in coming years. According to Reuters, archaeologists estimate they have only combed through 5 percent of Viminacium so far. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.