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Italy has always suspected that there was at least a third Caligula Nemi Ship that Mussolini missed – Nemi Mayor Alberto Bertucci told the Times of London, “We know from documents from the 15th century that one of the boats went down in an area of the lake different to where the other two were found during the Fascist era.”

Unfortunately all subsequent attempts and endeavours to uncover any evidence of further Nemi Ships proved, to this day, unsuccessful.

It is exactly this kind of myth and legend that gets the juices of our research team flowing at Merlin Burrows. Lead by our Head of Research (Including valuable support and input from Digby Stevenson – Research Archaeologist and Alumnus of University College London) investigations and scans were carried out – once again using our advanced technologies and research methods – to answer the question around the Caligula Nemi Ship story and the existence of additional ships.

So, as you can imagine, we are pleased to announce that our Head of Research here at Merlin Burrows is confident that not only a third (200ft in length) but an additional fourth (100ft in length) Nemi Ship rests on the bed of the lake (Lago de Nemi, Italy). Obviously, we are withholding the exact, pin-point locations until the proper authorities have agreed any further works.

Our scans also indicate that it is likely that there are many culturally important finds amongst the timbers of these relatively intact ship hulls. Taking everything into account, including the very well documented history, chronicles and records about Caligula’s obsession and ambition that inspired the construction of these unique vessels, the economic impact to the Nemi region and Italy’s national heritage as a whole will be significant.


The first ship recovered, was referred to as the “Prima Nave” and was 70 meters (230 feet) long with a beam (width) of 20 meters (66 feet). The hull was divided into three “active” or main sections. The general shape of the hull appears wider at the stern and narrower at the bow; in fact, the main section is not amidships but is displaced towards the stern. The superstructures appear to have been made of two main blocks of two buildings each, connected by stairs and corridors, built on raised parts of the deck at either end. This distribution gives the ship an unusual look and has no similarity to any other known ancient construction.

In March 1929, the first ship emerged, revealing a tapered round beam nearly twelve meters long capped at the wide end by a bronze collar in the shape of a lion’s head holding a mooring ring in its mouth, as well as a wolf’s head, also holding a ring.

By September 1929, the entire hull had been revealed and fitted to a large supporting cradle by which it could be moved along a series of rails to the shore. By then, the water level had been lowered by more than fifteen meters and a portion of the second ship was revealed, showing long beams protruding from the sides, which led to speculation about the positioning of oars on Roman ships. In some galleys, the oars did not pivot from the sides of the ship but from a projecting frame (apostis) that extended over the water. By mounting the tholes or oarlocks outside the hull, there was a more efficient platform from which to pull the oars and greater leverage for longer ones. The additional space also allows rowers to sit in two or more banks on each side of the vessel. The prima nave was recovered with an apostis on either side of the ship and presumably had at least one bank of oars. The smaller second ship did not have apostis and was therefore considered unpowered.


The second, rather larger ship, recorded as the “Seconda Nave” measured some 73 meters (240 feet) in length and with a beam of 24 meters (79 feet) and was an oared galley, with an unexpected oar arrangement. The superstructure appears to have been made with a main section amidships, a heavy building at the stern and a smaller one at the prow. Although nothing remains of the stern and prow buildings, their existence is indicated by the shorter spacing of the deck supporting cross beams and distribution of ballast. The arrangement of the Seconda Nave superstructures is comparable to that of the shrines depicted on an Isian lamp held by the Museum of Ostia. If not coincidental, then this is further evidence of Caligula worshiping the goddess Isis as well as Diana.

The discovery of the second vessel created great excitement which resulted in the pumps being stopped and the hull starting to dry out, requiring it to be quickly re-submerged. Having considered the problem and using powerful pumps and water scooping machines, the workers again lowered the level of the lake and by 10th June 1931, they had recovered the first ship and the second had been exposed. A London Times story reported that everyone on the site cheered as the waters receded to reveal the first Nemi ship. After nearly 1,900 years at the bottom of Lake Nemi, the ships were again bathed in the sunlight and caressed by the waves. During June 1931, the second ship that had emerged was threatened by the shifting lake bottom and rising water, which again surrounded the hull. After seven months the pumps were restarted and the ship again re-emerged from the protective mud, only to dry, much too quickly and begins to warp and crack.

The solution was found using the same methods that preserved the wood of the Viking long ships in Oslo, where the wood was treated with steam and a water bath and then saturated with a vegetable tar diluted in solvent.

Pumping the waters of Lake Nemi resumed on 28th March 1932, and the second ship was recovered, using the same method as the first, in October 1932. The complete hulls of the Nemi ships and their contents were now recovered as well as items found scattered around the ships, including bronze and marble ornaments, tiles and utensils. On close examination it was discovered that both ships had been sheathed in three layers of Leadville sheeting (a by-product of silver smelting), paint and tarred wool which protected their hulls. On February 19, 1932, the Navy Ministry, which had been a partner in the recovery, petitioned the Prime Minister to resume the project. Joining with the Ministry of Education they received permission to take over responsibility and pumping to drain the lake recommenced on March 28.

The Italian government built a museum called the Lake Nemi Museum over both ships in 1935 and it opened in January 1936.

Less than a decade after being uncovered, however, the two ships were effectively destroyed towards the end of World War II. There is much disagreement over which of the warring nations caused the fire that consumed the ancient vessels. Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party had thrown their fortunes and those of their country behind the Nazis in World War II, but by 1944 the tides of war had turned in favour of the Allies. The Italians, who had always been reluctant members of the Axis powers, deposed Mussolini from his dictatorship of the country and Italy surrendered and moved their military might to join the Allied side. The Allied forces advanced north into Italy, striving to hold a line from Monte Casino eastward through the Alban Hills near Lake Nemi. On the 31st May 1944, Allied planes and artillery units bombarded a German anti-aircraft battery stationed near the Lake Nemi Museum. Some shells struck the Lake Nemi Museum, but they didn’t cause much damage. Then a few hours later, smoke rose from the Museum buildings, quickly followed by flames and the two ships were burnt to ashes, although the museum’s concrete structure suffered little damage.

Later in 1944, the Italian Government filed an official report in Rome, charging that German soldiers had deliberately burned the Nemi Ships. German newspaper stories, in response, blamed the flames on American artillery fire. The Museum keepers later swore that the Nazi troops had ordered them out of the buildings and the consensus of opinion was that the retreating Nazis set fire to the two ships as an act of wanton destruction and sheer spite. It was also discovered that during the German retreat, soldiers burned 80,000 books and manuscripts of the Royal Society of Naples as well as the two Nemi Ships.

Like the Emperor Caligula, the Italian dictator Mussolini died violently at the hands of his countrymen on 28th April 1945. The Museo delle Navi Romane at Nemi, Italy, which was built by Mussolini to house the ships, now holds some remaining artifacts and documentation and the Lake Nemi Museum was restored and reopened in 1953.

Photographs, drawings from the Italian Navy survey, and drawings of archaeologist G. Gatti also survived the fire, allowing artists and architects to make reconstructions of the two ships. The spaces that once held the two immense Nemi Ships are now filled by one-fifth scale models built in the naval dockyard near Naples, and bronzes and other artifacts that survived the fire.

When Caligula had the Nemi Ships built, with it he established a lavish, historic, and trailblazing legacy for these fantastic ships, and their story and survival have fulfilled that legacy.