Sea level changes since the Middle Ages along the coast of the Adriatic Sea:
The case of St. Nicholas Basilica, Bari, Southern Italy
, Fabrizio Antonioli
, Marco Anzidei
CNR- Research Institute for Geo-Hydrological Protection (IRPI), Via Amendola, 122/I, 70126 Bari, Italy
ENEA- National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Environment, Rome, Italy
Istituto Nazionale di Geoﬁsica e Vulcanologia, Rome, Italy
Available online 16 January 2012
During the last decade, several papers have been published to estimate the relative sea level change from
coastal archaeological indicators of the last 3.4 ka BP in many locations of the Italian coasts and the
Mediterranean Sea. The use of the archaeological information has been poorly focused for the Middle
Ages, due to the few available coastal installations for this period, thus not allowing precise sea level
estimation for the last 1000 years, to complement the instrumental data available for the last 100e120
years. This study discusses an archaeological marker of the Middle Ages, used to reconstruct the story of
the sea level changes in the last 1000 years, at the St. Nicholas Basilica, built in 1087 AD along the coast of
Bari (Apulia, southern Italy). The elevations of the ancient ﬂoor levels of the crypt underwent repeated
ﬂooding due to a continuous rising of the groundwater table, which required restoration and uplifting of
pavements between 1087 and 1956 to keep them dry. The palaeo-sea levels have been obtained by
measuring the position of the groundwater table, the elevation of which is mainly driven by sea level
since the time of the construction of the Basilica.
The elevation of the archaeological markers and the water table were compared against the latest
predicted sea level curve for the Holocene along the coast of Bari. As this coastal area is unaffected by
signiﬁcant vertical tectonic motion over the last 125 ky, the data detail the timing of the relative sea level
rise since the Middle Ages and can be used to improve the predicted sea level curve for this region for the
last 1000 years.
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Sea level change depends on the interactions of different factors
such as eustatic, glacio-hydrostatic, and tectonic activity (Peltier,
2004;Lambeck et al., 2011). While the ﬁrst is time and global
dependent, the other two are local factors in response to sediment
load, compaction and vertical land movements. During recent
decades, new sea level data for the last 2 ka based on archaeological
indicators have been published for the Mediterranean coasts,
which have abundant coastal settlements dated from the Bronze
Age (Sivan et al., 2004;Lambeck et al., 2004a,2004b,2010;
Antonioli et al., 2007, 2009). However, the paucity of indicators for
the Middle Age is apparent. A database that includes geomorpho-
logical markers of palaeo-sea level (fossils, notches, beach rocks,
speleothems, marine terraces), sedimentary core analyses, and
archaeological data, has been recently published (Lambeck et al.,
2011), providing the reconstruction of the predicted sea level
curves since the Last Glacial Maximum at 40 reference sites along
the Italian coasts. Moreover, the rates of vertical tectonic move-
ments have been estimated from the elevation of MIS 5.5 shoreline-
markers, and the eustatic and isostatic contribution has been
evaluated from ice sheet models and rheological parameters that
can be regionally variable (Ferranti and Oldow, 2005;Ferranti et al.,
2006;Cella et al., 2010;Antonioli et al., 2011).
Observations of sea level change along the coast include the age-
height of the archaeological structures whose positions relative to
coeval sea level can be established through direct observations. The
coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea have been largely settled
during the last 3 ka, and it is considered one of the best areas in the
world to study the amount of sea level changes from well-dated
coastal historical and archaeological structures, presently often
submerged (Auriemma and Solinas, 2009;Anzidei et al., 2011a,
Coastal settlements constructed in this region in antiquity
provide important insights into sea level changes during past
millennia. Unfortunately, despite the large number of archaeological
E-mail address: email@example.com (R. Pagliarulo).
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Quaternary International 288 (2013) 139e145
remains available in this region, onlya few sites can be used to obtain
precise information on their former relationship to sea level, espe-
cially for those sites built after the Roman age, as are those of the
Middle Ages. The Saint Nicholas Basilica was built on land in 1087,
along the coast of Bari. Due to its location, facing the sea, its foun-
dations have been repeatedly ﬂooded by the rising groundwater
table, induced by the retreating coast caused by continuous sea level
rise. As the Apulia region is considered tectonically stable, with an
absence of any signiﬁcant vertical crustal motion (Ferranti and
Oldow, 2005;Ferranti et al., 2010) the observed data can be inter-
preted as a continuous relative sea level rise that over time ﬂooded
the crypt of the Basilica. Soil compaction is excluded as a cause of
subsidence because the geological units consist of limestones and
cemented sandstones, thus characterized by good mechanical
This research is a contribution to calibrate and adjust the pre-
dicted values of relative sea level rise for the last 1000 years, and
aims at testing a new type of marker which differs from those
commonly used. In this paper, the depths of datedﬂoor levels in the
crypt of Saint Nicholas Basilica have been compared to the pre-
dicted sea level curve for this area. The repeated replacement of the
ﬂoors and their superimposition was a consequence of the
groundwater ﬂooding, with the water table hydraulically con-
nected with the sea, which has been continuously rising since the
Saint Nicholas Basilica was built (Cotecchia et al., 1983). Hence, to
determine sea level highstands since the beginning of the
construction of the Basilica is possible. This Basilica was built
between 1087 and 1197, to safeguard the Saint’s relics and is
imposing in the old town of Bari overlooking the Adriatic Sea
From the ﬁrst half of the past century until 1956, the crypt was
inaccessible. In 1957, grouting of the bedrock with a mixture of
water, cement, bentonite and “pozzolana”(volcanic tuffs) brought
to light the mosaics of the original ﬂoor (1087). The goal of this
paper is to use the ﬂoor levels as sea level markers and evaluate if
their elevations ﬁt the predicted sea level curve for this location,
once the water table effect is removed.
2. Geological setting and hydrogeological features
The old town of Bari is located on a little peninsula protruding
into the sea along the eastern coast of the Murge plateau, within the
Apulian foreland province. The Basilica is located in a simple
geological framework (Gioia et al., 2011): bedrock is made up of
a sequence of grey- whitish limestones, dolomitic limestones and
dolomites in strata with thicknesses ranging from decimetres to
metres. The age of the unit, known as “Calcari di Bari”, is referable
to Upper Albian-Early Cenomanian. Calcareous sandstones of Upper
Pliocene eLower Pleistocene overlie the Mesozoic bedrock
(Spalluto et al., 2010).
Relative sea level change occurred since Middle Pleistocene, and
characterized the coast with the deposition of marine terraces.
They are arranged in several orders, and the lower ones are present
in the western and eastern part of the town, partly removed by
urbanization. The terraces consist of sand dune bodies, today
discontinuously outcropping between 4 and 12 mabove sea level in
the studied area (Fig. 2). Although they do not include any typical
fauna, on the basis of chronostratigraphical and morphological
correlation, these deposits can be referred to the Tyrrhenian (Pieri
et al., 2011). This is in agreement with Ferranti et al. (2006), who
inferred tectonic stability of the South Adriatic coast with a rate of
uplift in the range 0.01e0.08 mm/y. Due to the widespread pres-
ence of carbonate rocks, surface and underground landforms were
extensively involved in karst processes that produced an extensive
network of cavities and conduits underground. Bari is affected by
sea water intrusion (Cotecchia, 1981;Cotecchia et al., 1983). The
Fig. 1. Location of the area, with St. Nicholas Basilica circled. The Medieval old town walls bordered the town toward the sea.
R. Pagliarulo et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 139e145140
hydrogeological system is part of the wider karst and coastal
aquifer of the Murge, well-studied from the hydrodynamic and
hydrochemical point of view (Tulipano and Fidelibus, 1995). The
thick Mesozoic carbonate sequence, permeable due to fracturing
and karst, and the overlying Plio-Pleistocene calcarenites and sandy
calcareous sediments that have a basic role in water circulation,
host the aquifer conﬁned to the west by sediments of the Bradanic
trough, and to the east and at the base by the sea and saltwater
intrusion. Chemical and physical processes occur in the transition
zone (interface) between fresh and saltwater. As a consequence,
when sea level changes, the regional and local hydrogeological
parameters vary. Besides the rise in sea level, it is possible to
evaluate the short term changes and the correlation among
hydrogeological parameters, tides, and atmospheric pressure.
These changes depend on the distance from the coastline. The
effects of tides have been measured in recent years by non-stop
monitoring in well stations all over the city to a distance of
10 km inland. On the basis of these observations, the highest annual
range of the water table in the city of Bari, measured at a piezo-
metric station about 2 km from the coastline, is about 60 cm, after
7e8 h, from semidiurnal high and low tides (Cotecchia, 2010;
Spilotro and Leandro, 2010)(Fig. 3).
3. The Basilica and the events of the crypt
The St. Nicholas Basilica overlooks a square in the heart of the
old town of Bari, very close to the sea. At the time of construction,
the old city walls bordered it towards the sea. Stairways in the side
aisles of the Basilica lead down to the crypt, where the relics of St.
Nicholas are kept. The crypt is supported on 28 columns with
carved capitals. The ﬂoor levels in the crypt have been made up of
different ﬂoorings according to the style of the construction age
(mosaic, squared stones and bricks, marble) and have been used as
archeological markers in this work. According to the history, the
age of the crypt is the same of the upper Basilica. Before 1000 AD,
that place was the residence of the Byzantine governor. Most
probably, the crypt was originally a coastal karst hypogean and its
base depth was below sea level. The detailed report made by
Schettini (1957) for the grouting and restoring works allowed
reconstruction of the sequence of the events in the crypt from the
year of construction to today. These works consisted of grouting
treatments, removing the Baroque structures, and lowering (34 cm)
the marble ﬂoor level made in 1800 to reveal the base of the
columns, restoring the volumetric equilibrium of the hypogean and
trying to solve the age-old ﬂood problems. The actual ﬂoor level
corresponds to the brick ﬂoor dated 1543 (Fig. 4). Since 1347,
provisional draining was conducted, and in 1543 the original ﬂoor
was relined with a thickness of 6 cm squared bricks. However, the
water did not recede, and in 1599 the ﬂoor was replaced, 8 cm over
the previous one. In 1800 the ﬂoor was deﬁnitely raised 40 cm
higher than the original one, but the ﬂood problems were not
solved (Fig. 5). The stratigraphic logs of the boreholes made during
these studies showed the spatial variability and the type and
quality of the foundation soils. The northern and western parts of
the Basilica are founded directly on the Mesozoic calcareous
Fig. 3. Sketch (not to scale) showing the inﬂuence of the rise in sea level and the change in the water table ﬂooding the crypt of the Basilica located on the sea.
Fig. 2. Geological sketch: a) Terraced marine deposits in several orders (Mid-
dleeUpper Pleistocene); b) Calcareous sandstones (Lower Pleistocene); c) Limestones
(Cretaceous); d) Bari harbour and roads; e) elevation of the Pleistocenic marine
terraces. (After Gioia et al., 2011; modiﬁed).
R. Pagliarulo et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 139e145 141
Fig. 4. a) The imposing St. Nicholas Basilica in the Old Town of Bari; b) the modern aspect of the crypt; c) the original pavement with mosaics (1087) in the right apse of the crypt;
d) the marks left on the base of a column by the different ﬂoor levels. The arrow shows the print of the 1800 AD pavements; e) the crypt during the restoration works in 1956.
Fig. 5. Sketch showing the events of the crypt with the replacement of the pavements, trying to avoid sea water intrusion. The daily water table variable level is referred to 1956 sea
R. Pagliarulo et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 139e145142
bedrock. The southern and eastern part, and the pier below the
crypt, rest on 2.00 m of silty sands with vegetal remains. The
underlying 6 m consist of calcareous strata and calcarenites with
decimetric voids. The deepest sediments are represented by the
With the goal to study the relationships between sea level,
water table and speciﬁc archaeological indicators existing in the
Basilica, a local topographic survey and the available tidal data from
the nearby continuously recording tidal station were used. Results
were then interpreted to deﬁne the exact elevations of speciﬁc
reference markers useful for this study. Archaeological indicators
for the past sea levels were the elevations of the vertical succession
of pavements in the small square in front of the Basilica and inside
the upper church and the crypt, built between 1087 and 1800.
Topographic measures were then referred to the nearby IGM
benchmark of the Italian National GPS network IGM95, managed by
the Istituto Geograﬁco Militare Italiano (Surace, 1997). This
benchmark is located over the old building of Dogana, in the
harbour of Bari, about 250 m from the Basilica (Caprioli et al., 1998).
The elevations of the markers were measured through differential
GPS measurements outside the church and by terrestrial instru-
ments (total station) inside the Basilica and the crypt. Elevation
accuracies were 2.0 cm and 2.5 mm, respectively (Table 1), in
agreement with the typical accuracies of GPS and terrestrial tech-
niques (Hofmann-Wellenhof et al., 2001). To account for local mean
sea level, the tidal data from the tide gauge station located in the
harbour of Bari, that belongs to the Italian tidal network managed
by ISPRA (http://www.mareograﬁco.it/) was used. Unfortunately,
although this station has existed since 1979, the tidal time series is
still short and discontinuous (due to frequent data interruptions or
sensor displacements), preventing any reliable analysis of eventual
local sea level change since its establishment (Fig. 6). One year of
continuous data collected through a new sensor (year 2009) was
used to estimate the tidal range and the maximum and minimum
sea levels during a full seasonal cycle for this location, assumed as
representative for this study (Fig. 6B). The difference between the
maximum and the minimum peaks during one year is up to 108 cm
(mainly induced by episodic or short periods of minimum atmo-
spheric pressure changes during winter), while the local tidal range
is normally within 38 cm, as in much of the Mediterranean Sea.
The elevations of the pavements compared against the predicted
sea level curve are shown in Fig. 7. Observational data suggest that
the oldest pavement dated to 1087 (presently at - 31.8 cm below the
actual mean sea level), was placed at least about 25 cm above the
mean sea level, and therefore near the high tide level. In particular,
the thickness of 25 cm is assumed to be the reliable value to keep
the ﬂoor dry above the piezometric level. Later, during the
following centuries (between 1543 and 1600), the sea level was
continuously rising, and the pavements were ﬂooded by the
upwelling water table, sensitive to the intervening sea level change.
In 1800 the pavement was restored and uplifted 34 cm above the
previous one, to keep the ﬂoor dry and above the water level.
Afterwards, the crypt was closed until 1956, when the sea level rise
induced a rise of the water table that again ﬂooded the pavement.
Urban planning of the city of Bari, led to the construction of
a breakwater and a road running between the Basilica and the
coastline in the 1930s. These structures protected the Basilica from
the sea and the subsequent ﬂooding of the lower levels of the
Basilica. However, the rising sea level also induced an increasing
extension of the water table towards the land, causing continuous
ﬂooding of the lower levels of the Basilica until recent times.
5. Discussion and concluding remarks
On the basis of the topographic surveys and the detailed report
on the history of the repeated ﬂoods inside the crypt of St. Nicholas
Basilica, located very close the Adriatic coastline, new results on the
timing of the relative sea level rise at this location were obtained
and compared to the predicted sea level curve determined by
Lambeck et al. (2010). The elevation of the pavements were
compared against the predicted sea level curve for the Holocene
along this coast of the Mediterranean Sea, giving an important
contribution to the evaluation of sea level rise for the last 1000 yrs,
besides the data recently published by Toker et al. (in press). These
authors provide the ﬁrst evidence collected along the coast of Israel
that support a sea level drop of the Mediterranean of about
50 20 cm during the period 1000e1300. The estimate is based on
a variety of archaeological remains, mostly from the Crusader
period, compared with other archaeological and biological proxies
of sea level from across this period that overlap the climatic phase
known as the ‘Medieval Warm Period’(MWP) (Sivan et al., 2008).
Although the Bari data do not allow recognition of a drop and
a subsequent rise in sea level, around 1500 (w500 BP) the eleva-
tions of the pavement was nearly coincident with the predicted sea
level and the position (referred to 1543) falls along the curve
(Fig. 7). This observation leads to the hypothesis that the small
difference between the archaeological data and the predicted sea
level could be due to a period of a lowering of the water table and
subsequently to a reduction or a stand in the rate of the sea level
rise, not yet identiﬁed and thus not included in the past sea level
The hypothesis of sediment compaction has not been taken into
account in this case. Compaction of sediments is the process of
volume reduction which can be expressed as either a percentage of
the original voids present, or of the original bulk volume. This
process affects mainly unconsolidated sediments and occurs
mainly during the diagenetic stage (Chilingarian et al., 1975).
Moreover, coarse grained carbonate sediments compact under the
pressure of overlying sediments with increasing subsurface
temperature though the mechanism of solution at the points of
grain contacts and diffusion of the solute into the pore ﬂuid
(Coogan and Manus, 1975). The physical and mechanical charac-
teristics (Andriani and Walsh, 2002) of the calcarenites, and the
discontinuous and slight thickness of these deposits overlying
limestones do not trigger loss of interstitial water under the
inﬂuence of gravity.
On the basis of these observations, it is possible to assert that
these archaeological data are a good indicator to estimate the sea
levels since 1087 at the Saint Nicholas Basilica in Bari in an area of
tectonic stability, and thus do not suffer any vertical tectonic
movements that may induce misinterpretations (Guidoboni et al.,
1994;Ferranti et al., 2010). In 1087, an elevation of about 25 cm
of the pavements above the predicted sea level curve maintained
dry conditions in the crypt above the shallow water table. The
Relationships between predicted sea level, pavement elevations and the estimated
water table position below the pavement levels between 1087 and 1956.
pred. sl - pv
1087 31.8 6.8 24.2
1543 25.8 0.8 0
1600 17.8 7.2 6.2
1800 8.2 33.2 3.8
1956 25.8 0.8 21.8
R. Pagliarulo et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 139e145 143
Fig. 6. A) Plot of the tide gauge recordings at Bari station from 1979 to 2007. Data are unavailable for the long term sea level change as the time series is too short and discontinuous
due to frequent data interruptions or sensor displacements. Only data after 2000 are stable and continuous but are still too short to estimate asea level trendfor this location. B) Plot
of the tide gauge recordings at Bari station for the year 2009. The horizontal line is the average sea level value. Large positive or negative peaks are related to wintertime low
atmospheric pressure values. The mean tidal range for this location is 38 cm.
Fig. 7. Plot of the predicted sea level curve (from Lambeck et al., 2010) versus the elevation of the pavements of the St. Nicholas Basilica (triangles). The trend of the archaeological
data (linear ﬁt) is in agreement with the predicted sea level curve.
R. Pagliarulo et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 139e145144
elevation of the pavements between 1543 and 1600 is closer to the
predicted sea level curve than in 1087 and 1800. This period was
characterized by the Little Ice Age when glaciers extended and
global temperatures likely lowered. Hence, sea level could have
been lower than predicted, and thus the elevation of the pavements
was still above the water table effects and therefore they were dry.
After 1800, at the end of this climatic period, the sea level rise
required restoration of the pavements to move them above the sea
level (about 25 cm). Although the tide gauge data cannot be used to
provide an affordable estimation of the sea level change since 1979
(year of the establishment of the tide gauge station), they show that
the tidal range is normally within 38 cm with some seasonal high
values during wintertime. The latter, together with winter rainfalls,
may produce sporadic large uprising of the water table and
subsequent ﬂooding of the crypt. These data are among the ﬁrst
that help the reconstruction of past sea level during the last 900
years and which integrate previous sea level predictions in the
Mediterranean (Lambeck et al., 2011, 2004b). Results provide
evidence that sea level has risen about 55 cm since the MWP, and
are crucial to improve estimation of the sea level positions between
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