At the beginning of August, underwater archaeologists excavating at Lake Bracciano north of Rome brought to the surface a nine metre-long dugout canoe hewn from a massive oak trunk. Some 9,000 years old, buried under three metres of mud and eight metres of water, this was the fourth dugout canoe excavated since an entire neolithic colony was discovered near the shores of Anguillara in 1989.

This village is unique in neolithic archaeology. Previously, no early neolithic site had ever been discovered in central Italy. More importantly, none had ever been discovered at the bottom of a lake. This one is located in the bay called La Marmotta at the foot of Anguillaras promontory.

It was discovered in unusual circumstances. In 1989 the Rome water authority, ACEA, began installing an aqueduct in Lake Bracciano to supplement the citys water supply. When it started using machinery to dig a trench along the lake bottom, an archaeologist was required by law to monitor proceedings. In April that year he arrived at the site to find that the dredger was bringing up large pieces of wood. He ordered the work to stop immediately.

Archaeologists were aware that prehistoric settlements existed at Lake Bracciano. On the opposite side of the water, near Vicarello, Antonietta Fugazzola Delpino, archaeologist and director of the Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome, had already discovered in mid-1970s a bronze-age site from the second millennium BC. An accomplished diver, she was called to investigate this new find, expecting to discover more bronze-age remains. To her excitement, along with the wood in the dredged mud she found ceramic pottery with distinctive decorations made with cockle shells, known to archaeologists as Cardial pottery, dating from the early neolithic period thousands of years before the Bronze Age.

During the summer of 1989, Fugazzola and her team of divers began picking through the mud, revealing huge posts and roof timbers, a variety of utensils and ceramics. Some pottery was painted with red, black or white parallel lines, never before found in central Italy, but widely used in Greece during the early neolithic period. The divers also found pots that were still full of plant remains, extraordinarily well preserved.

Since then, excavation has taken place every summer. A large, rich village has been discovered, which was probably established by settlers coming to central Italy from Greece or even the Near East. The settlement survived for at least four centuries before it was abandoned, suddenly and mysteriously, in about 5,230 BC.

The archaeologists believe it was a real colony. Supposition is that the inhabitants arrived by boat, paddling up the Arrone River (its source is at Lake Bracciano) from the Mediterranean, carrying their domesticated animals, seeds and plants. They found an ideal place rich land for cultivation, forests and the clear freshwater of the lake.

The village covered more than two hectares. The 3,000 oak posts uncovered so far give an idea of the scale of the place. People lived in rectangular houses supported by these posts, laid out in streets. As the divers uncovered layers of collapsed roof timbers and walls, they reached the floors containing the remains of human life: ceramic pots containing grain, comprising five different kinds of wheat and barley. Some still contained the remains of stewed grain and bones from different animals. They found a large variety of utensils: greenstone axes, wooden-handled sickles with blades of flint, and obsidian, used as knife blades and believed to have come from either the Aeolian Islands off Sicily or from the island of Ponza off the coast of Lazio.

These artefacts reveal that La Marmotta wasnt an isolated outpost on the neolithic frontier. Fugazzola believes that the people were in touch with other communities in the Mediterranean, and that La Marmotta may even have been a crossroads for trade.

It has been established by the tree rings in the house posts that the village lasted for more than 400 years. By combining tree-ring chronology with carbon dates for each post, its history is fixed from around 5,690 to 5,230 BC.

Judging by what was left behind the valuable tools, pots of food being cooked, large canoes the village was abandoned suddenly. Be it a tidal wave, a fire or whatever the reason, it transformed the lakeshore village of La Marmotta into a ghost town, subsequently engulfed by Lake Bracciano and covered with a preserving sediment at an unknown date. Since the sixth millennium BC the water level in Lake Bracciano has risen more than eight metres.

At the Pigorini museum in EUR there is an exhibition of fascinating photographs and graphic descriptions of the underwater excavations at La Marmotta. Many of the hundreds of artefacts brought to the surface are on permanent display, including the first dugout canoe, discovered in 1994, and a votive statuette representing the earth mother. The typical neolithic house, with various cooking pots and utensils, is reproduced in full size.

Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography. Piazza Marconi 14, EUR. Tel. 0646207711. Mon-Sat 09.00-14.00. Sun 09.00-13.00. ?3.50.