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Sunk to protect an island from sinking, then turned into a graveyard of plague victims, two medieval vessels are coming up for air for the first time in nearly 700 years.

Two marine archeologists are working to unveil the hidden treasures buried in the muddy waters of Venice's lagoon which were identified five years ago by Italian archeologist Marco d'Agostino.

A 14th-century galley ship and a medieval Venetian transport vessel will be exposed to the air for the first time since the mid-1300s once a final few hundred litres of salt water are drained away.

The discovery, according to Mr. d'Agostino and his partner Stefano Medas, may be the most important find of its kind in the region -- perhaps anywhere in the world. It is certainly one of the oldest.

"This is the first galea [galley]so far found anywhere in the Mediterranean," said Mr. d'Agostino, a youthful-looking 42-year-old, as he stood on a barge in the middle of the lagoon with the beauty of Venice shimmering in the background.

"There have been very few like this discovered anywhere in the world, particularly this old," he said while on a visit to the site, on the sunken island of Boccalama.

While both ships are of vast interest to archeologists, it is the galley, 38 metres long and capable of holding up to 250 men, that holds the greater historic fascination.

At its prime, Venice was the greatest of sea states, beating off pirates and marauders from the East and from Spain with superior sea-faring and slicker boats.

So skilled and prepared were the medieval Venetians that they had special boat architects, proti, who designed galleys which could be assembled from parts within days and put to sea.

The five-metre-wide galea was dominant from the early 1300s through to the 16th century. Using slaves or prisoners as oarsmen arranged on three tiers and with sails as backup, it could zip along at high speed and was nimble to boot.

But the transport boat is also curious. Flat-bottomed, six metres wide and 24 long, it looks rather like a medieval barge. Dante referred to the style of vessel in his Divine Comedy:

"As sometimes wherries lie upon the shore, That part are in the water, part on land, . . ." he wrote.

Nearly 700 years on, part of this "wherry" is again in the water and part of it sticking out, but in a few days time both it and the galley should be completely revealed.

Yet that fails to tell the full story of how they came to lie in the middle of Venice's waters and how they are still so well preserved.

In the early 14th century, the island of Boccalama, in the southwest corner of the lagoon, was home to the monastery of San Marco. But the monks' retreat was not very relaxed -- the island was sinking fast into the shallow, muddy waters of the lagoon.

To stem the sinking, the galley and transport ship were loaded with sandy ballast, sunk and then anchored with wooden piles to serve as caissons or fortifications for the island's banks, according to documents dated 1328.

The solution appeared to work, but only for a time. Other documents show that by 1348, when a great plague struck Venice, the monastery was abandoned and the island was used to dump the bodies of the victims.

Eventually the island sank and the secrets of Boccalama were engulfed in the lagoon.

The island was rediscovered in the 1960s by Venetian archeologist Ernesto Canal, but the barge was not detected until 1996 when Mr. d'Agostino came along. The galley was found a year later.

Since then, Mr. d'Agostino has sought funding to get the large-scale dredging and excavation work under way and began work earlier this year alongside Consorzio Venezia Nuova, a Venice group involved in projects to preserve the city and its lagoon.

In a project expected to cost $1-million (U.S.), Mr. d'Agostino's team ringed off the entire island -- an area of about one hectare -- with 15-metre steel girders, sent down underwater explorers and began pumping water out of the encircled space.

Three weeks ago, the barge vessel began to emerge from the mud, its perfectly preserved planks coming into contact with air for the first time in seven centuries.

Members of the team used their hands to dig through the stinking, thick, black mud, occasionally pulling out the skulls of those who died in the plague as they went.

The next job is to dredge the thin layer of water which still covers the galley. Then begins the sensitive work of keeping the galley's hull constantly doused in salt water to ensure it isn't damaged by exposure to the air after being kept impeccably preserved by the sand used as ballast to sink it.

In the end it is hoped the galley and barge will be completely excavated and preserved in Venice's nautical museum where they will stand proudly alongside other historic treasures dredged up from the lagoon's famed waters.