From Archaeology: “Rome’s Imperial Port”

ArchaeologyMag bloc

Archaeology Magazine

February 10, 2015
JASON URBANUS

1
Portus, now some two miles from the Mediterranean shoreline, was built by the Romans in the 1st century [CE] to be their main maritime port. A 16th-century fresco in the Vatican Palace shows an idealized reconstruction of Portus’ grand architectural and engineering features. ((De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images)

Twenty miles southwest of Rome, obscured by agricultural fields, woodlands, and the modern infrastructure of one of Europe’s busiest airports, lies what may be ancient Rome’s greatest engineering achievement, and arguably its most important: Portus. Although almost entirely silted in today, at its height, Portus was Rome’s principal maritime harbor, catering to thousands of ships annually. It served as the primary hub for the import, warehousing, and distribution of resources, most importantly grain, that ensured the stability of both Rome and the empire. “For Rome to have worked at capacity, Portus needed to work at capacity,” says archaeologist Simon Keay. “The fortunes of the city are inextricably tied to it. It’s quite hard to overestimate.” Portus was the answer to Rome’s centuries-long search for an efficient deepwater harbor. In the end, as only the Romans could do, they simply dug one.

Although it had previously received little attention archaeologically, over the last decade and half Portus has been the focus of an ambitious project that is rediscovering the grandeur of the port, its relationship to Rome, and the unparalleled role it played as the centerpiece of Rome’s Mediterranean port system. Keay, of the University of Southampton, is currently director of the Portus Project, now in its fifth year, but has been leading fieldwork in and around the site since the late 1990s. He is part of a multinational team investigating Portus’ beginnings in the first century [CE]., its evolution into the main port of Rome, and, ultimately, the complex dynamics of the port’s relationship with the city and the broader Roman Mediterranean. The multifaceted project involves a number of institutions, including the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge, and the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome.

2
Still visible today, Portus’ hexagonal basin and its adjacent canal facilitated the transfer of goods up the Tiber River to Rome. (Courtesy Simon Keay/The Portus Project)

One of the difficulties the team has faced in addition to the site’s enormous size is its complexity. Portus encompasses not only two man-made harbor basins, but all of the infrastructure associated with a small city, including temples, administrative buildings, warehouses, canals, and roads. Archaeologists have taken many approaches to investigating Portus. “Methodologically, the strategy has been to combine large-scale, extensive work using every kind of geophysical and topographic technique, with excavation reserved for relatively focused areas,” says Keay. “The aim is to try and understand a key area at the center of the port, which could provide a point from which to understand how the port worked as a whole.” The current archaeological research is offering a new understanding of just how Portus’ construction enabled Rome to become Rome.

See the full article here.

Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

STEM Icon

Stem Education Coalition

ARCHAEOLOGY magazine offers compelling narratives about the human past from every corner of the globe. Edited for a general audience, our news, features, and photo essays employ in-depth reporting, cogent analysis, and vivid storytelling to provide an accurate and often surprisingly intimate look at the record of human existence. Our pieces offer insights into the beginnings and ends of cultures, as well as examining the full expression of those cultures. ARCHAEOLOGY’s stories share one distinctive trait—they rest on the close investigation of archaeological evidence—of the things, in short, that we leave behind.

ARCHAEOLOGY magazine has been published continuously for more than 65 years. It is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, a 133-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of human heritage.