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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds SIMON KEAY: At Portus, we found a terrifyingly large amount of ceramics. If you walk across the area between the hexagonal basin of Trajan and the Tiber, there is virtually no soil because there is so much pottery. And at the moment, I think– at the British School at Rome, at the moment we have something in the region of 75 to 80 tonnes of pottery which have come from the excavation and which we are currently studying and preparing for publication.

Skip to 0 minutes and 37 seconds This material is incredibly precious to us because, as you will know, ceramics are the most common find on an archaeological site and many, many years work over the last 30, 40 years have told us a lot about where this pottery comes from. And much of it comes from– indeed, most of it– comes from across the Mediterranean basin. From southern Spain, from North Africa– Libya, Tunisia– from Egypt, from the Middle East, from the Balkans, Asia Minor, just about anywhere in the Mediterranean. And so therefore, what we can do is to identify all this pottery. Looking at the forms and the shapes, looking also at the fabrics– the stuff of which the pottery is made.

Skip to 1 minute and 27 seconds And using that as a basis for trying to get a factual appreciation from what it is the pottery tells us about the different commercial connections between Portus and the rest of the Mediterranean basin. And of course, as we have different phases of occupation of the port, of course we can see that the proportions of these ceramics change through time. And that means, therefore, we can see quite abrupt changes in the supply of, for example, amphorae from one part of the Mediterranean to Portus through time. For example, we can see that in the later second and the early third century AD, amphorae carrying olive oil from Tripolitania– modern Libya– were very, very common at Portus. But that doesn’t last.

Skip to 2 minutes and 20 seconds And material from phases dating to the fourth and the fifth century show that the volume of this material has declined. And that instead, we’re getting much, much more material from North Africa and indeed from parts of the east Mediterranean. So pottery, therefore, plays a huge role in enabling us to understand better the commercial and maritime connections to the port and the Roman Mediterranean in general.

The value of ceramics

In this whistle-stop tour we have explored the Claudian harbour, and its place in the Roman world. We have thought about connections to other parts of the Empire and examined our first major public building. In the last section of week one we will take a look at the finds that make these connections visible.

Anyone who has visited a Classical archaeological site in the Mediterranean will be aware of the many thousands of sherds of pottery and pieces of brick and marble that litter the surface; this is because pottery is pretty well indestructible. In the old days, since archaeologists tended to choose the most complete or unusual fragments for their museums or publication, the majority of ceramics finds on archaeological sites were re-buried or simply stored away in museum basements without ever being studied.

Today, however, since we know that the careful and systematic study of this abundant material can tell us about ancient commerce and domestic activity, many archaeologists attempt to record most, if not all, pottery from archaeological sites. This often presents a huge logistical challenge because of the sheer amount of material to be studied and the slow and painstaking methods required to extract the maximum amount of information from it.

This has been very true at Portus. Since the site was the maritime port of Imperial Rome, and the principal conduit through which flowed many of the supplies needed at the Capital, we have found ceramics from all corners of the Mediterranean basin. Our specialists have separated the material from each context at the site into amphorae (containers for the long-distance transport of foodstuffs), fine table wares, coarse table wares and kitchen wares. They have then studied a combination of their shapes (for example their rim, handle or base), forms (according to catalogues of characteristic known shapes) and fabrics (the character of the clays from which they were made and the mineral fillers within it) in an attempt to try and identify their dates of production and origins.

In this way we have been able to establish a factual basis for looking at commercial connections between Portus and the Mediterranean through the different periods of activity that we have documented at the site. We have been able to identify peaks of intense commercial exchange between the port and other Mediterranean ports that we then try to explain in light of other archaeological and historical evidence. The discovery that amphorae from the Roman province of Tripolitania (modern Libya) that were very common at Portus in the earlier were replaced by those from the province of Africa (modern Tunisia) and the East Mediterranean during the 4th and 5th centuries AD is one example of this.

I have picked out some terms from the video that you might want to research further:

  • Shape of a pottery fragment e.g. a rim, handle or base
  • Form of a sherd of pottery e.g. a specific type of amphora, such as the Pélichet 47 (named after the archaeologist who first characterized the form), fineware, such as the African Red Slip Ware Hayes 50 (named after the archaeologist who undertook the first comprehensive classification of this material), or coarseware
  • Fabric of a pottery sherd e.g. the type of clay, and minerals included within it

Before we look at a specific example, have a think about why we count the ceramics that we find in individual layers on the site. Also, how do you think we are able to date ceramics? Why is it useful to be able to date the ceramics?


[Extra] References and sources

  • Rice, Pottery analysis, a sourcebook;
  • Sinopoli, Approaches to Archaeological ceramicsFind of the Week - amphora sherds from Leptis Magna

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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

University of Southampton