Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsMEAGHAN CARLEY: So what is the project doing with this building in particular?

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsSIMON KEAY: What we're doing with it is undertaking archaeological excavation. We really want to understand the nature of the earliest phase, that Trajanic phase, but we also want to understand the later phases, too. Because it's clear that, while it was probably used for ship activity of some kind in the Trajanic phase, later it was sub-divided into a series of smaller storage rooms.

Skip to 0 minutes and 40 secondsIndeed, we think that, on the basis of what we've done in excavation and what we've done in terms of geophysical survey, the whole building was probably, in the later second century AD, converted into a series of warehouses, again, on a truly massive scale, all part of an attempt to increase the storage capacity of the port at this crucial time. So we've been trying to understand also those later phases of activity and, indeed, right the way through until the building was systematically demolished and burials were placed within it, some time in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

Skip to 1 minute and 23 secondsMEAGHAN CARLEY: Do we know why it was demolished?

Skip to 1 minute and 26 secondsSIMON KEAY: We don't really know why it was demolished but it seems to be part of a gradual winding down, if you like, of the importance of the port. And we've seen how the more extramural areas, if you like, between the hexagonal basin and the Tiber were gradually abandoned in the later fifth and sixth centuries AD. We've seen how the Imperial Palace starts to fall out of use and how that's demolished. And I think it's-- all of it, in the end-- it's to do with the Claudian basin which essentially holds most of the ships before they go into the Trajanic basin.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsHow that is gradually silting up and as Roman power, based in Rome, is ebbing the political will to ensure that the basin is clear and it can take ships, is ebbing. And so the port is able to take fewer and fewer ships. There's therefore less and less of a need for the kind of-- the huge scale infrastructure of the kind that you see in front of you.

Skip to 2 minutes and 33 secondsMEAGHAN CARLEY: Well, thank you, Simon. Time to get back to work.

End of the Navalia

So, sometime in the later 2nd c. AD we see the transformation of the function of Building 5 from being associated with some aspect of ship repair or construction to becoming a huge warehouse, albeit different to the Grandi Magazzini Traiani and the Grandi Magazzini di Settimio Severo.

In the later 5th and 6th c. AD we see the spread of burials within it and, eventually, its demolition. As we will find out later this week these burials give us a good insight into the lives of the people working and living in the port before the buildings were pulled down.

Simon gives a good picture of the twilight of the Roman port. The Claudian Basin gradually silting up, with little centralised impetus to stop this decline, and the great buildings we have been learning about – the Palazzo Imperiale and Building 5 – eventually being demolished. I asked Simon later what he imagined the site would have looked like at the end of our period of study, in the seventh century. He replied that while this was one of the more poorly understood periods of the site, it seems to have been one of dwindling importance under Byzantine control.

The archaeological evidence would seem to suggest that after the end of the Gothic Wars in the mid 6th c. AD, the Claudian basin would have largely silted up and the buildings focused upon the northern sector of the Trajanic basin, including the Palazzo Imperiale and Building 5 would have been abandoned. Henceforth, most of the Byzantine port would have encompassed the buildings lying between the southern half of the Trajanic basin and the Darsena and would have been accessed by ships from the sea by the Fiumicino canal.

The main buildings would have included the Basilica, with Lidia Paroli’s excavations revealing evidence for periods of refurbishment in the 6th,and 7th c. AD and beyond, and the building known today as the Episcopio Portuense just down near the Fiumicino canal. Simon also mentioned that in addition, the early Medieval church of Sant Hippolito on the south side of the Fiumicino canal should reminds us that there was some activity here too. Many of Ostia’s sacred buildings had extensive modifications during the 5th and 6th centuries, such as reinforcement of the exterior of synagogue walls.

Simon added at the end that while the port was clearly operating at a greatly reduced scale in comparison to its Roman Imperial heyday, it is worth remembering that as late as the early 8th c. AD, a fleet under the command of Pope Constantine (AD 708-15) is recorded as having set out from Portus. It seems that the final loss of any kind of maritime function happened as a result of Arab raids in the 9th c. AD.

Work-in-progress CGI view of the proposed Navalia in Period 6 by Grant Cox

Work-in-progress CGI view of the proposed Navalia in Period 6 - Grant Cox © University of Southampton

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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

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