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The ‘discovery’, early knowledge of Portus and ongoing work

The ‘Discovery’, Early Knowledge of Portus and Ongoing Work
SIMON KEAY: Portus has been known about as an archaeological site since really as far back as the 16th century. Indeed, if you go into the Galleria Carte Geografiche in the Vatican, as you go into this impressive hall of paintings, on the left hand side, you can see a representation of Portus undertaken by the artist Dante in the 16th century. Subsequent to that, Portus has been looked at by a number of antiquarians, and there are a number of lithographs representing idealistic views of the port. There are plans of the port. But it’s not really until the 19th century that we see what one might term a more archaeological interest emerging focusing upon the site.
And for example, we see the work of a French academician, a scholar called Garrez who painted some marvellous representations of the port which provide very, very clear details that are useful to us. And other antiquarians and historians like Canina, Texier, and many others visited the site, and took notes, and provided us with details that are still important to us today. But I guess the big watershed came with the publication of an essay by Rodolfo Lanciani in 1868. And Rodolfo Lanciani was one of the great Italian archaeologists, and indeed Portus was one of the very first archaeological sites that he visited.
And he came here in 1865 when the then-owner of the site, Alessandro Torlonia, was clearing parts of the site and preparing it for a planned garden. And when Lanciani came here, he interviewed a number of workmen. He made a series of observations and in the end published an interpretive plan of what he thought the central area of the port looked like. After that, the next great piece of research was undertaken by the Italian archaeologist Lugli who together with the great Italian architect Italo Gismondi, did some archaeological research and produced a different kind plan, a more archaeological plan that again we still use today to help us understand the nature of the site.
After that, the next great event was probably the work of Otello Testaguzza in the 1960s when they were creating the airport here, the International Airport of Leonardo da Vinci, which is a few minutes away from here. And when they were clearing the ground for the runway, they found large stretches of the Claudian mole and associated buildings. And he published that in 1970. And then subsequent to that, the Soprintendenza Archelogica de Ostia undertook a series of major archaeological works, some excavations and conservation work at the site and right the way through the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, and through to the present day in fact.
And other important works that have been undertaken at the site included the excavation of the early Christian basilica not so very far from here by Lidia Paroli. And that provided a fantastic snapshot into the development of the port but also provided precious detail about an early Christian church of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.
This video introduced you to the history of research at this site. Like so many archaeological sites in Rome and its surrounding countryside, there is a very long history of antiquarian interest and research in the Classical past. While their paintings, engravings and descriptions are often regarded as having only marginal importance today when compared to modern scientific approaches to archaeology, this is very much mistaken.
In the case of Portus, antiquarian interest began in the Renaissance and continued down until the 19th century. It is important to remember that these learned people will have visited the site or have been told about it by others at a time when much more of it was visible than is the case today. What they tell us can be very valuable and provide us with information about buildings that have disappeared or become much more ruined than in their time. This is the case of two of the representations of Portus by Antonio Danti (1588) as I mentioned in the video.
These decorate the great Galleria Cartografica in the Vatican; one image shows a colour “aerial” view of the ruins while the other shows a reconstruction of how it might have looked in antiquity. This last representation and an engraving by Pirro Ligorio (1554) have less value as a record of what survived in the 16th century but are valuable in telling us about contemporary attitudes to the Classical past. Sporadic excavations at the site began in the late 18th century with a view to finding Roman works of art that now adorn the Vatican and elsewhere in Rome.
A little bit later in 1820s, scholars like Antonio Nibby started producing the first scientific descriptions of the site, accompanied by reasoned “archaeological’ plans, notably that by Luigi Canina (1827) and the glorious colour painting of the port by Pierre-Joseph Garrez (1831). Both of these studies contain precious details about a range of buildings that still influence our understanding of them today. The best known early plan of Portus, however, was that by Rodolfo Lanciani (1868) which builds upon earlier records, reports from workmen clearing parts of the site on behalf of Alessandro Torlonia and personal observations. It is hard to use, however, because it is represented as a reconstruction, making it difficult for us to known what was actually there and what was hypothesized.
This was corrected by the plan produced by Italo Gismondi for Giuseppe Lugli (1935), a well-known Italian archaeologist who undertook extensive research at the site, and which only shows what was visible to them in the 1930s and makes little interpretation. Their very valuable work has largely remained the standard plan of the core area of the port down until the 1980s, although Otello Testaguzza (1970) added important details about the Claudian port that had been uncovered during the building of the International Airport of Fiumicino in the 1960s. Since then, and particularly the 1980s, the Soprintendenza Archaeologica di Ostia, and subsequently the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma have been building upon this earlier work with detailed topographical surveys of different buildings.
Most recently, the 2005 geophysical survey of Portus by Keay, Millett, Strutt and Paroli (2005) built upon this long and rich tradition of research by revealing the evidence of hitherto unknown buried structures, enabling the key areas of the port, in particular that between the hexagonal basin and the Tiber, to be more clearly understood.
As I said at the end of the video, the Portus Project is only one part of a range of ongoing activities. We are lucky enough to be work very closely with colleagues in the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Ostia and the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Roma, as well as in Italian universities and, of course, our long-term close collaborators at the British School at Rome. It has only been their extraordinary knowledge and generosity that has made it possible for us to successfully engage with this complex and important site.
Earlier on in the video I also mentioned a number of antiquarians. In the next video Dragana will talk a bit about antiquarian practice, and how it differs from our modern archaeological ways of working.
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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

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