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The issue of scale at Portus

How does the scale of the site influence archaeological strategy?
SIMON KEAY: The other thing that is worth noting is that you take a look at the length of this corridor. This is getting on for about 180 metres long. It’s pretty large. And it raises the whole issue that we have to confront, all of us working at Portus, which is the issue of scale. We’re so accustomed, I think, when we’re working in the Roman provinces, with asking questions and resolving issues to do with small buildings, issues to do with the household. Which are fine and are very interesting, but when you’re trying to understand how a complex like this works within a port complex that covers 3 1/2 square kilometres, you’re having to think in terms of hundreds of metres.
Walls that are sometimes 2 metres thick. And that begs, very much, a certain kind of archaeological strategy that allows you to, first of all, define in broad terms what the issues and the problems are using different kinds of survey technique– geophysics, remote sensing, aerial photography, and things of that kind– and then following up the results from those with very much more targeted excavation. And so survey, remote sensing, and excavation start to work in tandem, the former raising issues to do with the questions that we want to answer, and the latter trying to resolve those.
Although, of course, the complexity and the richness of the archaeological record here means that, inevitably, the more that we dig, the more questions that it raises. But then, that’s part of the learning process, and one in which I think the students get huge benefit, because they really actually participate in helping us push forward the boundaries of our understanding of this complex. But they’re also learning how to be archaeologists, and to develop the interdisciplinary skills which archaeology is so, so good for.
In this video I introduced some of the methodological issues posed by the very large scale of an archaeological site such as Portus. In particular we can start to think about appropriate strategies for investigating extensive sites.
Increasingly we rely on large area approaches such as satellite imagery and geophysics, both of which will be covered in detail in week three, in order to provide an overview. The knowledge gained in this way helps us focus our excavation on specific questions about the site.
Point to consider:
As I also said in the video, working on these kinds of sites, whether virtually or physically, gives students such as yourself an opportunity to experience this range of approaches. Would working on the smaller scale tell you something different?
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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

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