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The landscape setting

What is the 'hinterland' of Portus?
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SIMON KEAY: Under Claudius, Portus consisted of one massive basin, the basin of Claudius, with two canals linking the port to the Tiber, and of course, with its great Pharos, which enabled the port to be seen from far out to sea. And then under Trajan, of course, we have the port being very massively enlarged with the construction of a new hexagonal basin of 32 hectares, and an additional canal for the transshipment of cargoes from the hexagonal basin due for shipping up river towards Rome. Now, one of the ways that we’ve been looking at this is partially through excavation. But we’ve also been using satellite imagery and ground-based geophysics for mapping the full extent of the port.
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And this has been hugely helpful in allowing us to cover very large areas of ground, and being able to track the archaeological evidence. But also important has been the use of geoarcheology, looking at sediments that have built up inside the basins and the canals. Because they hold clues for us in telling us how these water features actually functioned. Then, as we move into the later 2nd century AD, we see further changes of Portus, not least, the construction of the great Magazzini of Settimio Severo, the great warehouses of the Emperor Septimius Severus. In fact, they date to the late 2nd century AD, and they’re located very closely to where we’ve been doing our field work.
Hello again, and welcome to week three. I hope you are now feeling at home at Portus? This week we’ll start looking under the soil, with a host of scientific techniques.
In the last two weeks we have looked at the massive task associated with creating the huge Claudian basin and the rest of Portus in the first century AD. We saw the lighthouse set upon a great sunken ship. And then we saw how only fifty years later in the early 2nd century the Emperor Trajan transformed this part of the Roman coast yet again by carving out an unprecedented hexagonal basin. A basin that was so enormous that it presented a continuous frontage to people arriving at Portus from across the Roman Empire – a symbol of Rome’s dominance and wealth. We also learned how throughout that time goods flowed to and from Rome, connecting the city with places across the Mediterranean and far beyond.
This week we will look more closely at the port and its surrounding landscape – sometimes called the “hinterland”. We will see how we can use satellite imagery and other methods to study the extent of the port, and how scientific approaches such as geoarchaeology give us an insight into its use and transformation. We will also learn about how Portus changed in the later second century, including the construction of the so-called Grandi Magazzini Di Settimio Severo – an enormous warehouse complex at the entrance to the inner basin. And we’ll finish by looking at some more fascinating artefacts recovered during our recent excavations.
To give you more of a sense of how the ancient harbour relates to the modern landscape I recorded an extra video in 2014 from a minibus. This follows a route that could have been made by a small boat in the Roman period. It is 14 minutes long but if you have time it gives a nice additional sense of what the landscape is like, and ends with a sneak peek of where we return to in Week Six.
In the next step I’ll tell you a bit about what was happening in the wider Empire in this period.
Simon

[Extra] References and sources:

  • S. Keay (ed.) (2013) The Hinterland of Portus and Ostia. In M. Pasquinucci (ed.) Porti antichi e retroterra produttivi. Congresso Internazionale. Livorno 2009.
  • S. Keay and L. Paroli (eds.) (2011) Portus and its Hinterland: Recent Archaeological Research Archaeological Monographs of the British School at Rome 18, London, The British School at Rome
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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

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