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The phases of Portus

We have evidence for the occupation of the region of Portus for at least 5000 years. This course concentrates on the lifetime of the Roman port.
DRAGANA MLADENOVIC: Portus is a site that lasted for over 500 years. It went through quite a number of phases and a number of transformations. It starts off, as far as we know, as an imperial port established under Claudius. Then, it gets enlarged and somewhat modified under Trajan. And then, under Severans, it suffered some further modification. It gets later transformed in late antiquity, when the whole site gets nucleated, certain parts are abandoned. And then, we know that the point of destruction comes at some point in the sixth century. So it is a very, very long sequence that we are currently trying to understand.
We have evidence for the occupation of the region of Portus for at least 2500 years. In terms of the Roman period that has been our focus, we have traced the structural history of Portus from its establishment under Claudius to its enlargement under Trajan and subsequent emperors down into the 4th c. AD and beyond.
Several key buildings were created at Portus during these first four centuries, and you will learn about them, focusing on one building in particular per week. These include the three-storey Building 3 (part of the building known as Palazzo Imperiale) at the centre of the port which served as the administrative hub, the adjacent Building 5 where ship-building or repair took place; and several large warehouses built for storage.
The later 5th and the 6th c. AD witnessed the gradual siltation of the outer Claudian basin, a contraction in the extent of the port, a transformation of the function of its buildings and in the volume and range of its traffic and cargo. Around AD 470/ 480, the five buildings under study were enclosed within a defensive wall designed to protect the inner Trajanic basin from attack. Buildings 5 and 3 were systematically demolished in the mid to later 6th c. AD probably by the Byzantine authorities, and burials began to proliferate amongst the ruins.

Periods and phases

We use the words “periods” and “phases” interchangeably on site. They are both designations for units of archaeological chronology, but are slightly different in nature. A period is a chronological unit of time, a time span defined by dates that is treated as a separate because it shows a unified archaeological record that is markedly different to periods that came before and after. A phase on the other hand is a much more specific unit that is culturally distinct and characterised by specific traits that appear only during that time interval. Usually a period is longer than a phase and it is not uncommon for a period to have a number of phases.
For the purposes of this course we will be using the following chronology:
  • In week one we concentrate on the Claudian phase, also known as Period One on the Portus Project. This effectively stretches from the beginning of port construction in c. AD 46 until its inauguration under the Emperor Nero in AD 64.
  • In week two we will look at the Trajanic phase, or Period Two. This phase covers the development of the port during the reign of the emperor Trajan, with the majority of work probably concentrated between AD 110-117.
  • Week three moves us on to the later 2nd century, or Period 3, when we see construction of new massive buildings and reconstruction of ones dating from the earlier phases.
  • In week four we focus on the early 3rd century, known as Period 4, and the late 4th and early 5th century, Period 5
  • Finally, in week five we reach the end of the port in the late 5th to 6th centuries, Period 6.
We will keep returning to this chronology so don’t worry if it is a bit confusing at present. This week let’s just concentrate on the Claudian phase.
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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

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