Portus in Ancient Rome: Studying Plant Fossils
“A major task for the first excavation season was to instigate a processing system for flotation of selected contexts; acquiring all the necessary equipment, and then organising the paperwork and labour for processing itself. This task was successfully completed, and the team managed to collect and process 22 bulk samples from 18 contexts. Loose sandy and silty sediments predominate at Portus, and so shallower levels of the stratigraphy exhibited high amounts of bioturbation with frequent roots, other partially decayed modern plant matter, and arthropods.
“The flotation sieving produced two components from each sample – a ‘flot’ comprising all low-density items (charred plants, modern roots, pumice etc.) and a ‘heavy residue’ of high-density items (most artefacts, bone and bivalve molluscs).” (Ballantyne and Margaritis 2008: Portus environmental analysis talk)
Smelling the past?
“The usual harbour-side stench of decaying marine detritus is probably the first one that comes to mind..! How about you buy some dried edible seaweed (any sort) and leave it in water in the sun for a few days? Not nice at all! Wheat-filled granary stores, overlaid with the subtle scent of black peppercorns are two others where we actually have good evidence. The smell from bags of wheat grain – the unmilled type that is popular these days for sprouting – and bags of peppercorns would certainly conjure the same smell.
I also think that that there would have been a major contrast between the exterior, harbour-side smells and interior, clean, dry spaces of the Magazzini, which is where the smells of the traded materials may have taken pre-eminence. Other facets are wood smoke in some open areas of the site where there was quite a lot of charcoal recovered, and the smell of decaying refuse tips in other areas. The dumps of ceramic we find on the site are perhaps a good indicator of where refuse tips might have been. And of course refuse tips attract scavenging fauna such as dogs and rodents, which also tend to smell, so the dog owners amongst the learners might be able to experience that!”
- If any of you do assemble the “smells of Portus” we would be very interested to read whether you think it helps you to imagine the place. Dragana will talk more about the use of imagination in archaeological theory later in the course, but you might want to search for the term “phenomenology” online for an insight into one approach pursued by archaeologists, using contemporary sensory experiences to inform ideas about the past.
- A second point to consider is that when some of us from the Portus Project worked at the site of Myos Hormos in Egypt we found many peppercorns that had been imported from the East. When found at Portus this gives us an idea of connections, but also potentially a little about the Roman culinary palettes. What other things could plant remains tell us?
Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome
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