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Putting Portus on the map

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, the secrets of its ancient port take time to unravel. The discovery of a large Roman shipyard in part of the excavation site currently being unearthed by the Portus project is just the latest in a long line of archaeological findings made possible through funding from the AHRC.

Initially funded with a single modest AHRC Research Grant back in 1998, further awards, including the recent announcement of funding of £640,000 over the next three years, makes it one of the largest AHRC-funded projects to date.

Professor Simon Keay, international authority in Roman Archaeology at the University of Southampton and Research Professor at the British School at Rome leads the project assisted by his colleagues, Dr Graeme Earl, Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Computing, and Professor Martin Millett of the University of Cambridge. Keay believes it’s hard to overstate the significance of the site for our understanding of Roman history. “Portus was part of a port-system serving Rome that was considerably more extensive than the modern port of Southampton,” he says. “It supplied the centre of the Roman Empire with food, slaves, wild animals and building materials for hundreds of years. Not only is Portus one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, it is also very well preserved with great archaeological potential.”

Originally established by Emperor Claudius in the first century AD, inaugurated by Nero and enlarged by Trajan the following century, Portus was the principal port of ancient Rome for most of the imperial period. It was built 30km south west of Rome, the centre of a network of trading centres that stretched from India to the farthest corners of the Roman Empire and the conduit through which a vast array of goods were traded – necessities such as foodstuffs as well as luxury items such as marble, gold, glass and metalwork.

The port was also the first glimpse travellers from other parts of the Empire would have had of Rome’s glory: an ‘imperial palace’ likely to have played host to Emperor Hadrian, an amphitheatre-shaped building possibly used for some kind of combat, display or formal addresses by imperial officials, the recently discovered navalia (a building for ship building or repair) and a major canal connecting Portus to the neighbouring river port of Ostia are among the many findings made by the team in recent years which are revolutionising our knowledge of the economic and cultural life of Rome.

Extending the reach

But it’s not only the archaeological discoveries that are marking the Portus project out as an outstanding example of ground-breaking research; it’s also its high profile, both national and international. For Keay a central aspect of his role is making his research available to a wider audience, and he takes an active part in ensuring the message gets through. When not physically working at the site, undertaking his duties at the University of Southampton and carrying out the responsibilities that come with being Research Professor at the British School at Rome, he works tirelessly to share the team’s findings with both the international academic community, the media and the public.

The Portus Project is a collaborative venture between the University of Southampton, the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge and the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologigi di Roma. With a large and prestigious team of partners including the universities of Oxford, Warwick, Aix-en-Provence, Lyon, Rome (La Sapienza and Roma Tre), Seville, Ghent, Cornell and the Institut Catala d’Arqueologia Classica at Tarragona, the project was chosen to feature on the newly launched Heritage Portal (opens in a new window), an AHRC-led initiative that brings news on archaeology and cultural heritage management in all European countries together. Launched, appropriately perhaps, in Rome in September, the portal will encourage the protection and preservation of Europe’s cultural legacy of which Portus is such an important part.

Success breeds success

One of the reasons for the visibility of Portus is the involvement of the University of Southampton’s Archaeological Computing Research Group, under the supervision of Earl. He and his team make extensive use of visualisation tools on the dedicated website,  videos on YouTube, Second Life immersive experiences, photos on Flickr, podcasts, peer-reviewed academic publications, public lectures and Google Earth, to allow the findings to be presented in accessible, comprehensible and multiple formats. The progress of the excavation can be followed in glorious detail from desktops, laptops and even mobile phones, with more exciting technological developments in the pipeline.

“With a site as large and complex as Portus, it can be difficult to work out the building phases or to get a feel of the original portscape, said Keay. “The computer-generated imagery and other digital information help to bring the port to life and this has led to the project being featured  as the top story on the CNN website, the BBC’s flagship technology programme, many other media websites and on blogs, wikis and image and video sharing websites. And the computing is just one aspect of what we consider to be an exemplar for multidisciplinary research.”

It has also undoubtedly helped it to gain extensive national and international media coverage including features in The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and Sky News,

Next generation

But Portus has achieved worldwide recognition not only as a shining example of international collaboration, but as a breeding ground for the next generation of scholars. For Keay the project represents an invaluable opportunity to train early career researchers in a highly collaborative and inspiring environment. “Scores of undergraduates and postgraduates from a range of subjects including archaeology, history, computing and environmental studies get real hands-on experience at one of the most important excavations of our times”, he says. 

Professor Patrizio Pensabene of the University of Rome La Sapienza makes a similar point, but emphasises the enormous benefits of collaboration across national boundaries: “To an academic who has been involved in teaching Classical Archaeology for many years, the Portus Project represents an excellent training opportunity for students and young scholars of different nationalities to meet and learn from each other by doing side-by-side field work.”

The future

And what of the future for Portus?

For Keay there is the further funding from the AHRC to support another three years of excavation, continued international collaboration and the renewed commitment to support the training of younger researchers. But most exciting of all is the promise of further discoveries at one of the most important archaeological sites in the world: “Although Portus has been known about since the 16th century but has been grossly understudied in comparison with its neighbouring river port of Ostia,” he says. “So far the team have uncovered around less than 1% of it and a lot remains to be learned. We have been very fortunate to have received so much support from the AHRC over the years. It is clear to me that it is only with sustained funding over the years of this kind, rather than shorter-term grants, that British teams will be in a position to produce high impact research at the international level. Our continued AHRC funding is providing us with the opportunity to increase our understanding of the Roman Empire and the broader history of the Mediterranean and, thanks to the advances in technology, share it virtually simultaneously with the world.”

For further information, please go to:www.portusproject.org/ (opens in a new window)

Images courtesy of the Portus Project.

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