Archive for October 1st, 2009

Amphitheater found in Rome’s ancient port town

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Amphitheater within the palace siteA team of archaeologists from the University of Southampton, the British School at Rome, the Italian Archaeological Superintendency for Ostia and the University of Cambridge have uncovered the remains of an amphitheater in ancient Rome’s harbour town of Portus.

Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani referred to a theater being on the site when he dug there in 1860, but no trace of it had been found since then until now.

This time, the British team, aided by the archaeology superintendent of Ostia, brought in magnetic sensors, ground radar and metal probes. “The current passes between the probes and we can see the resistance from buried remains,” said Graeme Earl, one of the team leaders. The careful search disclosed the curved walls of the amphitheatre, dated by the project’s director, Professor Simon Keay, to the 3rd century AD. “Its design, using luxurious materials and substantial colonnades, suggests it was used by a high-status official, possibly even the emperor himself … it could have been games or gladiatorial combat, wild beast baiting or the staging of mock sea battles. But we really do not know.”

Marble head, possibly UlyssesThe ground scans revealed a garden, cisterns, a 250-metre by 60-metre room attached to the palace and a 90-metre-wide canal linked to nearby Ostia. Keay also found a head – using the more low-tech method of almost tripping over it. “The bulldozer was clearing topsoil and I saw to my horror a human face looking at me. It is one of the most spectacular finds to date,” he said. The exquisite sculpture, which could depict Ulysses, “was the property of someone with a lot of culture and disposable income”, said Keay.

They also found an extra-fancy crapoir made from blue and white marble. Running water underneath the toilets ensured that they didn’t reek.

Portus was a man-made harbour built by the emperor Claudius in 46 A.D. and expanded by Trajan a hundred or so years later. Silt has long since blocked access to the Tyrrhenian Sea — the site is fully 2 miles away from the river now — but you can still see the awesome hexagonal lake that used to be the protected inner harbour built by Trajan inside Claudius’ original harbour.

For a neat before and after comparison, on top is a painting derived from a 16th c. fresco of Trajan’s Lake (the modern name of what was once the hexagonal harbour) and the ruins of Portus. Underneath that is the Google Maps view of the lake. The Tiber and its Fiumicino offshoot are pretty much where they used to be. The sea is way west.

Portus as it was, modern painting from 1582 fresco

Trajan's Lake today, Google Maps view

(I flipped the map so it matches the orientation of the painting. That’s why the labels look a little dyslexic.)

The Portus Project website has all kinds of detail on the excavation and the ancient port itself. Here’s a neat video of 3D renderings of what Portus looked like in its prime.

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