Friday, September 23, 2011

Massive Roman shipyard found

Like the look of this one. Archaeologists think they have found an ancient shipyard about 20 miles (32km) from Rome, at Portus. Ships for the Roman empire were built or repaired and maintained there, they think. This is definitely a story to keep an eye on, as I presume excavations are ongoing, and more finds will come to light.

It's in a press release dated yesterday. So far archaeologists have excavated the remains of a building five storeys high. It’s said to date from about 117 AD, The illustration is a computer graphic reconstruction imagining this as a shipyard building, with ships under construction. They think it was used for ships that traversed the Mediterranean. A tiny figure of a workman gives the scale. (Image credit: University of Southampton.)

The archaeologists believe it had some form of imperial connection and might have been used for a base for galleys that transported emperors, such as Hadrian, across the empire. But so far as I can tell there's no direct evidence ships were actually built there. Professor Simon Keay of the University of Southampton is quoted as saying "We need to stress there is no evidence yet of ramps which may have been needed to launch newly constructed ships."

Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Roman period.

Tacks have been found which would have been used to nail lead on to the hulls of ships inside one of the bays. They hope to dig down and find more evidence of the shipbuilding use of the site.

Afterlife - and a note of caution

Whist the hypothetical reconstruction is fascinating, what I find even more fascinating about ancient structures is their after-life. The Southampton University press release says the building underwent many changes since its construction in the time of the Emperor Trajan, AD 98-117. Excavation within one of the bays has revealed that its use changed, once 90 years into its life with the construction of a series of inner partition walls, and then again in the late 5th century AD when changes were made to allow the storage of grain. In the early to mid-6th century AD, parts of the building were systematically demolished, probably as a defensive measure during wars between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths, AD 535-553.

A note of caution though – whilst we may like to read history forwards, archaeologists have to read it backwards. First they found the grain store, then they surmised an earlier use as a shipyard. Prof Keay says, and note his words carefully:

“At first we thought this large rectangular building was used as a warehouse, but our latest excavation has uncovered evidence that there may have been another, earlier use, connected to the building and maintenance of ships. Few Roman Imperial shipyards have been discovered and, if our identification is correct, this would be the largest of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean.”

A good reason to do reconstructions on a computer rather than on the ground. See my post on the Bamiyan Buddhas and whether they should they be left as rubble.

(Incidentally, does this imply even larger Roman shipyards have been found elsewhere I wonder?)

1 comment:

  1. Pete - how would they know it was five storeys high?
    Don't know if you've read about this recently, and it might not be as exciting as the shipyard near Rome, but archaeologists here think they've finally found the major amphitheatre in the north of England ("Brittania Inferior" as opposed to "Britannia Superior", or the south, a north-south divide even then!). Not in Eboracum as some may have imagined, but in the now off-the-beaten-track village of Aldborough near Boroughbridge. The article here says that while Eboracum was the military capital of the north, Aldboroudh was effectively the civil capital (of the Britons in Roman times at least), and they believe they've found the amphitheatre. It would be fantastic if they could get the necessary funds to excavate it properly, but in these austere times it seems unlikely, and an unremarkable meadow in a sleepy North Yorkshire village might keep its secret past hidden from unwitting passers-by and the cows which graze on it! Don't worry about publishing all this, just thought you might find the link interesting: