Breaking (sort of): Original Port of Ostia Found

French and Italian archaeologists have located the site of the original port of Rome (i.e. Ostia), which has been much disputed over the years. The English coverage of this really doesn’t do the original press release from the CNRS justice, so to quickly summarize, they took core samples from a site near the Imperial Palace northwest of Portus and found a succession of sediment which matches nicely ancient accounts of the original site silting up. Here’s the original press release:

Le premier port antique de Rome enfin retrouvé
Si les archéologues avaient mis au jour les grands monuments antiques d’Ostie, restait à découvrir l’emplacement du port qui alimentait Rome en blé. Grâce à des carottages sédimentaires, ce port « perdu » vient enfin d’être localisé au nord-ouest de la cité d’Ostie, en rive gauche de l’embouchure du Tibre. La stratigraphie révèle également qu’à sa fondation, entre le IVe et le IIe s. avant J.-C., le bassin était profond de 6 m, soit la profondeur d’un grand port maritime. Ces recherches ont été réalisées par une équipe franco-italienne de la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée (CNRS/ Université Lumière Lyon 2), de l’Ecole Française de Rome et de la Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma – Sede di Ostia (1) et sont publiées dans les Chroniques des Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome du mois de décembre 2012.
D’après les textes anciens, Ostie a été fondée par Ancus Marcius, le quatrième roi de Rome. L’objectif était triple : donner à Rome un débouché à la mer, assurer son ravitaillement en blé et en sel et enfin, empêcher une flotte ennemie de remonter le Tibre. Les fouilles archéologiques ont montré que le noyau urbain initial (castrum) remonte au plus tôt au tournant du IVe s. et IIIe s av. J.-C. Si les grands édifices antiques et les principales voies ont été progressivement mis au jour, l’emplacement du port fluvial d’embouchure d’Ostie restait inconnu à ce jour. Pour certains, ce dernier était considéré comme un port perdu à jamais. En effet, depuis la Renaissance, de nombreuses tentatives de localisation du port d’Ostie ont été entreprises, sans succès. Il faut attendre les XIXe et XXe siècle pour que des archéologues italiens définissent un secteur au nord-ouest de la ville, proche du Palais Impérial. Au début du XXIe siècle, les archéologues confirment la probable localisation du bassin, dans ce secteur nord, grâce à l’utilisation d’instruments géomagnétiques. Mais il n’y avait toujours pas consensus sur la localisation exacte du port et le débat restait vif.

Une équipe franco-italienne dirigée par Jean-Philippe Goiran, chercheur au laboratoire Archéorient (CNRS/ Université Lumière Lyon 2), a donc tenté de vérifier définitivement l’hypothèse d’un port au nord grâce à un nouveau carottier géologique. Bénéficiant des derniers progrès technologiques, celui-ci permet de dépasser le problème de la nappe d’eau phréatique qui empêchait les fouilles archéologiques traditionnelles de descendre au-delà de 2m de profondeur.

Les carottes sédimentaires obtenues ont ainsi permis de mettre au jour une stratigraphie complète sur une profondeur de 12 m et une évolution en 3 étapes :

1.La strate la plus profonde, antérieure à la fondation d’Ostie, indique que la mer était présente dans ce secteur au début du Ier millénaire av. J.-C.

2.Une strate médiane, riche en sédiments argilo-limoneux de couleur grise, qui caractérise un faciès portuaire. Les calculs donnent une profondeur de 6 m au bassin au début de son fonctionnement, daté entre le IVe et le IIe s. avant J.-C. Considéré jusqu’alors comme un port essentiellement fluvial, ne pouvant accueillir que des bateaux à faible tirant d’eau, le port d’Ostie bénéficiait en réalité d’un bassin profond susceptible d’accueillir de grands navires maritimes ; c’est ce qu’a montré la mesure de la profondeur.

3.Enfin, la strate la plus récente témoigne de l’abandon du bassin à l’époque romaine impériale par des accumulations massives d’alluvions. Grâce aux datations au radiocarbone, il est possible d’en déduire qu’une succession d’épisodes de crues majeures du Tibre est venue colmater définitivement le bassin portuaire d’Ostie entre le IIe s. av. JC et le premier quart de siècle ap. J.-C. (et ce, malgré d’éventuelles phases de curage). A cette période, la profondeur du bassin est inférieure à 1 m et rend toute navigation impossible. Ces résultats sont en accord avec le discours du géographe Strabon (58 av. J.-C. – 21/25 ap. J.-C.) qui indique un comblement du port d’Ostie par des sédiments du Tibre à son époque. Il a alors été abandonné au profit d’un nouveau complexe portuaire construit à 3km au nord de l’embouchure du Tibre, du nom de Portus.

Cette découverte du bassin portuaire d’embouchure d’Ostie, au nord de la ville et à l’ouest du Palais Impérial, va permettre de mieux comprendre les liens entre Ostie, son port et la création ex-nihilo de Portus, commencé en 42 ap. J.-C et achevé sous Néron en 64 ap. J.-C. Ce gigantesque port de 200 ha deviendra alors le port de Rome et le plus grand jamais construit par les romains en Méditerranée.

Entre l’abandon du port d’Ostie et le lancement des opérations de construction de Portus, les chercheurs estiment ainsi que près de 25 ans se sont écoulés. Comment Rome, capitale du monde antique, et première ville à atteindre un million d’habitant, était-elle alimentée en blé durant cette période ? La question se pose à présent aux chercheurs.

Notes :

(1) Ces travaux ont été également menés en collaboration avec la Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme (CNRS/ Aix-Marseille Université), l’Universita Roma 3, la chaire de l’Institut Universitaire de France de P. Arnaud et ont reçu le soutien de l’ANR.
Références :

J.-Ph. Goiran, F. Salomon, E. Pleuger, C. Vittori, I. Mazzini, G. Boetto, P. Arnaud, A. Pellegrino, décembre 2012, “Résultats préliminaires de la première campagne de carottages dans le port antique d’Ostie”, Chroniques des Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome, vol. n°123-2.

… the original article is accompanied by a photo which doesn’t really add or detract from the piece (looks like a nice Italian field).

If you want an example of the English coverage, here’s AFP via PhysOrg:

French and Italian archaeologists have found the remains of a grain port that played a critical role in the rise of ancient Rome, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said on Thursday. Cores drilled at a location at the mouth of the River Tiber have revealed the site of a port whose existence has been sought for centuries, it said in a press release. The port lies northwest of Ostia, which was established by Rome as a fortress gateway to enable trade to pass upriver towards the city and prevent pirates and marauders. The evidence points to a port established between the fourth and second century BC and had a depth of six metres (20 feet), making it accessible to sea-going vessels, the CNRS said. Rome emerged as the prime power of the Mediterranean thanks in part to trade. It imported huge amounts of wheat, especially from Egypt. In the first century AD, the grain port at Ostia was superseded by a giant installation covering 200 hectares (500 acres) at Portus.

… and as long as we’re talking about Ostia, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned the excellent Ostia Antica website

Roman Ship From Ostia

Tip o’ the pileus to Francesca Tronchin for finding this one … from ANSA:

An ancient ship has emerged from the ground at the Imperial Roman port of Ostia in a find Culture Minister Giancarlo Galan said “gives you goose bumps”.

An 11-metre section of one of the ship’s sides has so far been discovered, archaeologists said.

They and Galan said the discovery would make experts think anew about the exact location of the port where the Roman empire’s biggest fleet was stationed and through which goods travelled to and from the imperial capital.

“This great result tells us a lot of things about the ancient coastline and what was happening about 2,000 years ago,” said Galan, who rushed down to the site after the find was made public.

Archaeologists said they were expecting to find something in the area, where a major road bridge is being rebuilt, and had launched a programme of so-called ‘preventive archaeology’.

Site director Paola Germoni stressed that this type of work “enables us to combine the demands of conservation of ancient artefacts with the needs of the general public”.

She said the discovery “would plausibly move back the ancient coast line some four kilometres from where it is now”.

Silt and river movements have pushed back the area of the once-bustling port, which is now a major archeological site called Ostia Antica, the best-preserved ancient Roman town outside Pompeii.

Although it attracts far fewer visitors than Pompeii, many enthusiasts say it offers a similar thrill and feel of ancient life.

Anna Maria Moretti, archaeological superintendent for Rome and Ostia Antica, said “the find is a novelty because at that depth, about four metres below the topsoil, we have never found a ship, only layers (of buildings) and one single structure”.

“At the moment we only have a sizeable chunk of one side (of the ship), neither the poop or stern”.

She also said there were “remains of ropes and cables” in the ship.

“Restoring the vessel will be an extremely delicate operation,” Moretti went on. “We’re keeping it constantly covered in water so that the wood doesn’t dry out.

“The wreck must be treated with highly sophisticated preservation techniques,” Moretti said.

Several Roman ships were found during the construction of the nearby Fiumicino Airport in the 1950s and are now housed in a museum at Ostia Antica.

Ancient Roman Ostia, at the since-moved mouth of the River Tiber, was built into a massive complex under the Emperor Claudius and given the name Portus, meaning port.

It was expanded under successive emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian and served as a base for many of the empire’s greatest expeditions.

Ostia was also the depot channelling the vast wealth, grain and other supplies needed to feed the appetites of the imperial city.

UPDATE (a few minutes later): tip o’ the pileus to Martin Conde, who alerted us to the Corriere coverage which includes some nice photos and a video (probably short-lived): Ostia Antica, scoperta una nave romana Galan: «Ritrovamento da brivido» | Corriere della Sera

Major Roman Canal from Portus!

The incipit of a very interesting item from the Telegraph:

Scholars discovered the 100-yard-wide (90-metre-wide) canal at Portus, the ancient maritime port through which goods from all over the Empire were shipped to Rome for more than 400 years.

The archaeologists, from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton and the British School at Rome, believe the canal connected Portus, on the coast at the mouth of the Tiber, with the nearby river port of Ostia, two miles away.

It would have enabled cargo to be transferred from big ocean-going ships to smaller river vessels and taken up the River Tiber to the docks and warehouses of the imperial capital.

Until now, it was thought that goods took a more circuitous overland route along a Roman road known as the Via Flavia.

“It’s absolutely massive,” said Simon Keay, the director of the three-year dig at Portus, the most comprehensive ever conducted at the site, which lies close to Rome’s Fiumicino airport, 20 miles west of the city.

“We know of other, contemporary canals which were 20-40 metres wide, and even that was big. But this was so big that there seems to have been an island in the middle of it, and there was a bridge that crossed it. It was unknown until now.”

The subterranean outline of the canal was found during a survey by Prof Martin Millett, of Cambridge University, using geophysical instruments which revealed magnetic anomalies underground.

The dig, which is being carried out in partnership with Italian archaeologists, is shedding light on the extraordinary trading network that the Romans developed throughout the Mediterranean basin, from Spain to Egypt and Asia Minor.

The archeologists have found evidence that trading links with North Africa in particular were far more extensive than previously believed. They have found hundreds of amphorae which were used to transport oil, wine and a pungent fermented fish sauce called garum, to which the Romans were particularly partial, from what is now modern Tunisia and Libya.

Huge quantities of wheat were also imported from what were then the Roman provinces of Africa and Egypt.

“What the recent work has shown is that there was a particular preference for large scale imports of wheat from North Africa from the late 2nd century AD right through to the 5th and maybe 6th centuries,” said Prof Keay.

[...]

via: ‘Biggest canal ever built by Romans’ discovered | Telegraph

90 metres wide! That’s huge! Where did the water come from to fill it?

Necropolis at Ostia!

The skinny: it dates from the second half of the first century A.D. (based on it apparently demonstrating a transition from cremation to inhumation) and most of the occupants seem to be low-status males (skeletal remains show evidence of a life of ‘hard labour’) …

Resti di una necropoli di epoca romana sono stati scoperti nel Parco dei Ravennati ad Ostia Antica. Il ritrovamento durante il lavori effettuati da Acea in via Gesualdo per la sistemazione di un nuovo impianto di illuminazione.

L’area di necropoli si stendeva lungo un muro ad angolo, di cui è stata rinvenuta soltanto la fondazione. Le tombe ad inumazione ed in limitatissimo numero anche ad incinerazione sono sistemate in modo caotico, con numerose riduzioni volontarie per far posto alle inumazioni più recenti.

La necropoli sembra risalire alla seconda metà del I secolo d.C., in un momento di passaggio tra l’uso del rito ad incinerazione a quello ad inumazione. A comunicarlo la Soprintendenza per i beni archeologici di Roma di Ostia.

«Dall’analisi antropologica preliminare gli inumati, nella maggior parte di sesso maschile, sono apparsi appartenere ad un livello sociale molto basso, per le numerose tracce di alterazioni scheletriche causate da stress biomeccanici, attribuiti ad un’attività lavorativa particolarmente pesante, che prevedeva un forte impegno funzionale degli arti – prosegue la nota – Inoltre, nell’area di cantiere più vicina alla Stazione della Ferrovia Roma-Lido sono state rinvenute alcune strutture murarie, rasate al livello delle fondazioni, riferibili a due ambienti adiacenti pavimentati con mosaici a disegni geometrici in bianco/nero. Queste strutture possono collegarsi alle altre visibili lungo via della Stazione di Ostia Antica ed a quelle scoperte in più punti negli anni passati nei pressi della Stazione e probabilmente riferibili ad ambito commerciale e residenziale. I dati scaturiti da questo intervento si sono rivelati particolarmente interessanti per la ricostruzione delle modalità di utilizzo del territorio immediatamente circostante alla città romana di Ostia Antica».

Lo scavo è stato realizzato su incarico Acea dalla Cooperativa archeologia, sotto la direzione scientifica della Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma – Sede di Ostia, con il supporto di un’antropologa collaboratrice del Servizio di Antropologia della Soprintendenza. E’ stato possibile mettere in luce la continuazione dell’ambito necropolare già evidenziato durante un precedente cantiere Acea, effettuato nel 2006 nell’angolo Sud-occidentale del Parco dei Ravennati.

via Ostia antica, trovati resti di una necropoli – Il Messaggero.