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?

Vindolanda-like Archive from Fort Fectio (not Utrecht)

Richard Campbell and Lindsay Powell get the tip o’ the pileus treatment for alerting me to this one. Unfortunately the only current coverage appears to be in Dutch:

In Utrecht zijn vandaag circa honderd fragmenten van houten Romeinse schrijfplankjes gepresenteerd. De plankjes maakten waarschijnlijk deel uit van het militaire archief van het Romeinse fort Fectio in Bunnik-Vechten.

De vondst is vergelijkbaar met de beroemde schrijfplankjes uit het Romeinse fort Vindolanda bij de Muur van Hadrianus. Die leverden veel informatie op over het dagelijks leven van Romeinse legionairs, waaronder ook in Engeland gelegerde Bataven.

Mogelijk is in Vechten het archief door de Romeinen na een opruiming in de langsstromende Rijn gegooid. Dat moet zijn gebeurd tussen 5 en 270 na Christus, toen het fort Fectio in gebruik was als schakel in de Romeinse grensbewaking.


De houten plankjes zijn al in 1978 door twee amateurarcheologen gevonden. Ze hebben de plankjes ruim dertig jaar deels onder water en deels in de vriezer bewaard en nu staat het tweetal de vondst af aan de provincie Utrecht.

Oorspronkelijk waren de plankjes met was bestreken waarin werd geschreven. Soms werd daarbij de tekst ook in het hout gekrast.

De plankjes zijn inmiddels onderzocht door Wouter Vos van Hazenberg Archeologie en Ton Derks van de Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam. Delen van ingekraste tekst blijken bewaard en te lezen, maar de precieze inhoud hebben ze nog niet kunnen achterhalen. Het gaat waarschijnlijk niet om brieven, maar om officiële documenten als oorkondes, schuldverklaringen, contracten en testamenten. De plankjes worden binnenkort door een Engelse expert onderzocht. Daarna zullen de plankjes waarschijnlijk in de buurt van het fort worden tentoongesteld.


De Romeinse grensfortenreeks om Utrecht loopt vanaf Wijk bij Duurstede, langs de Kromme en Oude Rijn uiteindelijk helemaal naar Katwijk (waar ergens in zee Fort Brittenburg moet liggen). De laatste jaren is er veel gevonden, vooral door de bouw van de vinexlocatie Leidsche Rijn. In 2002 werd daar een Romeinse wachttoren gevonden en in 2003 een 25 meter lang Romeinse schip. In Woerden werd in 2004 een 30 meter lang schip gevonden.

via: Romeins archief gevonden nabij Utrecht

The gist I get from Google’s translation is that the wooden boards were originally found in 1978 and since then have been sitting in the finders’ freezer or something like that. There was originally wax on the boards, but it doesn’t seem to have survived (?) but there are scratches in the wood. The boards have been examined at the Free University of Amsterdam but they’ve made no progress in figuring out what the tablets say; the tablets are on their way to the UK for further examination (and hopefully press coverage). Outside of that, they seem to date between 5 and 270 A.D. (?).

Another source includes a nice photo:

via: Romeins archief komt boven water in Utrecht

Nice photo if you want to show your students some Roman writing tablets. I’m not holding my breath on them getting anything useful, in terms of writing, from these particular examples …

UPDATE (the next day): I’ve changed the title of the post after reading Judith Weingarten’s useful comments …

UPDATE II (July 13): Pierre van Giesen has kindly sent in a translation:

Roman archive found near Utrecht

By Theo Toebosch

Rotterdam, July 9. In Utrecht today around a hundred fragments of Roman wooden writing tablets have been presented/shown. The tablets probably have been part of the military archive of the Roman fort Fectio in Bunnik-Vechten.

The find is comparable with the famous writing tablets from the Roman fort Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall. Those tablets led to a lot of information on daily life of Roman legionaries, amongst which Batavians that had been stationed in England.

Possibly in Vechten the archive has been thrown in the nearby Rhine by the Romans as part of a cleanup. That must have happened between 5 and 270 AD, when the fort Fectio was in use as a link in the chain of border-defences.


The wooden tablets had already been found in 1978 by two amateur-archeologists. For over 30 years they had kept the tablets partly under water and partly in a freezer and now the two hand over their find to the province of Utrecht.

Originally the tablets were covered with wax in which the writing would have been done. By doing so, sometimes the text was scratched in the wood.

Meanwhile the tablets have been investigated by Wouter Vos of Hazenberg Archeology and Ton Derks of the “Vrije Universiteit” of Amsterdam. Parts of the scratched-in texts appear to have survived, but they have not yet uncovered the exact contents. The tablets are probably not letters, but official documents like charters, contracts and testaments. The tablets will be investigated by an English expert soon, after which the tablets will be exhibited probably in the neigbourhood of the fort.

Chain of border forts

The Roman chain of border forts around Utrecht start at Wijk bij Duurstede, along “De Kromme Rijn” and “Oude Rijn” and ultimately to Katwijk (where, somewhere submerged in the northsea, fort Brittenburg must reside). Recently a lot has been found, especially at the building-activities for “Leidsche Rijn”-location. In 2002 a Roman watchtower has been found there and in 2003 a 25-meter long Roman boat. In Woerden a 30-meter long boat has been found in 2004.

Latest Arthurian Round Table with a Roman Connection?

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table...
Image via Wikipedia

An item  in the Daily Mail (hyping a television program, as often)  seems to be causing some excitement:

His is among the most enduring ­legends in our island’s history.

King Arthur, the gallant warrior who gathered his knights around the Round Table at Camelot and rallied Christian Britons against the invading pagan Saxons, has always been an enigma.

But now historians believe they have uncovered the precise location of Arthur’s stronghold, finally solving the riddle of whether the Round Table really existed.

And far from pinpointing a piece of furniture, they claim the ‘table’ was in fact the circular space inside a former Roman amphitheatre.

The experts believe that Camelot could in fact have been Chester Amphitheatre, a huge stone-and-wood structure capable of holding up to 10,000 people.

They say that Arthur would have reinforced the building’s 40ft walls to create an imposing and well fortified base.

The king’s regional noblemen would have sat in the central arena’s front row, with lower-ranked subjects in the outer stone benches.

Arthur has been the subject of much historical debate, but many scholars believe him to have been a 5th or 6th Century leader.

The legend links him to 12 major battles fought over 40 years from the Scottish Borders to the West Country. One of the principal victories was said to have been at Chester.

Rather than create a purpose-built Camelot, historian Chris Gidlow says Arthur would have logically chosen a structure left by the Romans.

‘The first accounts of the Round Table show that it was nothing like a dining table but was a venue for upwards of 1,000 people at a time,’ he said.

‘And we know that one of Arthur’s two main battles was fought at a town referred to as the City of the Legions. There were only two places with this title. One was St Albans, but the location of the other has remained a mystery.’

Researchers, who will reveal their evidence in a television documentary this month, say the recent discovery at the amphitheatre of an execution stone and a wooden memorial to Christian martyrs suggests the missing city is Chester.

Mr Gidlow said: ‘In the 6th Century, a monk named Gildas, who wrote the earliest account of Arthur’s life, referred both to the City of the Legions and to a martyr’s shrine within it.

‘That is the clincher. The discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court – and his legendary Round Table.’

An interesting idea, but not exactly ‘new’. We recall that the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon has long been similarly claimed to be the prototype for this ’round table’ of the Arthur King. Indeed, the National Museum of Wales seems to take it as a fact (if this page is associated with them).  And before we get too excited, back in 2000 someone was suggesting a round building in Scotland. And a decade before that, the same round building location (Stenhouse) in Scotland was being cited by no less than Burke’s Peerage (and connected, sort of, to the Kennedy clan).

That said, if we think an ‘amphitheatre’ can be taken as a ‘table’ (I guess “knights of the amphitheatre” gives the wrong impression?),  we can look at  a list of amphitheater remains in the UK (besides Caerleon and Chester) we see there’s one at Cirencester … Arthur was supposedly crowned there (at Cirencester; not necessarily the amphitheatre); that seems to have a potential claim too. There’s one at Colchester, and Colchester is a Camelot candidate; that seems to have a potential claim too. There’s one at Wroxeter, and Arthur may have had a ‘base’ there; that seems to have a potential claim too. There’s probably more, but you get the picture … plenty o’ places are connected with Arthur (who may or may not have been an historical figure, of course … I won’t get into that here) and plenty o’ those places have remains of an amphitheatre of some sort. At best, though, I think we can charitably put this in the ‘imaginative suggestion’ category.

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