ED: Free MOOC from the Portus Project

Peter Campbell alerts us to this very interesting looking online course … some excerpts:

The ‘Archaeology of Portus MOOC’ will enable anyone to study online, for free, wherever they are in the world – while benefitting from the decades of research carried out by the University’s Portus Project at this historic site located around 30 miles from Italy’s capital city. The MOOC requires no previous experience, there is no admission interview and no need to have ever studied online or even in higher education.

Director of the Portus Project, Professor Simon Keay comments: “This course will focus on how we work at Portus and what it tells us about imperial Rome. The port was Rome’s gateway to the Mediterranean –playing a key role in trade across Europe and beyond. It was vital to the survival of the Roman Empire.”


Portus was the maritime port of ancient Rome and together with the neighbouring river port at Ostia, was the focus of a network of ports serving imperial Rome between the mid-1st century AD and the 6th century AD.

The MOOC will provide access to Portus Project research data, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the British School at Rome and the University of Southampton, with the support of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma. It also provides an insight into the wide range of digital technologies employed to record, analyse and present the site. […]

More details:

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Review: Rome’s Lost Empire

Not sure how long this one will be up on Youtube, so it might be a good idea to watch it now … my review follows:

We’ll begin by noting that when this one first appeared on the BBC a week or two ago, it seemed to be universally-panned by folks on twitter and facebook. It had been hyped by the BBC (who produced the program).and by the University of Alabama (whence comes Sarah Parcak, whose work sparked the show: Birmingham Egyptologist Sarah Parcak featured in BBC show on lost treasures rediscovered from space). In case you didn’t know, Parcak was the “space archaeologist” who was in the news a year and a half ago for finding a pile of Egyptian sites (including pyramids) using her satellite methods (e.g. Egyptian pyramids found by infra-red satellite images … BBC). She also gave a very interesting TED talk that you should check out if you get a chance: Sarah Parcak: Archeology from space ).

That said, we have to note that this particular documentary has a pile of the ‘devices’ that I find incredibly annoying in documentaries about the ancient world, and all of them are connected to trying to create ‘drama’. For example, although the thing is hosted by the very capable Dan Snow, I really don’t care about his parents dragging him around ancient sites or Dr Parcak’s imaginary space ship.  We really don’t need silly statements about Dr Parcak being an ‘ordinary lecturer’ by day, but someone who sits in front of a computer at night doing research (don’t we all do that?). I don’t like the ‘contrivedness’ of having Dr Parcak being set up in the ruins of Portus/Ostia (can’t tell which), supposedly doing the research for the first time when we all know it was all done well in advance of any footage being shot. We also don’t need the shots of her working long hours into the night or confessions of self doubt, yadda yadda yadda. The UK version of all this is an hour and twenty minutes long; when the program comes to the US this summer, it is apparently going to be shorter. If they’re looking for things to cut out, that’s a nice list.

As long as we’re talking about editing things out, I should also note that in general, the documentary puts one in the same mood as one might have been listening to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street for the first time: so much good stuff if the other bits were stripped out. In particular, the supposed unifying element in this program — the question of how Rome maintained such a vast empire with so few soldiers — is completely unneeded and the focus should have been from the start simply what the new technologies can tell us that we didn’t need to learn before. We don’t need to make it look like we are suddenly coming up with a new theory when we’re just finding evidence confirming what is already believed by a majority of scholars.

That said, there is some really good information here, but not all of it is without controversy. The first segment is devoted to Portus and is seeking to help Simon Keay and crew find things like canals and the lighthouse. Back in 2010, a canal find at Portus was big news (Major Roman Canal from Portus!). In 2011, we read about a shipyard find (Huge Roman Shipyard Found (Maybe)) .

Unfortunately, the segment with Keay and crew is just an introductory tease and we are taken to the land of the Dacians — which, of course, is more dramatically referred to as ‘Transylvania’. Outside of the use of sonar to ‘sort of” find the footings of the bridge Trajan built across the Danube (and the expected graphical recreations), what is really important here is the use of LiDAR to find evidence of rampants around Sarmizgetusa. The segment involves a big gun in Dacian archaeology (Gelu Florea) and really deserved a bit more attention than it had. But it’s really our first indication of what these new technologies can reveal to us.

Back to Portus where Parcak has (finally, it dramatically appears) located something with her infrared-enhanced satellite technology: a major canal running up the *east* side of the Tiber. This is an incredible find and it would have been very nice if they could have somehow followed it further to see how far it actually went. As with the previously-mentioned canal find (above), I can only ask  what effect all these canals had on the water levels of the Tiber. Someone needs to correlate reports of flooding of the Tiber to construction of canals like these.

Unfortunately (again), they don’t really go very deep into the matter and suddenly have a need to dash off to Jordan. There’s lots of dramatic silliness until we meet up with Chris Tuttle, who has been working in the environs of Petra over the past few years. The goal of this segment is to find evidence of “abundance” under the pax Romana and Parcak locates a promising site with the infrared satellite thing. The trio (Snow, Parcak, and Tuttle) do a quick survey and find potsherds, some of which are apparently Roman. Supposedly this is evidence of “abundance” … more detail is needed here.

Back to Portus, where Parcak identifies what is possibly a Roman amphitheatre. This is presented as a new find and is really quite dishonest as presented. In fact, Keay made the claim to have found this back in 2009 — and for some reason it doesn’t seem to have been mentioned by me. Happily, the Science Daily coverage is still up: Archaeologists Discover Amphitheatre In Excavation Of Portus, Ancient Port Of Rome … as is Mary Beard’s criticism of all the hype: The luxury amphitheatre at Portus. After the tease, we are shown the shipyards mentioned above (also not a new discovery, obviously).

Then we’re off to Tunisia, which apparently was “Rome’s granary” (as if Sicily and Egypt suddenly weren’t producing). The big name here is David Mattingly, who is pleased to learn from the satellite technology about a fort (which the gang explores … and it is apparent that some diggers have already been there). Along the way we are shown remains of a Roman frontier wall … it would have been nice to see the extent of this — does it rival Hadrian’s Wall?

Finally, we head back to Portus, where this time the LiDAR is used to identify a big platform. Keay concludes that it must be the platform the lighthouse stood on and there follows much recreation — interestingly, the Portus Project’s webpage sort of downplays the recreation of the lighthouse, although it finds it useful. Missing in this segment would have been an overlay of the harbour itself to see if this platform actually extended into the water. As presented, it’s a few dotted red lines on a satellite shot. I still can’t quite figure this one out.

In closing, I should also mention something that I found annoying in all this: there were no subtitles to identify the various archaeologists and they don’t appear to be mentioned individually in the credits (although they might be clipped from the Youtube version).  Definitely something that should have been included, if only to allow people to follow up on things. Stripped away of the docuembellishments and other shortcomings, though, the program does go far to show the utility of Parcak’s satellite-infrared approach to finding sites as well as the incredible potential for LiDAR. We’ll very likely be seeing similar docu-applications in the future.

Some other reviews:

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