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The University of Southampton
ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Archaeology: The Portus Project

A University of Southampton study of Portus, the maritime port of Imperial Rome, led by Professor Simon Keay, has had a significant influence on how the State authorities in Rome manage archaeological sites. Its findings show that commercial activity at the port was far greater than previously understood, enabling academics to reappraise the site’s significance and increase public awareness of it around the world. A three-phase programme of archaeological research, led by the University of Southampton, is the first sustained study of Portus, the port of Imperial Rome.

Its findings show that commercial activity at the port was far greater than previously understood, enabling academics to reappraise the site’s significance and increase public awareness of it around the world. A three-phase programme of archaeological research, led by the University of Southampton, is the first sustained study of Portus, the port of Imperial Rome.

The work began in 1998, with the systematic mapping of 220Ha of the ancient port and surrounding hinterland, and continued with the AHRC-funded Portus Project (2006-2011). This explored Portus’ role within the commercial life of the Roman Mediterranean, specifically its development over the first six centuries AD and its impact on the broader Mediterranean. An integrated programme of large-scale excavations and high-resolution geophysical surveys was carried out at the centre of the port. The team prepared initial computer graphic simulations of the excavated buildings and completed preliminary work on the finds. The research has culminated with a third AHRC phase of research (2011-2014). All of these results show that Portus was at the centre of a network of at least four Italian ports serving Rome, and that commerce between Rome and the rest of the Mediterranean was far more complex and on a far greater scale than previously thought. It points to a much larger volume of commerce moving across the Roman Mediterranean during the first four centuries AD, commanding a rethinking of the relationship between Rome and its Mediterranean empire. All of this work was directed by Keay, with Dr Graeme Earl, also of the University of Southampton, and was undertaken in partnership with the British School at Rome, the Superintendancy for Rome’s Archaeological Heritage (SSBAR) and the University of Cambridge. The Southampton-led integrated approach to excavation, survey and computer visualization also has major implications as to how the layout and archaeological potential of a major Classical site can be mapped in a relatively short space of time; the potential of such techniques to simulate innovation; and demonstrates how a historically key site can be presented to the public Impact case study through mobile electronic media, (such as geographically sensitive tablets and smartphones which guide users around the site) that could be applied elsewhere, thereby fostering a wider public interest in Classical heritage more generally.

 

Prior to the beginning of the Portus Project, the site was known only to archaeological authorities and a small group of academics. Research led by the University of Southampton has introduced new global audiences to the heritage site, raising public awareness of Classical history in general. The project website www.portusproject.org receives c. 1,000 unique visitors monthly. From 2009 there has been an increase in visits to the site from Italian schoolchildren and staff, and students from Rome-based foreign academies and European and US universities. A press strategy based around two five-month campaigns in 2009 and 2011 was key, culminating in international press conferences at Portus and extensive coverage across international broadcast and print media, including all UK and Italian broadsheets, the BBC and CNN etc. In December 2012, BBC1 screened a major documentary (co-financed by Discovery US) Rome’s Lost Empire, with Southampton’s excavation, geophysics and CGI-modelling work featuring prominently, which reached an audience of 4.23 million in the UK. Its Director Jeff Wilkinson wrote: “The important discoveries (Professor Keay and his team) have made at Portus played a key role in generating the excellent viewer figures for the programme, and therefore in benefitting the BBC.” It was also screened by France 5, attracting 1.1million viewers, and subsequently across the EU and in the US. Portus’ popularity as a tourist destination has risen. Some specialist UK tourist companies, notably Swan Hellenic Cruises (2010, 2013), have placed Portus on their itineraries, thereby deriving economic benefit from this work. Since 2013 the International Airport of Fiumicino, the SSBAR and other regional authorities have started exploring joint collaboration to open up the site to the large numbers of tourists over the next few years.

The SSBAR has benefitted from the researchers’ experience in integrating a research project

within the management framework of a high-profile site, new methodologies and presentation of results, with the Director General of Antiquities citing it as having “... had considerable scientific impact ... reinforcing the documentation that illustrates the importance of the site and also serves to inform its management”. The AHRC has also benefitted, with the CEO Rick Rylance saying in connection with the launch of the AHRC’s research strategy for 2013- 2018 that “The great Portus Project … reveals the potential of collaborative organization across nations and across different sorts of disciplines...”. (2013). Furthermore an initial collaboration with Microsoft Research in High Performance Computing has led to a further ongoing collaborations at Portus, each of which is focused on the development of new hardware and software tools that can be applied further afield.

 

 

 

 

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