Portus, Lazio

1997 – Present

The site of Portus is located in the Comune of Fiumicino in Lazio, some 25km to the west of Rome, and 4km to the north west of Ostia Antica. Although the port was constructed in antiquity at the mouth of the River Tiber on the Tyrrhenian coast, subsequent deposition of sediments mean that the site is now situated approximately 3km from the present coastline.

The site comprises the extant and buried remains of both the harbour of Claudius and the later harbour of Trajan on the west bank of the Tiber (Keay et al. 2005).

Since 1997 the British School at Rome have been applying geophysical survey techniques to several areas around Portus with the aim of mapping and assessing the extent and nature of archaeological remains associated with the ancient port, in particular around the Trajanic harbour and the moles of the Claudian harbour


1998 Season

Magnetometer survey was conducted at Portus in November 1998 along four sides of Trajan’s inner harbour. The survey was aimed at the identification and recording of buried archaeological remains. This was undertaken as part of The Tiber Valley Project.
To the north east of Trajan’s harbour, the geophysical survey identified the existence of buildings described by previous excavations as well as the possible route of the Constantinian Wall. To the east of Trajan’s harbour, and here a number of Horrea (warehouses) were identified. To the south east of Trajan’s harbour, Horrea previously observed in 1935 are visible in the results, as well as a series of structures between the quayside and the warehouses, with the possibility of a wall separating the two. To the south west of the harbour, survey was restricted although the results indicate a few linear anomalies which could be associated with construction in antiquity.


1999 Season

In April 1999, work continued for The Tiber Valley Project in collaboration with the Soprintendenza di Archeologia di Ostia. Two separate magnetometer survey projects were conducted in the vicinity of the ancient port of Claudius.
The objectives of the first project were to assess the extent of archaeological features and to understand the layout of the Port of Claudius within the survey area, including the quay and adjoining buildings. The survey located structures thought to be warehouses or part of a bath complex as well as revealing small rectangular anomalies, hypothesized to be part of a sub-foundation for the quay.

The second project focused on the right mole of the Claudian harbour, intending to assess its association to previously excavated buildings within the area of Monte Giulio, and to locate any features projecting from the harbour wall on the right arm of the Port.
The survey showed that the right mole continued underground for a distance of 25m, reappearing on the southern side of Via Alessandro Guiloinia, close to Monte Guilio. An area of archaeological features was also identified around the Harbour Master’s house; though heavily masked by modern disturbance, walls or foundations can be discerned. The rest of the survey area had been affected by the man-made changes in ground level and previous excavations, such that no further archaeology could be identified.

In June 1999 The Tiber Valley Project continued work in collaboration with the Soprintendenza di Archeologia di Ostia. A magnetometer survey was conducted with the aim to explore and evaluate the warehouses in the hinterland of the port and also to assess the full extent of the city.
The results of the survey were dominated by a massive linear anomaly which can only be accurately identified through excavation. The dimensions of the feature might support a hypothesis that the structure is part of the aqueduct system. Other less likely hypotheses exist to its nature, such as the remains of the city wall, or part of a road system.


2000 Season

In April and May 2000, a geophysical survey was undertaken on behalf of the Soprintendenza Archeologia di Ostia. The survey represented the fifth phase of collaborative work at the Imperial harbour, under The Tiber Valley Project. The survey concentrated on the land around the Port of Trajan, specifically to the west of the harbour, associated with the so called ‘Imperial Palace’ area and to the south, in the vicinity of the Basilica Portuense with the aim of identifying and mapping the buried archaeological remains.
In the Imperial Palace area many structures were identified, including warehouses and administrative structures. Several of the features suggest the existence of public buildings, including a large rectangular structure in the north of the area and a double concentric sub-circular feature. However there was no evidence for the existence of a imperial palace. In the southern zone a building complex associated with the basilica was discovered. The layout of this complex suggested it may have been a bath house.


2001 Season

In March 2001, geophysical survey continued at the Claudian Harbour of Portus by The British School at Rome and Southampton University, on behalf of Duke Sforza Cesarini and the estate representative’s ditta SANTER. The survey marked the completion of the work on and around the Claudian harbour, close to the airport of Fiumicino, started in June 1999. The aim of the survey was to locate and map the remains of sub-surface archaeological deposits in the vicinity of the Casale Monte Giulio to the west of the area surveyed in June 1999.
The results showed no features of archaeological significance. This was however to be expected as the previous survey of this area to the east also uncovered very little archaeological evidence, while the survey area position between the two harbour moles was archaeologically unpromising.

In August 2001, a geophysical survey was undertaken at the Trajanic harbour of Portus by The British School at Rome and students from Southampton University, on behalf of the Soprintendenza Archeologia di Ostia as part of the continuing Tiber Valley Project. The aim of the survey was to locate and map the remains of sub-surface archaeological features in the vicinity of the Lago di Traiano, in the archaeological park, to the south of the Via Portuense, either side of the Castello of the modern bishopric. Seven separate areas were covered.
To the south of the Darsena, the anomalies indicated that a forum area existed between the rows of warehouses. They also indicate a continuation of the antemural portico and colonnade, and a portico along the northern edge of the forum. A series of more ephemeral structures were also located within the forum area. To the north and west, warehouses lined the Darsena. To the west of the Castello, the continuation of the ancient canal linking the port with the Tiber is visible, with warehouses extending along its western edge. To the east, a series of structures probably mark out the temple of Apollo along with other warehouses. To the west of the forum, defensive walls running east-west were also picked up by the survey, first discovered through excavated sondages in the 1990’s. In the north, around the Severan magazines and the Molo della Lanterna, the survey indicated the location of a number of discrete structures associated with the limits of the Claudian harbour and the interconnecting channel between it and the hexagonal basin. A square feature at the western end of the Severan magazines was interpreted as a lantern that marked the harbour jetty. The results also clearly identified the line of the jetty formed by the extant building remains. The edge of the canal, interconnecting the Claudian and Trajanic harbours, was located at the Lago di Traiano.

Magnetometry survey at Portus during the 2006 survey


2004 and 2006 Seasons

In an area to the east of the Trajanic harbour, immediately north of the Via Portuense, between the months of June and July 2004 and November and December 2006, geophysical surveys were undertaken by The British School at Rome and The University of Southampton, on behalf of the Sforza-Cesarini family. The survey was initiated with the aim of locating and mapping the remains of sub-surface archaeological deposits to the east of the port of Trajan.
The main feature that dominated the results from the surveys was the presence of a man-made canal, which can be identified as one of the canals referred to in the commemorative inscription of Claudian date (CILXIV, 85). Other features were also identified as track-ways which run towards the Port and in a north-south direction further to the east. The depth of alluvial deposits across the eastern part of the survey had masked some of the archaeological features, in some cases there was thought to be upwards of 1.5m of overburden at some points. There is potential evidence for two ancient tracks in the area, and other smaller positive linear features also suggest possible archaeological material in this area but none suggest extensive archaeological structures.


2007 Season

The first excavation season took place over five weeks during September and early October 2007 and focused on the area of the Imperial Palace surveyed in 2000.
It built upon two earlier seasons of pre-excavation topographic work (March 2007) and resistance tomography (June 2007). The excavations uncovered a large (250 mq) open area at the eastern edge of the Palazzo Imperiale, a key building at the centre of the port, revealing a large rectangular dock or canal that was probably of Claudian date, defined by a spectacular series of moles on the south side of the main Claudian basin of the port. This was filled with sand in the course of the first and second centuries AD, and its central stretch subsequently covered by a large circular building in the Severan period. The whole area was extensively replanned in the later fifth and sixth centuries AD.


2008 Season

Both excavation and geophysics projects continued in the vicinity of Portus throughout 2008.
A three year programme of magnetometer survey that aimed to define land use across the entire ancient Isola Sacra began in the north-eastern corner of the island. The survey was carried out by The British School at Rome and Southampton University on behalf of the Soprintendenza Archeologia di Ostia. The survey was successfully identified structures to the south of the Fossa Traiana between Sant Ippolito and the Capo due Rami that are possibly associated with the Statio Marmorum. Road alignments were visible across the survey area as were ancient field boundaries. To the north of the island anomalies that may represent tomb structures were found overlooking the Tiber.

A magnetometer survey was also carried out within an area of farmland located immediately to the west of the Viadotto di Accesso All’ Aeroporto and north of the Via Portuense, approximately 6 hectares in area. This site overlies the southern part of the former Claudian harbour basin. The survey was carried out by The British School at Rome and Southampton University, on behalf of Duke Sforza Cesarini.
The results identified some features of archaeological significance including concentrations of ancient material, possible rubble from the nearby Claudian mole, and enclosures provisionally linked to 19th Century agriculture. The survey confirmed the hypothesis that this area lay within the ancient harbour beyond the limits of the inhabited port complex.

The main focus of the second season of excavations remained the large open area at the eastern edge of the Palazzo Imperiale initiated in 2007. The sequence here is now clearer. Considerable emphasis was directed towards the southern side of the channel excavated in 2007. While the expected southern mole has proved elusive, the excavations uncovered the northern face and a range of rooms belonging to the large building delimiting the southern side of the channel: this runs for 250m in an east-west direction, and was c. 80 m wide. This southern wall face embodied a highly complex structural sequence running from the 1st through to the later 5th centuries AD.
More was learned about the circular building uncovered in 2007. It was in fact ovoid in shape (c. 42m x 35 m) and may have acted as a centre for the registration of incoming cargoes. Emphasis was also directed towards the excavation of the sequence of cisterns at its northern end. It now seems certain that these were built during the Trajanic and Hadrianic periods, undergoing an important series of modifications down into the late antique period, as well as providing evidence for limited occupation during the 11th-13th centuries AD. It is possible that these were the easternmost of a line of cisterns along the northern façade of the Palazzo Imperiale, that were fed by an aqueduct running along the south side of the channel uncovered in 2007, and which may have been used to provide freshwater for ships leaving Portus on their return journeys.
Additional fieldwork included a programme of geoarchaeological coring in the excavation area (J-P Goiran, Universite de Lyons), as well as a sub-bottom profile survey of the Trajanic basin in collaboration with the Duca Sforza Cesarini.


2009 Season

The third and final season of excavations at Portus were undertaken for two weeks in the first half of July, and between the 26th August and the 23rd October. This involved the continuation of excavation on the western side of the side at the foot of the late antique walls, within the large building at the southern end of the site (Building 5), on the western side of the cistern block (Buildings 1 and 3) and on the western side of the path in the direction of the main body of the “Palazzo Imperiale.” Overall an area of c. 3000 square metres has now been excavated with an international team of c 50 people, resulting in the identification of seven main periods of structural development along the eastern side of the “Palazzo Imperiale.” One of the highlights of the season included the discovery of the western side of the amphitheatre, which was found to be inscribed within a monumental hemicycle, a seriously of luxuriously appointed rooms lying immediately to the west which formed the eastern edge of a garden complex. The rooms generated large quantities of imported marble, including a very fine head, possibly representing Ulysses, and environmental material. Another was the discovery of the Claudian mole and an associated series of beach deposits. In addition to the excavation, there was an intensive programme of Ground Penetrating Radar survey covering the whole of the “Palazzo Imperiale,” further environmental coring (with the Université de Lyon) and a first programme of helicopter-based infra-red photography of the whole of Portus and the Isola Sacra (with the University of Ghent).


Select Bibliography

S. Keay, 2001, Gateway to Rome, in British Archaeology 57: 20-23.
S. Keay, M. Millett, K. Strutt, 2004, Portus Romae: recent suvey work at the ports of Claudius and Trajan, in A. Gallina Zevi-R. Turchetti (a cura di), Le Strutture dei Porti e degli Approdi Antichi. ANSER Anciennes Routes Maritimes Mediterraneennes, Catanzaro.
S. Keay, M. Millett, L. Paroli, and K. Strutt, 2005, Portus. An Archaeological Survey of the Port of Imperial Rome, Archaeological Monographs of the British School at Rome 15. London.
S. Keay, M. Millett, K. Strutt, 2008, Recent archaeological survey at Portus, in R. Hohlfelder (ed.), The Maritime World of Ancient Rome, Michigan: 97-100.
S. Keay, L. Paroli, (edd.), 2009, Recent Archaeological Research at Portus. Archaeological Monographs of the British School (Forthcoming)