Romping around the Mediterranean

The Rome’s Mediterranean Ports project (RoMP) continues with a two-day conference at the BSR this week. The five-year RoMP project is funded by the European Research Council and at the helm is Professor Simon Keay (University of Southampton; BSR) who, as director of the ongoing archaeological investigation of Portus, the Imperial port of Rome, since 1998, is looking to broaden the study of the Mediterranean port network.  The aim of RoMP is to better understand commercial and social connectivity across the Mediterranean in the Roman Imperial period by studying, in detail, a range of port sites that link Rome to her provinces. Bringing the historical and epigraphical evidence together with archaeological investigations, which include geophysical survey, serves to produce a more holistic approach to our understanding of the role of these ports. The BSR is right at the heart of this exciting international project

Topographic survey at Kane, Turkey

Topographic survey at Kane, Turkey

BSR archaeologists spent the latter part of the year traveling to foreign climes to conduct archaeological geophysical surveys under the aegis of the RoMP project. Our first port of call was the small Hellenistic site of Kane in western Turkey. Kane, a picturesque peninsular jutting out into the Aegean Sea, lies 20 miles southwest of Pergamon and is one of a series of small ports being investigated by the Deutsche Archäologische Institut in Istanbul by its director, Dr Felix Pirson.

View of the Kane peninsular, Turkey

View of the Kane peninsular, Turkey

It was a strategic port in antiquity but its prominence as a Hellenstic and Roman harbour was impeded by the poor infrastructure connecting it to inland settlements. So we are seeking to understand how this intriguing port functioned, and what kind of micro-region it served.

Gradiometry, otherwise known as magnetometry, is a geophysical survey technique that uses equipment which looks like a prop from the Star Wars films, and is used to detect buried remains.

Gradiometer survey being carried out in Kane, Turkey

Gradiometer survey being carried out in Kane, Turkey

One of the great advantages of the interdisciplinary nature of the RoMP project is that we were working alongside the geomorphologists and underwater geophysicists at Kane, so our combined data sets have revealed more about the layout of the site and helped to assess its relationship with other nearby ancient ports.

Barely had we unpacked from Turkey than we were packing our bags to go to Tunisia. The port of Utica was an important centre throughout the Punic and Hellenistic eras and then flourished in the Roman period. Its location at the head of the Medjerda Valley, the corridor to the rich imperial agricultural estates in Tunisia, made it one of the most important ports of Roman North Africa.

View across the excavations of an insula block in Utica, Tunisia

View across the excavations of an insula block in Utica, Tunisia

RoMP collaborates with the University of Oxford, who established a project at Utica with the aim of understanding the urban development of the site and its trade connections, and how the local geomorphology influenced its growth and its eventual demise.

The gradiometer survey conducted by the BSR has spectcularly revealed the urban plan of Utica. It was arranged on an orthogonal layout with each insula block being flanked by roads. Each insula measures about 40m by 90m and to emphasise the large scale of the survey, we covered an area of about 40 insulae in just a few weeks.  Not only do the survey results change our understanding of the scale and scope of this port town in antiquity, but the details identified within some of the insulae allow us to glimpse at evidence of colonnaded porticos, shop fronts, large open areas and production sites such as kilns.

A small portion of the gradiometry survey results from Utica – the roads show as large black lines and the walls of individual structures within the rectangular insulae as a mixture of white and black lines depending on the nature of the building material. Floor surfaces also show up as black features.

A small portion of the gradiometry survey results from Utica – the roads show as large black lines and the walls of individual structures within the rectangular insulae as a mixture of white and black lines depending on the nature of the building material. Floor surfaces also show up as black features.

It is only the first year of the RoMP project and already the wealth of new information arising from archaeological survey work, in particularly the geophysical survey at Utica, has been instrumental in overturning our expectations of the scale and scope of the settlement. It is clear that the town extended far beyond what we previously imagined.

And all this without putting a trowel in the ground! Once you see that geophysical survey results can reveal a hidden and buried past you may never look at a seemingly ‘empty’ field in the same way. The exciting aspect of geophysical survey is that, although the results can stand alone and still reveal much about the layout and nature of the site, when they are integrated with excavation, topographic survey, and environmental data the results can be astonishing. The next phase is to set these results in the historical context — and our conference will be doing exactly that.

By Sophie Hay (Geophysics Researcher)

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