U. SOUTHAMPTON (UK)—A major excavation of Portus, the ancient port that once served as the maritime gateway to Rome, has revealed the remains of an amphitheater-shaped-building, solving a mystery that has puzzled experts for more than 140 years.

The excavation team from the University of Southampton, working in collaboration with the British School at Rome (BSR), is conducting the first ever large-scale dig at Portus on the banks of a hexagonal shaped man-made lake that formed the second-century harbor.

“When the site was visited by archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani in the 1860s he marked on his plans the remains of a theater, but subsequently no trace of the building could be found,” says Simon Keay, who directs the Portus Project and is an archeology professor at Southampton.

“Our team has rediscovered this ‘theater’ and proved it was in fact a building more akin to an amphitheater. Lanciani had only found half of the structure, leading him to misinterpret its shape and function.”

Researchers on site have uncovered a large Roman warehouse, the ‘amphitheater,’ and what the team have identified as an Imperial palace. This is likely to have played host to renowned emperors such as Hadrian.

Portus was Rome’s gateway to the Mediterranean for most of the Imperial period and played a key role in funneling food, slaves, wild animals, marble, and all manner of luxury goods from across the Mediterranean and beyond to the citizens of Rome. It was vital to the survival of the Empire and the only real ‘transport hub’ serving the city.

“The ‘amphitheater’ we have discovered was similar in ground area to the Pantheon in Rome, but it is unclear exactly what it was used for,” continues Keay. “Gladiatorial combat may have taken place there—wild beast baiting, the staging of mock sea battles, or it may have been a form of Roman ‘folly’, shaped like an amphitheatre, but used as a monumental garden. It is unusual to find this type of building so close to a harbor.”


This marble statue head was unearthed close to the remains of an amphitheatre discovered by University of Southampton archaeologists. See more images from the Portus Project. (Credit: U. Southampton)

Having solved one riddle, archeologists have now uncovered another; the white marble head of a statue unearthed at the site of once-luxurious rooms close to the “amphitheater.” It is thought the head dates back to the second or early third century, however it is less clear who it depicts.

“The elderly bearded male wearing a flat skull-cap could suggest it is Ulysses, however it is equally possible it is a representation of one of the Greek sailors who accompanied him on his travels. For the moment his identity remains a mystery,” concludes Keay.


Laserscanning the cistern complex.

The researchers have been using ground-penetrating radar and other techniques to map buried buildings and other structures. The Portus Project has also been undertaking a geophysical survey of the Isola Sacra, an island to the south of Portus, and has found a major new canal and traces of Rome’s marble yards.

Research has been under way at Portus for several years and Keay hopes to continue working there. “This is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world,” he says.

“Certainly it should be rated alongside such wonders as Stonehenge and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So much of this Imperial port has been preserved and there is much more to learn about its role in supplying Rome and in the broader economic development of the Roman Mediterranean.”

Experts from Southampton have been working with colleagues from the BSR, the Italian Archaeological Superintendency for Ostia, and the University of Cambridge to carry out extensive excavation at Portus. The work is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the U.K.

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