Saturday, 16 May 2015

Portus life

Sometimes little things develop into bigger projects than one originally expects. During the last two weeks getting the keys and cards sorted took three days when people were busy, on a holiday or had to take unexpectedly a day off when a family member fell ill. Now getting a poster done will take two days, since naturally it was raining when I finished with the Central Mediterranean Prehistory Seminar poster when at Cambridge. However, the consecutive visits to Cambridge have meant that I have heard some maritime themed talks.

The archaeological talk calendar at Cambridge begins to look scarily busy and not all talks have had many listeners. However, the two talks I attended at the Classics were well-attended and I also managed to discuss some work matters when the right colleagues were present. But who would have missed a talk about ‘Living and working at the port of Imperial Rome’ by the Portus Project!

Trajan's basin (image: wikimedia)

This talk was about the Cambridge – Southampton excavations in the area of Palazzo Imperiale in Portus, the sea harbour built by Trajan next to the Claudian basin. Most of the work had been carried out by Tamsin O’Connell and Rachel Ballantyne, although the osteological work by Walter Pantano from the Superintendency of Rome got mentioned several time. Tamsin works with isotope analysis and Rachel with plant remains, so the whole talk was about humans and their food.

Skeleton at the Palazzo Imperiale excavations (image link to: HP/Portus Project)

Palazzo Imperiale excavations had two distinctive structures within the excavation areas: the Imperial quarters and a quay area. The most interesting finds, considering the human point of view, were the late Roman ones, when there were burials, mostly on the quay side but also inside the palace. When asked, Martin Millett could not ascertain, if the palace had become uninhabited by the late 5th century or not, but at least the palace walls had been standing until they were demolished in the mid 6th century AD when the area was between Ostrogothic and Byzantine interests among others. In any case, there were late opus sectile decorations, so the palace was maintained, although the quays did not function in the late 5th century AD.

Floating at Portus (image link to: HP/Portus Project)

The soil samples and flotation did reveal only small amounts of plant remains and most of the finds were not very exciting. There was a lot of grain, but little luxuries, but this may be understandable, since the things brought in in huge quantities were grain, oil and fish sauce (garum) – and the last two were inside amphorae. Nevertheless, the late 5th century AD saw the bread wheat being swapped for hulled wheat, thought to be of local produce. Instead of annona from faraway places, grain seem to have been imported from the Italian peninsula. At the same time, the diet of the people who were working in the harbour seemed to have changed.

The material from Imperial burials, coming from the Italian excavations, seems to show that the late-5th and early-6th-century workers ate less animal and fish proteins and potentially more pulses. These individuals laying inside the buildings were 87% men and mostly in their twenties and thirties, showing signs of heavy work. These people probably had died in industrial accidents and got their resting place next to their work. A huge downgrading for Portus from the well-organised 2nd century AD, think I. Nevertheless, highly interesting and giving a glimpse of the declining ‘centre of the world’.

The second maritime talk was given by Jean MacIntosh Turfa from the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Her talk was about the Etruscans and near my own interests. She even managed to mention Ras El-Bassit where I happen to have worked. Thus, I could not be without commenting this little detail. However, she was discussing Etruscan piracy, a historical perception of the Etruscans that I had not much paid attention. Nevertheless, stay calm, since her final conclusion was that this image was only that, some bad mouthing by the early Greek colonists to Italy. I am not sure how many people in the audience had doubted the Etruscan marine power in the 6th century and considered it as something less savoury than politics and trade, but at least to me the conclusions did not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, nice images of pirates and a fresh look at Parker’s catalogue of Mediterranean shipwrecks.

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