University of Southampton and British School at Rome (BSR) archaeologists, leading an international excavation of Portus – the ancient port of Rome, believe they have discovered a large Roman shipyard.It should probably be emphasized that this apaprently was an imperial shipyard. It did not date from the Republic, which famously made thousands of ships for such crises as the First Punic War and Mediterranean Piracy. Additionally, it seems that Portus was a military port. The major port for civilian traffic was at Ostia (now Ostia Antica), which I visited last spring. However, our tour guides made clear that Ostia had a military element as well. It's a litle more difficult tio tell because the Tiber River has moved away from Ostia Antica and the Mediterranean harbor has silted up, so the coast is now about a mile away from the site.
The team, working with the Italian Archaeological Superintendancy of Rome, has uncovered the remains of a massive building close to the distinctive hexagonal basin or 'harbour', at the centre of the port complex.
University of Southampton Professor and Portus Project Director, Simon Keay comments, "At first we thought this large rectangular building was used as a warehouse, but our latest excavation has uncovered evidence that there may have been another, earlier use, connected to the building and maintenance of ships.
"Few Roman Imperial shipyards have been discovered and, if our identification is correct, this would be the largest of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean."
It has long been known that Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Imperial period and the Portus Project team has been investigating the port's significance over a number of years. Until now, no major shipyard building for Rome has been identified, apart from the possibility of one on the Tiber near Monte Testaccio, and a smaller one recently claimed for the neighbouring river port at Ostia.
The huge building the team has discovered dates from the 2nd century AD and would have stood c. 145 metres long and 60 metres wide – an area larger than a football pitch. In places, its roof was up to 15 metres high, or more than three times the height of a double-decker bus. Large brick-faced concrete piers or pillars, some three metres wide and still visible in part, supported at least eight parallel bays with wooden roofs.Does indeed sound like a shipyard, somewhat like the famous circular shipyard in Carthage, except without the circular part.
"This was a vast structure which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building lead us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities," comments Southampton's Professor Keay, who also leads the archaeological activity of the BSR.
Investigations by his team in 2009 concentrated on the remains of an 'Imperial palace' and amphitheatre-shaped building, which lie adjacent to this building. He argues that together these formed a key complex where an imperial official was charged with coordinating the movement of ships and cargoes within the port. Furthermore he believes that the shipyard was an integral part of this.
Additional supporting evidence comes in the form of inscriptions discovered at Portus referring to the existence of a guild of shipbuilders or corpus fabrum navalium portensium in the port. Also, a mosaic, which is now in the Vatican Museum, but once adorned the floor of a villa on the ancient Via Labicana (a road leading south east of Rome), depicts the façade of a building similar to the one at Portus, clearly showing a ship in each bay.
Some more background on the building:
The building uncovered by the team has undergone many changes since its construction in the time of the Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). Excavation within one of the bays has revealed that its use changed over the centuries – once 90 years into its life with the construction of a series of inner partition walls, and then again in the late 5th century AD when changes were made to allow the storage of grain. In the early to mid-6th century AD, parts of the building were systematically demolished, probably as a defensive measure during wars between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths (AD 535-553).