The Portus Project

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Humanities


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Title Portus Project, Archaeological Computation', A combined digital and printed exhibition showcasing the interface between digital technologies and Roman archaeology at Portus. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Description Conception of Project

Portus (Fiumicino), which lay on the coast a short distance to the north of the Tiber mouth at Ostia, was the principal maritime port of ancient Rome for most of the imperial period. It was begun by the emperor Claudius, inaugurated by the emperor Nero and greatly enlarged by the emperor Trajan, supplying the City of Rome down to the Byzantine period and beyond. Portus was the conduit through which most of the key foodstuffs, marble, glass and metalwork that were consumed in the City of Rome were imported from the Mediterranean provinces. Furthermore, as the City's window on the Mediterranean, its layout and juxtaposition of the secular and scared prepared visitors for what awaited them at Rome itself. Available evidence suggests that from the second century AD onwards, individuals from across the empire, particularly the east and north Africa, passed through the port or had some business involvement there. This is reflected in the exceptionally rich array of ceramics and marble which were imported from across the whole of the Roman Mediterranean which still litter the site, and which are our best guide to tracing the flows of foodstuffs imported to Portus prior to trans-shipment and transport upriver to Rome. It is a paradox, therefore, that much less is known about its development and character than its close neighbour, Ostia, or more distant Puteoli (Pozzuoli), and its potential for helping us better understand the cosmopolitan nature of Rome itself and its many economic links with different parts of the Roman empire is as yet untapped. This project has built upon a very detailed and comprehensive geophysical and topographic survey of the port and much of its hinterland that has just been published by the applicant and Millett (Keay et al 2005; and which formed part of the AHRC funded "Roman Towns in the Middle and Lower Tiber Valley project". This enabled earlier work to be put into an overall interpretative framework, provided much new detail and put forward an outline scheme for the development of the port throughout antiquity. While this represents an important contribution to our understanding, it is clear that it is only through a judicious combination of excavation and survey that some of the many major questions about this site can be answered. This project, therefore, has continued this research at Portus with a very successful four year programme of research funded by the AHRC that represents continued successful research collaboration between the Universities of Southampton and Cambridge, the British School at Rome (BSR) and the Soprintendenza di Beni Archeologici di Ostia. The research comprised four seasons (2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010) of survey in the land lying to the south of the port (Isola Sacra), as well as three seasons of excavation of a central area (the Palazzo Imperiale) at the heart of the port itself. These have provided answers to key questions about Portus' character and development between the reign of Claudius and the middle sixth century AD. It has also shed light on its regional context and relationship to Ostia, and its connections to other ports in Italy and the Mediterranean: its relations to north Africa were particularly important. The excavation applied an integrated suite of techniques not generally used on complex Mediterranean sites with major structural remains, including digital recording and visualization. This exceptionally rich and challenging site has also provided young academics and students with experience and training in site and survey techniques, electronic data-capture and in the identification and analysis of artefacts, fauna and botanical remains. Ceramic analysis was identified as a special priority in the training of future specialists, and a studentship in ceramics has enabled one individual to develop a research project that has made an important contribution to the academic objectives of the project.

Achievements of Project

This project has had three major aims. The first concerns the development, function and character of the port, which we have done through an integrated programme of excavation and high-resolution geophysical survey. This focused upon the Palazzo Imperiale and adjacent buildings - structures central to the administration of the port. It suggests that the Claudian/Neronian foundation may have been primarily a harbour closely related to Ostia, and that its establishment as a maritime port with ample storage and trans-shipment facilities directly connected to Rome was a product of the enlargement by Trajan and subsequent additions during the 3rd and, to a lesser extent, the 4th centuries AD. The gradual decline of the Palazzo Imperiale began with the construction of the late 5th century wall circuit (Mura Costantiniane), followed by extensive demolition during the early/mid 6th century AD, and its subsequent used as a burial ground. Analysis of the ceramics and marble suggests that its closest commercial connections were with Tripolitania (later 2nd to 4th centuries AD) and Africa Byzacena (early fourth to later fifth centuries AD), even though material from most of the rest of the Mediterranean was also present. The survey element of the project encompassed most of the Isola Sacra, the island lying between Portus and Ostia to the south. It shows that in antiquity the island was divided into a western and eastern sector by a major north-south canal that connected Portus with the urban settlement, cemetery and the statio marmorum on the Isola Sacra in the north with the north bank of the Tiber opposite Ostia. It has also allowed us to better define the settlement and burial area in the northern Isola Sacra, the Tiber façade between Capo due Rami and Ostia. Furthermore it appears that much of the land in the eastern sector was subdivided for agricultural or salt-processing activities, while the north bank of the Tiber opposite Ostia was very heavily built up. The second aim - to develop an archaeological strategy appropriate to the scale and complexity of the site has also been met. Our fieldwork comprised closely coordinated programmes of high-resolution geophysics coupled with open-area question and answer excavation. This was made possible by adopting a 'born-digital' approach that drew upon upon recent advances in computerized topographic planning, excavation recording, geophysical data processing, laser scanning of buildings and detailed object recording to develop an integrated approach to the three-dimensional recording and interpretation of the Palazzo Imperiale and adjacent buildings. This has enabled us to develop preliminary three-dimensional computer graphic images that have been closely linked to the archaeological data and that have played a key role in interpreting the site and in communicating with the general public. Our success in addressing the third aim, providing experience for younger academics and students, can be measured by the fact that this was a very young international team mainly comprised of undergraduates, postgraduates and junior academics from the UK, as well as from Italy, Spain, France, Serbia, Australia and the US. They have all developed a unique blend of skills in excavation, survey, analysis of finds (ceramics, marble and botanical remains) and IT work, with some being involved in publications and conference presentations. This experience has been particularly valuable in view of the rarity of large UK excavations at major Mediterranean Classical sites and has enabled the creation of international networks by young academics towards the beginning of their careers. All of the objectives spelled out in the original application have been achieved, except for the deposition of a project archive with the ADS - which has been postponed until the completion of the AHRC funded Portus in the Roman Mediterranean project.

New Understandings

Since Portus was the maritime port of Imperial Rome and was, until recently, poorly understood, it could be argued that any new information concerning its development, function and relationship to ports elsewhere in the Mediterranean could not fail to bring about a major advance in our understanding. However the Portus Project has attempted to do more than this by deliberately selecting for excavation and survey those two areas that arguably have the most to teach us about the port as a whole within the limited time and budgetary constraints of a project of this size. The results makes it clear that those buildings that were the focus of the project, namely the Palazzo Imperiale and adjacent buildings, were the administrative heart of the whole complex and provide us with precious new information about when and how the Rome state managed to coordinate traffic moving within the port. This in turn provides important clues as to how its full commercial potential was harnessed and about fluctuations in the range of its commercial contacts through time. Furthermore the discovery of a major canal on the Isola Sacra that connected Portus and Ostia strongly supports the idea that both of these ports, together with that along the banks of the Tiber (Emporium, Portus Tiberinus etc), and possibly also Centumcellae (Civitavecchia) along the Tyrrhenian coast to the north of Rome, were part of an integrated port system serving Rome that was on a scale unparalleled until more recent eras. This not only helps us understand how the Capital was sustained, but also gives us a better idea of the scale of Rome's demands upon its Mediterranean provinces, with major implications for how we understand the development of agriculture, commerce and infrastructure in the provinces themselves. All of these issues will have a major impact on our understanding of the nature of the commercial networks that underwrote the cohesion of the Roman Mediterranean. Furthermore, the decline and disappearance of the Palazzo Imperiale as the administrative core of the port during the later 5th and mid 6th centuries AD sheds new light on its longevity. At the same time the integrated methodological approaches developed by this project have major implications for how archaeologists can approach other very large Classical sites across the Mediterranean, showing that by a careful balance of excavation and non-destructive techniques it is possible to extract high quality information in a relatively short time, and also address key research questions. This has huge potential in enabling archaeologists to query sites that would otherwise be too big and thus invite more traditional and arguably less rigorous techniques, and to communicate the results in a visually appealing way to a range of audiences. It also has very major benefits for the management of these sites - providing the authorities with a better understanding of the archaeological potential of these sites, how to manage them and present them to the public in an appealing way.


While the impact upon academic discourse related to the issues discussed above will only become fully apparent with the publication of project results, a process beginning in summer 2011, reception of initial presentations and syntheses has been very positive. All aspects of the work have received very extensive international publicity ( in newspapers, magazines, television (news items and documentaries) and radio. In this way the project is helping to raise public awareness of imperial Rome, its port and commercial links across the Mediterranean. This will be relevant to students and the more interested general public: indeed some of the discoveries have appeared in publications for Classics teachers and in popular archaeology magazines in the UK (Current World Archaeology), Italy and Germany. Furthermore the PI has been asked to give a number of lectures to schools in the UK. They will also inform the many tourists who visit Rome and other Mediterranean Classical sites, promoting a greater awareness of the significance Rome in ancient Mediterranean. Public interest has also been stirred by the technological side of the project, most notably by the computer graphic images of the port and how geophysics can investigate buried sites without excavation. A BBC Click Online programme focusing upon the work at Portus is symptomatic of his. While this is interesting in itself it also helps promote a better understanding of the port itself, and an awareness of the kinds of roles that science can play in our understanding of the past. Beyond public interest, the project has also provoked the interest of IT companies such as Microsoft who appreciate the pulling power of a high profile project like this for trying out different kinds of software, and the potential significance to them of archaeology as a vehicle for concept proving of a range of applications. Another key constituency are cultural heritage agencies charged with the management of major cultural resources like Portus. The Italian government itself, through the medium of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni archeologici di Roma have been taking an active interest in the strategies used by the project at Portus because of the implications that they may have for the management of major sites of this kind. In a similar vein the AHRC has selected the Portus Project as the case study for the new Heritage Portal website, that is being piloted by all of Europe's national cultural heritage management agencies to publicize best practice in the undertaking of research at major European sites of this kind and other heritage news.

Outputs and Outcomes

1. Excavation Monograph has been delayed until 2012 onwards in order to incorporate the results of excavation undertaken under the aegis of the Rome, Portus and the Mediterranean project.

2.Portus and its Hinterland (ed. S. Keay and L. Paroli), an edited monograph on recent work at the site including three major chapters that draw upon the results from the Portus Project. One of these is the summary article originally destined for the Journal of Roman Archaeology, while another is the extended article on the survey (Isola Sacra) results.

3. Many papers delivered at international conferences and in referred journals, which are listed in the appropriate outcomes section of ROS.

4. A project website (

5. Very extensive international press coverage (
Exploitation Route (a) In the context of further academic research into Portus, Imperial Rome and commercial activity in the Roman Mediterranean
(b) Public awareness of the significance of the site
(c) In the study and management of major archaeological sites
(d) In developing new digital techniques for visualising archaeological sites and how they can be communicated to the general public
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The work at Portus began with the AHRC-funded Portus Project (2006-2011). This explored Portus' role within the commercial life of the Roman Mediterranean, specifically its development over the first six centuries AD and its impact on the broader Mediterranean. An integrated programme of large-scale excavations and high-resolution geophysical surveys was carried out at the centre of the port. The team prepared initial computer graphic simulations of the excavated buildings and completed preliminary work on the finds. The research continued with a second AHRC funded phase of research (2011-2014). All of these results show that Portus was at the centre of a network of at least four Italian ports serving Rome, and that commerce between Rome and the rest of the Mediterranean was far more complex and on a far greater scale than previously thought. It points to a much larger volume of commerce moving across the Roman Mediterranean during the first four centuries AD, commanding a rethinking of the relationship between Rome and its Mediterranean empire. All of this work was directed by Keay, with Dr Graeme Earl, also of the University of Southampton, and was undertaken in partnership with the British School at Rome, the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma (SSBAR) and the University of Cambridge. The Southampton-led integrated approach to excavation, survey and computer visualization also has major implications as to how the layout and archaeological potential of a major Classical site can be mapped in a relatively short space of time; the potential of such techniques to simulate innovation; and demonstrates how a historically key site can be presented to the public Impact case study through mobile electronic media, (such as geographically sensitive tablets and smartphones which guide users around the site) that could be applied elsewhere, thereby fostering a wider public interest in Classical heritage more generally. Prior to the beginning of the Portus Project, the site of Portus was known only to archaeological authorities and a small group of academics, and was completely unknown to the general public in Italy and beyond. Research led by the University of Southampton has introduced global audiences to the heritage site, raising public awareness of Classical history in general. At its height, the project website received c. 1,000 unique visitors monthly. From 2009 there was an increase in visits to the site from Italian schoolchildren and staff, and students from Rome-based foreign academies and European and US universities. A press strategy based around two five-month campaigns in 2009 and 2011 was key, culminating in international press conferences at Portus and extensive coverage across international broadcast and print media, including all UK and Italian broadsheets, the BBC and CNN etc. In December 2012, BBC1 screened a major documentary (co-financed by Discovery US) Rome's Lost Empire, with Southampton's excavation, geophysics and CGI-modelling work featuring prominently, which reached an audience of 4.23 million in the UK. Its Director Jeff Wilkinson wrote: "The important discoveries (Professor Keay and his team) have made at Portus played a key role in generating the excellent viewer figures for the programme, and therefore in benefitting the BBC." It was also screened by France 5, attracting 1.1million viewers, and subsequently across the EU and in the US. Since then, Portus Project research has featured on a number of other documentaries, including Building the Ancient City made for BBC2 (2016), and television channels in France. Portus' popularity as a tourist destination has also risen as a consequence. Some specialist UK tourist companies, notably Swan Hellenic Cruises (2010, 2013), have placed Portus on their itineraries, thereby deriving economic benefit from this work. Since 2013 the International Airport of Fiumicino, the SSBAR, the Fondazione Benetton (Navigazione del Territorio), the Comune di Fiumicino and other regional authorities have started exploring joint collaboration to open up the site to the large numbers of tourists over the next few years. The site is now regularly open to the public during the week for most of the year, and the number of visitors has risen from c. 1800 to well over 23000. Portus has also had a significant educational impact. Our FutureLearn Portus MOOC has attracted nearly 27,000 people, with 60% of the learners are from outside the UK, drawn from more than 120 countries. Of the c. 27,000 people who enrolled on the course approximately 14,000 learners actively participated in the course, collectively posting around 60,000 individual comments, equivalent to around a million words. These provide a unique understanding not only of the learners' engagement on the course but also of global perceptions of the issues covered. The SSBAR has benefitted from the researchers' experience in integrating a research project within the management framework of a high-profile site, new methodologies and presentation of results, with the Director General of Antiquities citing it as having "... had considerable scientific impact ... reinforcing the documentation that illustrates the importance of the site and also serves to inform its management". As a result, project members produced a PortusTour website in English and Italian based upon the content of our own website, but adding in additional material at the request of the SSBAR. This request came in recognition of the high regard in which our work on the Portus and Portus in the Roman Mediterranean projects at Portus is regarded by the Italians. The very wide press publicity associated with this and the Portus Project led to a number of joint initiatives with the Italian state archaeological authorities focusing upon sharing expertise in certain fields, and continues down to the present (2018). There was a particular interest in (1) our approach to the visualization of archaeological sites and how this could be used to present major sites more attractively to the general public, and (2) our methodological approach to the study of the site. In late 2017, Professor Keay was appointed by the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo to serve on the Comitato Scientifico of the newly established Parco Archeologico di Ostia Antica, which administers the archaeological sites of Portus, Ostia and Isola Sacra. His role is to contribute towards the formulation research strategy for all three sites over the next five years, and is in direct recognition of his work with the Portus Project since 2007. The AHRC has also benefitted from the Portus Project, with the CEO Rick Rylance saying in connection with the launch of the AHRC's research strategy for 2013- 2018 that "The great Portus Project reveals the potential of collaborative organization across nations and across different sorts of disciplines...". (2013). Lastly, the project has generated benefit for a range of industrial partners. One of these arose from an initial collaboration with Microsoft Research in High Performance Computing (led by Professor Earl), which led to further collaboration at Portus, with a focus upon the development of new hardware and software tools that could be applied further afield.
First Year Of Impact 2009
Sector Electronics,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Excavation and survey archive for eventual submission to ADS. Completed until conclusion of Portus in the Roman Mediterranean Project. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Description Geophysical surveys of Mediterranean ports, including Ardea, Cumae, Lepcis Magna, Utica, Italica and Tarragona, collaboration with the BSR, the University of Southampton, European HEI's & research bodies. 
Organisation University of Southampton
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Information taken from Final Report
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Website for the Portus Project and Portus in the Roman Mediterranean Project

This ongoing website plays a key role in the public dissemination of information from this project. It was completely overhauled and updated in November 2012.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007