Portus Project

New city wall discovered at Ostia

April 16, 2014
by Graeme Earl

Newly discovered features at Ostia (Satellite imagery courtesy of Digital Globe Inc)

Newly discovered features at Ostia (Satellite imagery courtesy of Digital Globe Inc)

Researchers from the universities of Southampton and Cambridge have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously estimated. The team, led by Professor Simon Keay (Southampton) and Professor Martin Millet (Cambridge), has been conducting a survey of an area of land lying between Ostia and Portus.

The work has been undertaken as part of the Portus Project, in collaboration with the British School at Rome and the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Roma. Previously, scholars thought that the Tiber formed the northern edge of Ostia, however this new research, using geophysical survey techniques to examine the site, has shown that Ostia’s city wall also continued on the other side of the river.  The researchers have shown this newly discovered area enclosed three huge, previously unknown warehouses – the largest of which was the size of a football pitch.

Newly discovered features at Ostia (Satellite imagery courtesy of Digital Globe Inc)

Newly discovered features at Ostia (Satellite imagery courtesy of Digital Globe Inc)

You can download the images and press release from this link.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles at Portus

Stephen KayMarch 16, 2014
by Stephen Kay

Parrot AR Drone at Portus

Parrot AR Drone at Portus

Since the start of excavations by the Portus Project in 2007, aerial photography has played an important role in the recording, analysis and presentation of the research. The ability for the archaeologist to have a bird’s-eye view of an excavation gives the opportunity to see the plan of structures, their relationships with each and alignments which are not visible at ground level. Furthermore, low altitude photography on an excavation gives the opportunity for a number of recording methods to be used, in particular photogrammetry.

The Portus Project has experimented with a number of methods in order to gain the best oblique and vertical photographs of the excavations. These have ranged from helium balloons, cherry-pickers and even a helicopter. However in recent seasons, due to significant technological advances, the project has begun experimenting with using UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), popularly known as drones.

Initial work began with testing the stability and functionality of a Parrot AR.Drone (http://ardrone2.parrot.com/). These small light drones, fitted with four rotors, a 3 axis-gyroscope and accelerometer, run over a local Wi-Fi network created between the drone and a device such as a tablet or smartphone. The drone (the Portus Project used the 2.0 version) is fitted with two cameras, a front mounted wide-angle diagonal lens with HD resolution and a smaller vertical camera. The potential for rapidly recording videos and precise photography was immediately apparent, encouraging the project to investigate further using this form of aerial photography.

In the 2013 excavation season the project therefore deployed much larger hexicopter, the DJI Innovations Spreading Wings S800 (http://www.dji.com/product/spreading-wings-s800), fitted with a multirotar stabilisation system. These much more powerful drones can be fitted with a vertically mounted gimbal allowing a much higher resolution digital camera to be fitted to the drone (the project used a Canon PowerShot G15).

DJI Innovations drone at Portus

DJI Innovations drone at Portus

The advantages to using a drone for archaeological excavation recording are numerous:  the archaeologist can immediately check and guide the position of the drone (both by naked eye and a live video link with the view finder on the camera) allowing the photograph to be taken at the optimal height and position; the photographs can be immediately downloaded in the field; the cost is minimal in comparison to the hire of a platform of a specialist with a helium balloon. There do exist a number of drawbacks, in particular wind speed, stability and battery life, but these were found to be surmountable. For instance, in order to account for problems of stability, which in turn affects the camera focus, it was found useful to rapidly take a set of bracketed shots (between 5 and 7) in order to be sure to have a photo in focus. It is also advisable to run a number of sets of batteries, as flight time, which can be variable (depending in particular on wind speed), usually lasts around 8 to 12 minutes.

Live video positioning

Live video positioning

The drone was used for a number of applications on site, including short videos, traditional archaeological photography and photogrammetry. The last of these was also tested with a smaller camera, the GoPro Black, a much lighter camera but with an extremely high resolution. The results of this work can be seen in the photogrammetry work undertaken by James Miles.

The future applications for the use of drones by the Portus Project are numerous. Whilst the UAV has proved invaluable in the application of aerial photography on site, there are many other areas which can be explored. As drones begin to be able to support greater payloads, heavier cameras can be fitted, allowing the testing of other forms of recording and photography, in particular HDR, thermal imaging, infrared and UV.

The 2013 aerial photography work was conducted with the technical support of Dimosthenis Kosmopoulos, Leandro Cucinotta and Emanuele Casagrande.


Laser Scanning Results from the 2013 Portus Field School

James MilesMarch 7, 2014
by James Miles

During the 2013 excavation season I completed a number of laser scan models of the site, adding to the already completed laser scan models collected in 2012 at the Palazzo Imperiale.

The main focus of the 2013 season was trialling a new scanner, the Faro Focus 3D, to see how the advancements in scanning time and accuracy could aid our recording of the site.


Faro Focus in action  (Hembo Pagi)

Faro Focus in action (Hembo Pagi)

In total I was able to record 250 individual scans over a three week period, that culminated in precise recordings of the Palazzo Imperiale, notably Building 1, the cryptoporticus on the western façade of the complex, and the storage rooms on its southern side overlooking the Trajanic basin, and the 2013 excavations within Building 8 – which was completed by the staff and students of the Portus Field School. In addition the Terme della Lanterna was completely scanned.

The Faro focus, when compared to the Leica Scanstation Two and C10 previously used on site, allowed for a far greater data collection rate. In the 2012 I was able to capture 57 scans over a two week period using the C10 and was thus limited to certain sections of the site as I simply didn’t have the time to record them.

The ability to create a 360 degree laser scan model within one scan in 10 minutes at an accuracy of 3mm at a 10m range, greatly helped the team at Portus in recording the position of buildings and in identifying key architectural features that would otherwise have been missed using traditional means.

The use of laser scanning allows for a lasting representation of the site as it currently is, in turn allowing future researchers to study the site, without having to travel there. It likewise proved useful in recording the excavation process, with key areas of the 2013 excavation recorded during and after to save time in documenting the entirety of the site using simple 2D drawings.

The 2013 scanning work also re-examined past scanning that took place and with a newer, faster and more accurate laser scanner, it was decided to make updated models of the 2007 scans completed by the University of Southampton’s Geography department. The Faro Focus offered a greater point density within the overall scan model and therefore the newer model is at a high resolution. The scanner, likewise enables better calibration of colour within the scan data, creating a model that is both accurate in terms of spacing and texture which adds to the overall realistic element needed for our study of the site.

There is more work to be done at Portus, with more areas to be recorded, but 2013 saw the first use of the Faro Focus 3D and we hope over subsequent years, that we will be able to benefit from this great tool to create a full reconstruction of the site as it currently is.

Below are a few examples of the already completed scan work.

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Data mining and image processing experiments on photographs from Portus

February 27, 2014
by Karl Potisepp

As large-scale data processing becomes easier and more affordable to everyone, so too increases the temptation to try and use new technologies and methods to reduce the amount of manual labor that usually comes with classifying and categorising big data collections. With textual data, the techniques of extracting useful information from unstructured data have already been more or less established. With image-heavy data sets – like the Portus photos – we have to turn to image processing methods such as object detection and text recognition, which unfortunately are still very unreliable and in most cases do not stand up to a comparison with a human doing the work.

Portus Project 2011

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Portus: Opera in natura

January 22, 2014
by Roberta Cascino

The Portus Project, comprising the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, the British School at Rome and the University of Southampton, has commissioned Franco Mapelli to give a visual interpretation of the Archaeological Park of the Trajanic Port. This exhibition is made up of 30 large-scale photographs through which the photographer focuses on the relationship between archaeological remains and nature. The catalogue, published by Quodlibet, shows that Portus is not only a fascinating archaeological site, but also a place of extraordinary natural beauty.

The exhibition will take place at the British School at Rome with the opening on Monday 3rd February 2014, 18:30. From then on it will be open Monday to Saturday 16.30 – 19.00, until the 15th February.

Nello scenario del parco risaltano, sullo sfondo dell’azzurro o del grigio del cielo, due elementi cromatici decisivi: i rossi dei resti archeologici, i verdi della natura e, quel che è più importante, il rapporto a volte acceso a volte tenue fra i due, condizionato da ulteriori elementi, transitori, quali la veste stagionale e la luce nei vari momenti della giornata. Il lavoro a Portus si concentra in gran parte su questo binomio: presenze archeologiche e natura. Le imponenti rovine e la conoscenza della loro passata funzione colpiscono per prime, ma poi il verde, il ruolo che la natura svolge nell’accompagnarle, emerge con forza. Dare peso alle due presenze, non necessariamente nella ricerca di un equilibrio, anzi a volte privilegiandone una e relegando l’altra a sfondo, è stato il motivo conduttore di questa serie. (Ottobre 2013, Franco Mapelli)

Learn more about this exhibition on the British School at Rome’s website and on the British School at Rome blog.

Portus Summer Blog Round-Up

Kristian StruttJanuary 19, 2014
by Kristian Strutt

Between May and December last year I found myself working for quite a period of time on the Portus survey and excavations. The research and practical elements of the project were, as ever, thrilling, involving a large team of individuals from different backgrounds interested in different aspects of the archaeology of the site and surrounding landscape, and on the different approaches and methods applied as part of the project.


With the work for 2013 finished, and lots of more exciting prospects to look forward to in 2014, it seemed like a good moment to highlight some of the posts from last year.

In July, some of the work of the excavation, including excavation and recording of rooms in the Imperial Palace, were recorded in two posts:

Excavation and Survey at Portus – First Week of 2013 Field School

Two Canals Boats and Local Residents - Second Week of 2013 Field School

In addition to the summer fieldwork, the writing up of the Portus and Isola Sacra geophysics was continued in the autumn. As a result of this I posted a blog looking at some of the issues of data analysis and interpretation, with reference to the GPR and ERT surveys at Portus, and the magnetometry at the Isola Sacra:

Contemplating Data Analysis and Narrative

Finally at the end of November, a short season of ERT survey was carried out across the necropolis and canal on the Isola Sacra to the south of Portus:

Electrical Resistivity Tomography on the Isola Sacra

Results are being written up at the moment together with the Isola Sacra geophysics. More posts will follow in the spring and summer.

Portus in National Geographic Espana

Simon KeayJanuary 8, 2014
by Simon Keay

Computer Graphic Reconstruction of Portus (BBC/ Portus Project)

Computer Graphic Reconstruction of Portus (BBC/ Portus Project)

It was very heartening to see that the National Geographic Espana, which is celebrating its 125th Anniversary, voted the results of our 2013 Portus Field School excavations, which were presented at a public lecture at Rome in November, as one of the ten principal archaeological finds of 2013. This is a great tribute to all the staff and students who were involved in the project.

You can read a blog post about this on the National Geographic Espana website.

Portus and its Hinterland

Simon KeayJanuary 5, 2014
by Simon Keay

Portus and the Mediterranean

Portus and the Mediterranean

As we enter a new year of research and education focused on Portus I thought I would flag up some wider activities from last year relating to the site, its hinterland and wider networks.

The first of these is our new ERC funded project. In October 2013 the European Research Council announced that a bid that I had submitted to the Advanced Grant scheme for a project to the value of €2.49 million (£2.1 million) had been successful.

The aim of the project is to study a large network of Roman Mediterranean ports, including Portus, from Turkey in the east, to Spain in the west. I, in collaboration with my colleague, Professor Pascal Arnaud (Université Lyon2 La Lumière), will be leading this “Roman Mediterranean Ports project” and analyzing 31 ports in nine different countries with colleagues from a range of key European institutions and Universities. The project, which is due to start on the 1st February 2014, will analyze the sites using a combination of geophysical surveys (including ground penetrating radar), data from satellite imagery, geoarchaeological studies and the study of ancient texts and inscriptions. Crucially the project will bring together a broad range of expertise – broad in terms of discipline, and also the location of the researchers and the sites studied.

The second of these was the first meeting of a new research initiative into the Tiber Delta being coordinated by the Ecole Francaise de Rome, the British School at Rome, the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, the CROMA of the Universita di Roma Tre held in 2013. The event was entitled “Roma, Tevere, Litorale. 3000 anni di storia, le sfide del future”. You can read a piece by me on hypotheses.org that looks at some of the future challenges to our understanding of Portus, as well as pieces by other participants at the event.



Publication Drawings

Penny CopelandJanuary 3, 2014
by Penny Copeland

Drawing on site (Simon Keay)

Drawing on site (Simon Keay)


At the moment we are working through preparation of drawings for the publication of Portus in both a book and online resource. The site is so big that the drawings are causing a particular headache. How can you show the detail of a building that is over 100m long on a piece of paper that will probably be only 297mm wide/long? We will hope to have digital versions that everyone can see in some form, but at the moment, to give an idea of the problem, half of one of the long elevations of Building 5 is 1.1m long and only 10cm high at a scale of 1:20! The figure below (work in progress) gives an idea of the problem. Solutions include providing an online vector version, perhaps via SVG, downloadable drawing files, and also offering tiled raster versions. We are looking into all the options, with simplicity being the key factor.

Unfinished example of an elevation running from west to east along the north side of Building 5 and through Buildings 4 and 6 (Penny Copeland)

Unfinished example of an elevation running from west to east along the north side of Building 5 and through Buildings 4 and 6 (Penny Copeland)

We also have the dilemma of what to show in the drawings – phasing to help the viewer understand the development of the site and the changes to the buildings over time, or materials which show the different methods of construction (and some of these methods do not change much overtime). We can pretty much rule out showing both in one conventional drawing except incidentally i.e. if we have a wall of opus reticulatum, the diamond shapes of the tufa bricks up against the more normal Roman shaped enclosing bricks will indicate clearly the type of construction for that wall, even when they are both the same colour. Again companion digital data should provide a solution, and also allow more easy re-use of the information for example as part of future conservation and excavation activities on site. Another interesting aspect we are exploring in this area is how best to connect paper publications to digital supporting materials – something the project team have been discussing with the Archaeology Data Service for a while. As ever, we welcome suggestions.

Geoarchaeology at Portus

Ferréol SalomonJanuary 2, 2014
by Ferréol Salomon

Coring in action
Photo: Hembo Pagi / ACRG

In 2013, geoarchaeological research at Portus continued in order better to understand the configuration of the harbour itself and its connection to Ostia and Rome by waterways. This work was funded by the Research Innovation Fund of the University of Southampton.

Coring the harbour basins

On July 2013, three cores were drilled in front of the Grandi Horrea di Settimio Severo at the centre of Portus. The main aim of this work was to reconstruct the extension of the basins from the Claudian period to the Trajanic period. More precisely, the aim was to determine (1) if this central part of Portus was originally included in the basin of Claudius and subsequently filled and built-up, or (2) if the basins and the access channel to the Trajanic basin had always been excavated around the edge of this area of the Grandi Horrea. The same hypothesis has been tested elsewhere at Portus: in the Great Horrea of Trajan between the darsena and the access channel to the Trajanic basins (Goiran et al., 2012 ; Bukowiecki and Panzieri, 2013) and near the Palazzo Imperiale, between the Claudian and Trajanic basins (Goiran et al., 2008; Keay and Paroli, 2011; Salomon, 2013).


Coring the canal

On November 2013, a collaboration between the University of Southampton, French institutions (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique UMR-5133, and Association Nationale de la Recherche) and the Soprintendenza Speciale per I beni Archeologici di Roma allowed us to drill three cores across a hypothesised huge canal between Portus-Ostia in the Isola Sacra discovered a few years ago by magnetic survey (Keay and Paroli, 2011). Palaeoenvironmental analysis will allow us to investigate the hypothesised canal, in order to reveal its depth and functional characteristics, and potentially also to provide dates for its use. This coring analysis have been complemented by a geophysical survey (Electrical Resistivity Tomography), carried out by Kristian Strutt of the University of Southampton and the geophysicists of the British School at Rome, in order to determine the profile of this feature.

Cores have been transported to the University of Southampton and are currently being analysed by myself as part of my postdoctoral research in the Department of Archaeology, as part of the Portus Project directed by Simon Keay. Analyses are taking place in the palaeo-environmental Laboratory in the department of Geography directed by the Prof. Tony Brown.


Bukowiecki, E., and C. Panzieri (2013). “Portus.” Chronique des activités archéologiques de l’École française de Rome . doi:10.4000/cefr.935.

Goiran, J.-P., F. Salomon, E. Bukowiecki, and G. Boettoc(2012). “Portus.” Chronique des activités archéologiques de l’École française de Rome. http://cefr.revues.org/267.

Goiran, J.-P., H. Tronchère, P. Carbonel, F. Salomon, H. Djerbi, C. Ognard, G. Lucas, and U. Colalelli (2008). “Portus, La Question de La Localisation Des Ouvertures Du Port de Claude : Approche Géomorphologique.” Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome Chronique, no. 121–1 ): 217–228.

Keay, S., and L. Paroli (2011). Portus and Its Hinterland: Recent Archaeological Research. Archaeological Monographs of the British School at Rome 18. London: British School at Rome.

Salomon, F. (2013). “Géoarchéologie du delta du Tibre : Evolution Géomorphologique holocène et contraintes hydrosédimentaires dans le système Ostie – Portus.” PhD Thesis, University Lyon 2, .

Portus MOOC

Coming soon in 2014: Portus Massive Open Online Course



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