from the Roman Period to the Middle Ages

Research in Progress

Das antike Hafenareal Populonias
Über Wasser sichtbare Reste der Anlage von Graviscae
Die Brücke von Vulci

The ports to be studied in this project are distributed across the regiones I and VII, which existed since Augustan times, i.e. respectively Latium and Campania on the Tyrrhenian coast south of Rome, and Etruria north of Rome. Initially, the main emphasis of our study was on Etruria, with its ports of Pisa, Vada Volterrae, Populonia/Piombino, Telamon, Cosa, Graviscae, Centumcellae, Castrum Novum, Punicum, Pyrgi, Alsium and Fregenae. Region I will be the focus of the second part of the project.

Literature research allowed us to catalogue harbour sites and provided a first overview of the historical development of the region. An excursion to the Etruscan ports was organised between the 22nd of April and the 11th of May 2013. This trip comprised fieldwalking and the photographic recording of visible features. Our aim was to trace the topographical situation of the harbours and its impact on their features in order to better understand the network of settlements and routeways. In addition, we planned to take further underwater photographs of the remaining sites, notably Pyrgi and Graviscae.

Our first stop was Pisa. Here, we were able to record the remains of one of probably three harbours at the train station ofS. Rossore. During excavations carried out here since the 1990s, 16 well preserved shipwrecks from different periods of the harbour’s use have come to light. However, they are not currently accessible. A new museum is being built in the immediately adjacent area of Arsenale Medici; its opening is planned for autumn 2014. In the hinterland of Pisa, at the foot of the mountains, lies San Giuliano Terme. This site impressively illustrates the topographical conditions which determined Pisa’s leading economic position for almost 2000 years. Pisalies in the plain, surrounded and cross-cut by the Arno and the delta of the Auser, although the latter hardly ever carries water nowadays. To the east of the plain rise the slopes of the Apennines. It is here that many of the stone quarries are located which supplied the marble, tuff, limestone and sandstone for the region’s monumental structures, and in the Early Imperial Period especially for the buildings in the city of Rome itself. In addition, the surrounding forests provided timber for the building of houses and ships. The Arno formed the navigable routeway to theportofPisa, and from there onwards into different directions, by land and by sea.

The next economically important centre south of Pisawas Volterra. Named Volterrae by the Romans, in the 3rd and 2nd century BC, under Roman rule, it became a centre for alabaster working. The port of Vada is said to have been established as a result. If we believe the Roman diplomat Rutulius Namatianus, who sailed past in the early 5th century AD on his way to Gaul, dangerous shallows lay just outside the harbour, which could only be reached through a narrow shipping channel (Rut.Nam. 453-462). In contrast to the Arno delta, the mountains here are much closer to the narrow coastal strip and were settled by small colonies. The mountains south of Volterra, the so-called Colline Metallifere, are cross-cut by mining areas used since Etruscan times. One of the economically most important trading sites was Populonia. However, the Etruscan iron industry played a rather subordinate role in the mid-Imperial Period. Nevertheless, according to Strabo (Geogr. 5.2.6) the port and a few smelting furnaces on the beach survived longer than the settlement, situated further upslope, which was destroyed by Sulla in the 1st century BC. Although the ancient slags have been re-smelted since the 1920s, the beach at Baratti – as the ancient harbour area is now called – is scattered with slag fragments. In the harbour area itself are several ruined breakwaters, but according to the spear-fishing locals these are recent.

On the way to Talamone, north-east of Grosseto, lies the ancient city of Rosella– situated roughly half-way between the ancient harbours of Populonia and Telamon. According to written sources, the port at Telamon had always been overshadowed by those of the Mons Argentario area: Cosa, Portus Hercules and Orbetello. Today, there are no structural remains of the harbour. Only the foundations of the temple on the so-called Telamonaccio are said to be still extant, but are currently inaccessible. In Orbetello, one can still admire the Etruscan town wall, showing traces of a former quay. With the foundation of Cosa in 273 BC, which was far more favourably situated along the Via Aurelia, Orbetello, too, lost its importance. A similar fate soon overtook Telamon and Portus Hercules.

Portus Hercules, modern-day Porto Ercole, is still a sport harbour with some modest fishing. It lies nestled within a natural bay, providing optimal protection along this stretch of the coast. However, the great distance to the Via Aurelia undoubtedly brought economic disadvantages.

Several Etrusco-Roman settlements are situated in the hinterland of Cosa, for instance Saturnia with its hot springs, Sovana with its impressive funerary monuments cut into the tuff, and Pitigliano. These sites lie along the ancient Via Clodia, which certainly had a much more direct influence on them than the Via Aurelia and the coastal region. This idea will be tested in the course of further study.

The last part of our trip covered the area between Cosa and Fiumicino, where most of the ancient harbours are clustered. Sometimes lying just a few kilometres apart are the ports of Graviscae, Centumcellae, Castrum Novum, Punicum, Pyrgi, Alsium and Fregenae. As was to be expected, most of these no longer have upstanding remains. The largest economic power in the area was Caere, with an area of influence that occasionally reached until just outside the gates of Tarquinia. The ore sources in the Tolfa Massif are the main reason for the area’s wealth. Accordingly, the beach at Pyrgi also features ancient slag fragments, albeit not in such huge numbers as at Populonia.

One impressive stop during this section of the trip is the Museo del mare e della navigazione antica in the Castello Santa Severa, where the history of ancient navigation is exceptionally well presented with both originals and models.

In spite of technical problems with the underwater photography, the trip was a great success overall: it strengthened our impression that the region of Etruria was far less homogeneous than has frequently been portrayed in scholarly literature. In addition, the harbours have so far been studied in isolation. However, their dependence on the large settlement centres in the hinterland is undeniable, especially when the appearance of maritime themes in a funerary context is considered alongside the distribution of exotic trade goods. Therefore, it makes sense to integrate the grave sites more strongly, given their pictorial emphasis on maritime themes and motifs. In contrast, where such themes are absent, a greater isolation from the coast could be assumed. Again, this idea will be tested in detail in the following months.

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