Roman shipyard found by British archaeologists

An aerial view of the Roman shipyard discovered in Portus
Image caption Measuring 150m (492ft) by 60m (197ft), it is the largest find of its kind in Italy and the Mediterranean

British archaeologists have found an ancient shipyard in Italy that built or maintained ships for the Roman empire.

The team, led by the University of Southampton, excavated the remains of a building five storeys high, at Portus, about 20 miles (32km) from Rome.

The structure, from about 117 AD, was used to build or service ships that travelled across the empire to keep Rome supplied with food and goods.

The team believe it is the largest Roman imperial shipyard found in Italy.

The 150m (492ft) by 60m (197ft) site was found close to an existing hexagonal basin or "harbour" at the centre of the huge ancient port complex, which covers two miles square.

It sits by the side of Fiumicino airport, less than two miles from the Mediterranean.

Archaeologists believe it had some form of imperial connection and might have been used for a base for galleys that transported emperors, such as Hadrian, across the empire.

The discovery comes two years after the team found an ornate private amphitheatre at the same site.

Image caption Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Roman period

Professor Simon Keay of the University of Southampton and Portus project director, said: "Emperors leaving and coming back in this period, like Hadrian, must have come through Portus and they must have had a place to stay and leave from that was of a status similar to what we have found."

Prof Keay first thought the building was used as a warehouse but the excavation uncovered evidence there may have been an 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," he said.

Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Roman period.

Until now, no major shipyard building for Rome had 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.

"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," Prof Keay said.

"The scale, position and unique nature of the building lead us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities," he added.

Archaeologists have found tacks which would have been used to nail lead on to the hulls of ships inside one of the bays. They hope to dig down and find more evidence of the shipbuilding use of the site.

"We need to stress there is no evidence yet of ramps which may have been needed to launch newly constructed ships into the waters of the hexagonal basin," Prof Keay said.

The Anglo-Italian dig is a joint project between the University of Southampton, the British School at Rome, Cambridge University and Archaeological Superintendency of Rome.

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