Southampton Scientists Make Roman Discovery

22 September 2011, 12:12 | Updated: 22 September 2011, 12:21

A huge Roman shipyard larger than a football pitch, has been found by Southampton archaeologists.

A team headed by the University of Southampton excavated the remains of a building more than 150 metres long, 60 metres wide and five storeys high at Portus, which was the ancient port for Rome.

The structure from about 117 AD, in the reign of Trajan, was used to either build or service ships that travelled across the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago to keep Rome supplied with food and goods.

It is largest find of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean.

It was found close to a distinctive existing hexagonal harbour at the centre of the huge ancient port complex, which covers two miles square. It sits by the side of Fiumicino airport and is now more than two miles from the Mediterranean.

The building is so grand archaeologists think 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 on their way to places like Britain.

The latest discovery comes after the team found an ornate private amphitheatre at the same site two years ago. The new building is further proof of a link to the leaders of the Roman world and the importance of the ruins.

University of Southampton professor and Portus project director, Simon Keay, said: “This is an exciting and important discovery and the building is a really, really fantastic thing to find.

“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.

“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.”

Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Roman period and the archaeologists have been investigating the port's significance over a number of years.

“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.”

Already archaeologists have found tacks which would have been used to nail lead on to the hulls of ships inside one of the bays.

In the coming weeks the archaeologists hope to dig down and find more evidence of the shipbuilding use of the site.