Recognising historic landscapes

The idea that there was no pre-existing Roman settlement on the site of medieval Venice is hard to credit when you realise that the Italian peninsula was heavily populated under the Roman Empire

The Roman roots of Venice

Every guidebook and history of Venice begins by assuring you that the city was founded in AD 421 by refugees fleeing to the 118 uninhabited islands set around a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea to escape the warlike ‘barbarians’ pouring into northern Italy – a bewildering array of tribal groups known to historians (but probably not to themselves) as Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Lombards, Saxons, Gepids, Bulgars, and Thuringians, all seeking new lands to settle in the dying days of the declining Roman Empire.

The idea that there was no pre-existing Roman settlement on the site of medieval Venice is hard to credit when you realise that the Italian peninsula was heavily populated under the Roman Empire, with scarcely a square metre of uninhabited land – marshes and islands were no barrier to settlement, as the landscapes of the Po Delta to the south testify, as do the nearby settlements at Grado and Aquileia.

Chris Catling is an archaeologist and writer, fascinated by the off-beat and the eccentric in the heritage world.
Archaeological work around the Venetian lagoon is revealing more about the area’s history. PHOTO: Lodovico Folin-Calabi, © UNESCO.

Now the murky tidal waters of the Treporti channel, in the northern part of the Venetian lagoon, have yielded their secrets to a sonar study, revealing the presence of a Roman road and a possible harbour. In an article published on 22 July 2021 in the journal Scientific Reports, Fantina Madricardo and her colleagues at the Venetian Institute of Marine Science report on the results of a sonar survey that has detected a 1km length of road. Divers have subsequently photographed the remains, retrieved paving stones (basoli), and mapped what they interpret as part of a harbour wall. Amphorae were also retrieved, ranging in date from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD.

Inundation is a constant threat to a city that has seen the mean sea level rise more than 4m since Roman times, drowning the remains that show that the future city of Venice was not an empty wasteland in the 5th century AD, but was networked into ancient Rome’s extensive road and trading system. The newly discovered road appears to follow a course that leads from the mainland town of Chioggia on the southern edge of the lagoon via the islands of the Lido-Pellestrina group to the city of Altinum in the north.

Altinum was a flourishing port and trading centre, until its sacking by the Huns in AD 452 persuaded its inhabitants to flee to the Venetian island of Torcello. Recent excavations on Torcello have uncovered Roman remains beneath the medieval layers, possibly of a villa abandoned in late antiquity and resettled in the 6th century AD, when the first Christian church was built. It is possible that the Venetian lagoon had a number of similarly dispersed settlements and villa estates during the Roman period, and the authors suggest that there is much more to be found in the future, including possible lighthouse remains, harbour infrastructure, and warehouses.

Dutch canals and Roman frontiers

The discovery of a major Roman military road and canal in the southern Netherlands is not as unexpected as the Venetian find, but it is no less impressive as an example of the engineering capabilities of the Roman army. The transport system has been excavated in the municipality of Oosterhout, south of Rotterdam, as part of a scheme to update and strengthen flood defences in the Netherlands. At 10m in width, the canal was probably built to carry soldiers, food, and building materials from the city of Nijmegen to the limes, the frontier fortifications separating the Roman provinces to the west of the River Rhine from the Germanic lands to the east.

A further 600km stretch of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire – the section known as the Danube Limes (Western Segment) – was added to the World Heritage list at the 44th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee held in Fuzhou, China, in July 2021. This section consists of a number of roads, legionary fortresses, and their associated settlements, fortlets, and temporary camps located in Austria, Germany, and Slovakia.

Stonehenge at risk

The 2021 session will go down in history for the exceptional decision to delete Liverpool from the World Heritage list, only the third time a site has been removed. UNESCO officials decided that new developments, including apartments, hotels, and office blocks recently built within, or close to, the designated area were ‘detrimental to the site’s authenticity and integrity’. Dresden’s Elbe Valley was removed from the list in 2009 in response to the building of a new bridge across the river, and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman was removed in 2007 after the government substantially reduced the size of the sanctuary to allow for new oil fields.

UNESCO also expressed concern about a number of sites, including Stonehenge, the Neolithic stone circle on England’s Salisbury Plain, whose monument-rich landscape is threatened by plans for a new road tunnel. UNESCO has urged the UK Government to consider a much longer tunnel, taking the potentially damaging tunnel entrances out of the designated landscape altogether. Shortly after UNESCO’s warning, tunnel opponents celebrated a High Court ruling causing the tunnel plans to be put on hold because the Government had not considered in detail the impact of the construction work on the 175 scheduled ancient monuments likely to be affected by the road scheme.

Welsh slate landscapes

Communities in north-west Wales were in a celebratory mood, too, when their slate landscapes were added to the World Heritage list as a cultural landscape, representing ‘an outstanding example of human interaction with the natural environment’. The inscription was based on the universal value of an industry that ‘roofed the world’. Around a third of all roofing slate used in the world in the late 19th century came from these quarries. The industry had a lasting impact on global architecture, with Welsh slate being used on the huge numbers of new houses built to cater for the growing populations of towns and cities as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In 1830, half the buildings in New York had roofs of Welsh slate, which was also used for such prestigious buildings as Westminster Hall in London’s Houses of Parliament, Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, and Copenhagen City Hall in Denmark.

ABOVE The Slate Landscape of North-west Wales has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list because of its significance as a cultural landscape.
The Slate Landscape of North-west Wales has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list because of its significance as a cultural landscape. PHOTO: © Crown copyright RCAHMW.

The slate landscape includes a broad range of heritage assets, embracing hillside quarries, cavernous underground mines, and massive cascading waste tips; the whole panoply of infrastructure needed to extract and work the slate, including engine houses, wheelhouses, and mills powered by ingenious water systems; the inclines and aerial ropeways used to carry slate from remote hills to tramways; and the narrow-gauge railways built to negotiate mountainous terrain as they carried worked slate to the harbours at Port Penrhyn and Porthmadog for shipment to all parts of the world.

Terrace archaeology

The quarries in the Welsh slate landscape resemble giant terraces, forming steps down the hillside. Terraces on a smaller scale are characteristic elements of landscapes in many regions around the world, providing the means to grow rice, grapes, and olive trees on steep hillsides from China, Bali, and the Philippines to Mallorca, Madeira, and Portugal’s Douro Valley. Several of these spectacular terracing systems have been designated as World Heritage sites. They were, however, notoriously difficult to date, because the soil within the terraces is constantly cultivated – the enemy of dateable stratigraphy. Now a team of scientists led by Sam Turner of England’s Newcastle University and Tim Kinnaird, of Scotland’s University of St Andrews, have enjoyed some success in dating Mediterranean terracing using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating, which measures the time that has passed since sediment samples were last exposed to sunlight.

Five study areas were selected in three countries (Spain, Greece, and Turkey) to test the applicability of the dating method in different climatic, topographical, and geological zones. The results from these five widely dispersed case studies – see Antiquity 95 (381) – revealed a high degree of consistency: the longevity of terracing was indicated by the dating of early terracing to the 1st millennium AD, but the most intensive episodes of terrace-building occurred during the later Middle Ages (c.AD 1100-1600), which the authors say must now be considered a key period of landscape change.

In particular, the mid-12th and early 16th centuries AD were periods of increased terrace construction across all five case-study areas, despite differences in terrace morphology and function, and despite very different rainfall patterns across the region during these periods. The authors are unable to say what triggered the change – climate, shifting patterns of land tenure, greater local autonomy, political, economic, and social factors could all have played a part – but they argue that terracing represents a highly adaptable practice, with the potential for informing future debates on climate change, water management, and sustainable agricultural practices.