Roman Imperial Port Facilities Emerge Under Archaeological Investigation

Archaeologists uncover buried structural remains and artifacts that help tell the story of an ancient Roman port system in Italy.

Known as Vada Volaterrana, it has been identified as a key port system located in present-day Tuscany, Italy, used anciently by the Romans of the city of Volaterrae (today’s Volterra) for the import and export of trade goods throughout the Mediterranean. The main harbor was located north of the mouth of the Cecina river, at S. Gaetano di Vada. Here, the University of Pisa has been excavating, since the 1980s, a significant commercial quarter that has yielded major structures and numerous artifacts that have testified to a facility built during the Augustan age but lasting through to the sixth-seventh centuries, C.E. 

Currently led by Simonetta Menchelli of the Laboratory of Ancient Topography of the University of Pisa and Stephano Genovesi of the Archaeological Superintendences of Tuscany, Liguria and Sardinia, the team has uncovered two thermal baths, a large warehouse (horreum) with about 36 cells, a large water tank, a monumental fountain, and a building with three large apses, decorated with remarkable wall paintings and surrounding an open squared courtyard. 

“The findings of amphorae, pottery, coins, glass vessels and marbles testify to the intensive trade activities; every kind of goods arrived from the entire Mediterranean Sea basin, to be redistributed from the port to the countryside and the city of Volaterrae, and here local products were shipped out,” report the excavation directors. “[The] production of wine was especially developed; [we found] many workshops where amphorae were made. The main trade route of Volterra’s wine led to the South of France and, further north, to the river Rhine, where the wine was consumed mainly by Roman legionaries stationed in the camps guarding the borders of the Empire.”*

The ancient city of Volterra, or Volaterrae, which was served by the Vada Volaterrana port system, was first settled by the Etruscans in the 8th century B.C.E. During the succeeding centuries the village had developed into a major city with power over a vast territory, rich in mineral resources and salines. Tombs excavated in the area revealed the existence of a wealthy Etruscan aristocracy, with the means to acquire bronze and ceramic objects from the cities of Southern Etruria, and from Greece. During the 3rd century, B.C.E, the city was absorbed under the rule of Rome. Eventually, some of the members of the Volterran aristocracy became Roman senators, injecting influence into the affairs of an expanding Roman Empire. The city features an ancient Roman theater and thermal baths and houses, which have been the subject of previous archaeological investigations.



View of the Roman theater at Volterra. Jean-Christophe Benoist, Wikimedia Commons


The most recent excavations of the port system commercial facilities in 2013 revealed the remains of a rectangular structure with thick (90 cm) walls. Three rooms have thus far been identified, with a northern-most room exhibiting a semi-circular apse-like feature, tentatively interpreted as a possible small shrine. Within the same excavation area archaeologists have unearthed some remains of a Late Antiquity (fifth-sixth century C.E.) necropolis, where they found two burials featuring bodies that were interred using large re-used amphorae. Not uncommon, it is a burial type called enchytrismós. “A few bones allowed us to identify one of them as the burial of a 4 – 5-year-old child,” reported the directors.**

In 2014, archaeologists hope to continue their excavations at the newly discovered structure to develop a better understanding of the stratigraphic sequence and construction phases of the building; further explore the tombs containing amphorae burials; conduct GPR surveys to identify workshop structures; and survey other areas with an eye toward extending investigations around the settlement.  

For more information about the project and how one can participate and otherwise support the work at the site, go to the website for more information.





Read about the most fascinating discoveries with a premium subscription to Popular Archaeology Magazine.  Find out what Popular Archaeology Magazine is all about.  AND MORE:

On the go? Purchase the mobile version of the current issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine here for only $2.99.

And, Popular Archaeology’s annual Discovery edition is a selection of the best stories published in Popular Archaeology Magazine in past issues, with an emphasis on some of the most significant, groundbreaking, or fascinating discoveries in the fields of archaeology and paleoanthropology and related fields. At least some of the articles have been updated or revised specifically for the Discovery edition.  We can confidently say that there is no other single issue of an archaeology-related magazine, paper print or online, that contains as much major feature article content as this one. The latest issue, volume 2, has just been released. Go to the Discovery edition page for more information.

Subscription Price: A very affordable $5.75 for those who are not already premium subscribers of Popular Archaeology Magazine (It is FREE for premium subscribers to Popular Archaeology). Premium subscribers should email [email protected] and request the special coupon code. Or, for the e-Book version, it can be purchased for only $3.99 at