Ports and harbours

A port, a harbour or an anchorage place? Essentially a place to safely moor your boat or ship. These critical points of contact and exchange, interfaces between different cultures, located between land and sea, have been relatively little studied by archaeologists in the past, until recently.

Seminal works on harbours were published by Blackman in 1982 in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. The focus of these papers was harbour technology and in particular the Mediterranean harbours of classical Greece and Rome. These often monumental harbours still represent iconic markers on the coastal landscape. However, over time researchers such as Honor Frost, Avner Raban and Nic Flemming began to ask questions about the nature of harbours in earlier periods. What did a Bronze Age harbour look like? What constitutes a ‘proto-harbour’ the term coined by Honor Frost? How did ports and harbours fit into the landscape and how did they affect and were they effected by, landscape change?

Nowadays, harbours of all shapes and sizes are studied by archaeologists for a plethora of reasons. Some are interested in what they can tell us about ancient trade and exchange being located as they are at the interface of land and sea. Others are interested in harbours as links in wider networks, the role they played between the coast and the hinterland, and between local and overseas communities, in order to try and ascertain the relative role of specific harbours and anchorages in the past. Harbours as a part of landscape are also critically important as they can provide an insight into how landscapes looked in the past, how they changed over time and how we may begin to explore these changes through processes of sea-level change and geomorphology. Harbours performed different roles, from great centres of international trade, to fishing harbours and naval ports. Many were iconic and monumental, others centres of rich ethnic diversity. Some ports such as Portus, the port of ancient Rome, fed larger centres of power upriver, others were conduits for regional commodities such as those around Lake Mareotis that supported the great Greco-Roman port of Alexandria. A few were located on the fringes of the known world and provided entrepots to other cultures and trading networks, such as the Roman ports of trade that extended down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean to India.

At essence ports and harbours had to provide some basic amenities, shelter for vessels being the critical factor, but fresh water and approaches that were easily navigable to enter and leave in a variety of maritime conditions and wind directions. The criteria that determined their location was a combination of physical determinants, topography, sheltered water, prevailing maritime conditions and the specific socio-economic or cultural requirements of the time. One observation often made about harbours is that coastal locales that provide good shelter often served in that capacity over millennia hence harbours were reused and reconstituted, extended and expanded over time.

As points of contact and places of exchange not just of goods but also ideas, harbours can often reveal aspects of cutting edge technology, for example, hydraulic concrete was first invented in the construction of breakwaters and harbour quays (Portus, Rome and Caesarea Maritima, Israel). Natural anchorages used to provide shelter to vessel over four thousand years ago have revealed traces of coastal management in order to try and keep the harbour silt free (Tell Achziv, Israel); while others represent such iconic monuments that they are listed amongst the Seven Wonders of the World (the light house of the port of Alexandria, Egypt). The study of harbours provides a rich and diverse view of our maritime past, the routes of trade, the vessels of trade, systems of trade, as well as technology and maritime practise – this wealthy resource is one that archaeologists are now beginning to engage with more fully and as a result harbours are further opening new doors to a more nuanced understanding our maritime past.

Links about ports and harbours:

The Roman amphora wharf in the harbour of Myos Hormos, Quseir al-Qadim, Red Sea coast of Egypt (University of Southampton)
The Roman amphora wharf in the harbour of Myos Hormos, Quseir al-Qadim, Red Sea coast of Egypt (© University of Southampton)

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