Pattern of Ripening Crops Reveals a Buried Roman Metropolis

By Eliza Strickland | July 31, 2009 10:27 am

AltinumAn ancient Roman city that was the predecessor of Venice has been rediscovered beneath croplands near the Venetian lagoon using sophisticated aerial imagery and some clever analysis. Researchers say they’ve found the harbor city of Altinum, which was once one of the richest cities of the Roman empire. But terrified by the impending invasion of the fearsome Germanic Emperor Attila the Hun, its inhabitants cut their losses and fled in AD452, leaving behind a ghost town of theatres, temples and basilicas [Times Online].

Many of the city’s ancient buildings were dismantled and the stones were carted away in the Middle Ages. The remaining foundations sunk back into the marsh, which was drained and turned into agricultural land in the 19th century. The new study, published in Science, is a result of aerial images taken in unusually dry summer of 2007, when the crops were suffering from drought. When the visible light and near-infrared images were processed to tease out subtle variations in plant water stress, a buried metropolis emerged. The researchers discovered that the crops planted on the land were in different stages of ripening, thanks to differences in the amount of water in the soil [ScienceNOW Daily News].

Lighter crops traced the outlines of buildings–including a basilica, an amphitheater, a forum, and what may have been temples–buried at least 40 centimeters below the surface. To the south of the city center runs a wide strip of riper crops. They were growing above what clearly used to be a canal, an indication that Venice’s Roman forebears were already incorporating waterways into their urban fabric [ScienceNOW Daily News]. The canal connects to the lagoon and cuts through the city, and was probably used to transport foreign goods from the harbor to the inland cities of Verona and Milan.

Researchers say that this archaeological find is particularly valuable because the city was never built over. “It’s extremely unusual for a town to go out of use like this and that is what makes it absolutely invaluable for achaeologists. It gives a full profile of what the town looked like without the imposition of modern infrastructure,” said Dr Neil Christie, a specialist in the Roman empire [Times Online].

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Image: Science / AAAS

  • fb36

    Attila the Hun was not Germanic!
    Hun Empire originated from Central Asia.

  • Ted

    Somebody really needs to fix that!

  • Carol Dent

    What a facinating blog. I’ve bookmarked it and added your feed to my RSS Reader

  • nick

    Guesses are the Huns may have migrated from Eurasia but there is not good evidence for their origin. And if you take a look at a map of the actual Hun Empire, you’ll notice that it barely crosses into Asia, and comes no where near central Asia (depending on where you draw the defining line for Asia, which looks to be about in-line with the Caspian Sea, which was the eastern limit of the Hun Empire). As the empire was forged by Attila, even if if they had come from Mongolia (unsubstantiated claim) some time in the distant past, he was definitely born when the Hun tribes occupied the Germanic regions.

    “There are no historical records that definitively answer where the Huns in Europe of the 4th century came from.”

    And here is a map of the Hun Empire, entirely on what we now define as the European continent.

  • Marion O. Moon

    Good day! I simply would like to give an enormous thumbs up for the nice data you’ve right here on this post. I will likely be coming again to your blog for extra soon.

  • sandro veronese

    Sorry, but the first image of the roman town of Altino, or to be more precise of a significant part of Altino, was produced by Sandro Veronese an italian free lance geophysicist,using the magnetic method based on the measuremnts of the Earth’ magnetic field, in the 1989.
    The image of the Roman town is visible on the web site and on the web site and on march 2000 “LE SCIENZE” italian edition of Scientific American

    Sandro veronese
    chief geophysicist of ARCHAEOSURVEY
    Vai A. de Polzer 18
    45100 Rovigo

    tel. 0425 29133

  • Valerie Ross

    @Sandro Veronese, thanks for the heads up. Those interested can see those images of Altinum, made using a magnetic survey rather than infrared images, here:


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