Venice "Ancestor" City Mapped for First Time

July 30, 2009

The outline of an ancient Roman city buried beneath cropland near Venice, Italy, has been mapped in detail for the first time with the aid of aerial photography, a new study says. (See the Altinum map and aerial pictures.)

Until now the ancient city of Altinum, which dates back at least to the first century B.C., was known only from historical records and a few minor excavations.

The new map of the town's foundations reveals that it was a classic Roman city replete with city walls and gates, a network of streets and canals, homes, monuments such as an amphitheater and a basilica, and a harbor.

In its heyday, the city was fronted by what is now known as the Laguna Veneta, and a "brackish smell" likely filled the air, noted study co-author Paolo Mozzi, a geomorphologist at the University of Padua in Italy.

"You can expect a lot of coming and going, a lot of ships arriving through the lagoon from points in the Adriatic, [and] there were merchants running along the Via Annia," a road that crossed the city, Mozzi said.

Summer was hot and muggy, while winter days were often shrouded in fog.

The findings paint a picture of a sophisticated community with the know-how to thrive in a lagoon environment centuries before Venice and its famous canals emerged, the study authors conclude.

Crop Survey

Today the remains of Altinum lie under fields of maize and soy on the Italian mainland.

For their map, described this week in the journal Science, Mozzi and colleagues took advantage of drought conditions in 2007 to take photographs of the fields in visible and near-infrared light.

Plants growing on top of stone structures such as walls and building foundations suffer greater water stress than plants over canals filled in with sediment, Mozzi explained.

"If you look at it from the air, you see the geometry of these plants, which show underground the geometry of the structure."

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