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Venetian sights

venice With a combination of luck and fancy imaging techniques, geographers have snapped the first shots of an ancient Roman city.

The coastal city of Altinum was bustling in the early CE and possibly late BCE (Wikipedia). In the 5th to 7th centuries CE, historians believe the Barbarians raged through the city and the inhabitants fled to Venice, so Altinum is thus seen as a grandfather of sorts to Venice. But besides historical records and a handful of artifacts, little is known about the town’s structure, as it was dismantled to build Venice, repeatedly flooded, and is now blanketed by fields of soy and maize. (Despite the headlines on some reports (Spiegel, Times Online), the city was never actually “lost” — people knew it was there, they just didn’t know what it looked like.)

But in 2007, researchers at Padua University caught a break: a severe drought that stressed the overlying crops. That’s a blessing for them because it exaggerates differences in the crops’ health — vegetation doesn’t grow well over soil with stones, bricks or compacted soil, but does slightly better over depressed features like pits and canals. By photographing the area at both visible and near-infrared wavelengths, they were able to pick out these differences and compile a map of the city’s urban structure.

They discovered that Altinum was pretty much your standard ancient Roman city, with a basilica, theater, emporia, forum, encircling walls, and a decent network of streets and canals. The authors end their half-page (including references) Science article by concluding that Romans had "successfully exploited the amphibious environment several centuries before the city of Venice started to emerge.”

Other coverage:

Venice “Ancestor” City Mapped for First Time: National Geographic

Ancient Roman City Rises Again: ScienceNOW

Image: Realvista 2007, Telespazio S.p.A.

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