The luxury amphitheatre at Portus
Oh dear a good deal of tosh has been written about this luxury amphitheatre discovered in the 'imperial palace' at the harbour of Portus. The 'emperor's private amphitheatre' enthused the report in the Times. It was the setting for 'gladiator fights, bear baiting and even mock sea battles', suggested the Telegraph, 'probably reserved for use by emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian and their guests'. And there was plenty more along the same lines.
Who is responsible for all this? Well partly the excellent team of archaeologists who are currently excavating the Roman harbour installations. Public 'impact' is the order of the day for universities at the moment, and they obviously saw an opportunity to make some. But if you look carefully at what Simon Keay, the Director of the project actually said, the more extravagant claims are always qualified by 'possibly' or 'could have been', and other careful caveats (apart, that is, from his assertion that all this should "certainly .. be rated alongside such wonders as Stonehenge and Angkor Wat".... do you really mean that Simon??)
Maybe the Portus team was blissfully unaware of the tendencies of the genus journalisticum when it comes to archaeological discoveries. Because not many caveats are in evidence in the reporting, and most people will come away with the impression that an exclusive luxury amphitheatre, a miniature Colosseum without the rabble, has been found in the emperor's seaside palace (a useful stopping off point on the imperial trips abroad).
Sorry, but no.
The misunderstanding starts with the phrase 'imperial palace', the conventional (and very much in inverted commas) title given to a large, plush building in the harbour installations at Portus. In fact, we don't actually know what this building was for -- but the likelihood is that it was the administrative HQ of the harbour, and maybe the residence of the overseer of the place. In which case this amphitheatre may just as likely have been the place where, among other things, the boss could address the assembled workers.
This is in fact one of the ideas trailed by Simon Keay in the best and most sober account of the discoveries -- an interview by Bija Knowles on Heritage Key (which also back tracks a bit on the "as important as Stonehenge" claim).
I'm posting this from Carlisle in Pennsylvania, where I have come to give a couple of lectures. But you might be interested in a review I did of a book on ancient collecting in the TLS this week.
And, oh yes; the good news is that that little lodge I posted about a few weeks ago has been SAVED. A great victory for the local campaigners -- and a nice instance of a Cambridge college being prepared to change its mind.