Sensing Portus

Inside the Castellum Aquae
Inside the Castellum Aquae – a dark, damp, musty, resonant and chilly place

I have become fascinated with the ways in which we all imagine the site of Portus today and as it was in the past. When we have time we are going to undertake some rigorous formal analyses of the language uses on the Archaeology of Portus course – it provides an extraordinary insight into the prevailing understanding of the Roman past, at least as represented by our learners, and also of the impact of particular learning materials on this. We hope that such analyses will enable us to provide an ever-improving sense of the place to those people studying on the course.

So far though, I have undertaken a very simple analysis of references to different senses during the first run (May-July 2014). I started with smell!

The smell of fish (fresh and rotting) was the most commonly stated, equalling references to the smell of the sea (including its saltiness, freshness and the sea air) and to spices. Next most common were the smells of sweat or perspiration – carried by working people, rowers, the throng of the crowd, and so on. Food and cooking came next (with baked bread being quite common), and then less appetisingly, animals and sewage. Other wonderfully emotive smells such as sawdust, frankincense, grain, the smell of damp, herbs, tar, smoke and fruit along with dozens more provided a richly layered imagined and described impression of Portus.

We have seen equal creativity in this run of the course. Perhaps surprisingly however there were only a couple of hundred references to smell in the comments from the whole of the first dataset. Sight, viewing and related words occur more than eight hundred times. If you include “see” it goes into the thousands, although it is rather harder to separate the different uses of this word automatically and hence will require rather more sophisticated analyses. Still, it seems that topics pertaining to vision outnumber the other senses combined by an order of magnitude. Hear and hearing are about as commonly referred to as smells. Touch literally in the sense of physical contact occurs barely ten times.

We will report back as these analyses progress a little further. We have also in this version of the course added in some suggested items that learners might bring together in order to provide a sense of the smell of the port. We have other plans in the pipeline, so watch, hear, smell, taste and touch this space.