Grand Canal Predated Venice: Ancient Roman City Lost, Now Found

The lost Roman city of Altinum has been found in Italy. Sophisticated aerial images released this week reveal fascinating new details about Venice's predecessor, which was abandoned by its citizens and then sank into the lagoon.

After a long search, the ancient city of Altinum -- considered to be the predecessor of Venice -- has been discovered. In a report published this week in Science, archaeologists at the University of Padua also report that the most popular of Venetian tourist attractions, the Grand Canal, was flowing through the Roman trade town as long as 1,500 years ago.

Altinum plays a major role in Venice's history -- it was one of the richest Roman settlements but inhabitants fled before the advance of the armies of Attila the Hun. Then as water levels rose, the abandoned city sank into the lagoon. Its walls remain covered by fields today. And this is why the ancient city has remained undiscovered for such a long time.

On a modern map, Altinum is situated seven kilometers north of Venice, near the Marco Polo airport. It is the only large Roman city in northern Italy and one of the few in Europe that was not buried beneath medieval or modern towns.

The team of researchers, led by Andrea Ninfo, mapped the city in detail using aerial photography. They also used pictures taken in conjunction with a variety of infra-red filters. During a particularly dry period in the summer of 2007, when plants were stressed and more stonework appeared, the outlines of buildings in the ancient city became more visible. "Everything is just as it was. When we saw the picture we couldn't believe it," Italian archaeologist and co-author of the paper Alessandro Fontana, told Times of London.

According to archaeologists, Venice's ancestor was surrounded by rivers and canals, including one large canal that ran through the center of the city and connected it with the lagoon.

A digital reconstruction of the area shows that the city stood two to three meters above what was then the sea level. The structure of Altinum was complex and perfectly suited to the particular demands of the swampy environment. Researchers say that it looks like the Romans knew how best to build on this harsh, swampy landscape -- long before they began the construction of Venice in the middle of a lagoon.

ecb -- with wires

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