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The Short History of Altinum

Altinum was an ancient town of the Veneti, the namesakes of Venice. It was situated some 15 kilometers southeast of modern Treviso and on the mainland shore of the Laguna di Venezia. Being also close the the mouths of the rivers Dese, Zero, and Sile, it was perfectly situated for trade. The city developed into a major port and trading centre for timber, oil, wine and wool.

Altinum became part of the Roman Empire and was a flourishing port and trading centre during that period. Yet its fortune turned when it was ransacked by the Huns in the year AD 452. The city recovered but the shoreline continued to silt up, eventually blocking off access to sea trade and leading to the abandonment by its inhabitants for the island of Torcello at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon.
The remains of Altinum were plundered for its stone for use as building materials in Torcello and the emerging Venice, leaving very little archaeological remains above ground level. The remains have also been affected by agricultural activities since the late nineteenth century. But it also meant that Altinum was the only Roman city in northern Italy that has not been buried by medieval and modern cities.
During a severe drought in 2007, a team led by Paolo Mozzi, a geomorphologist, took aerial photos of the site in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared. Because the crops planted on the land were in different stages of ripening, thanks to differences in the amount of water in the soil. When the images were processed to tease out subtle variations in plant water stress, a buried city emerged.

The study has also revealed numerous previously unknown associated buildings around the port area, allowing archaeologists to determine the wider extent of the Altinum port system and how other previously known structures, such as a Roman tower was positioned along the navigation route that led from the port to the sea. They discovered a complex network of rivers and canals, revealing how the people mastered the marshy environment in what is now the lagoon of Venice.

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