When Strabo wrote of the emporium of Narbonne, he specified that the city was situated behind the Narbonitis, (IV, 1, 6), which corresponds to the lagoons, and that the river Aude was navigable upstream of the city, for a short distance (IV, 1, 14). With these words, the ancient author highlighted the importance of the river and the lagoon. This “favourable situation”, as described by Diodorus of Sicily (V, 38), facilitated the development of port activities in this fluvio-lagoonal area, enabling Narbonne to become a hub of Mediterranean as well as Atlantic trade. It was here, at the intersection of sea and land routes, on the Gallic isthmus between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, facing a sheltered lagoon into which a navigable river flowed, that the first Roman colony outside of Italy was founded as of 118 BC. The sustainment of harbour activities then depended on paleo-environmental and economic changes. In order to identify the complex evolutions of the Narbonne port system in antiquity, a collaborative research project[1] led by an interdisciplinary team of geographers, historians, archaeologists and paleo-environmentalists has been underway since 2010. Paleogeographic studies offer an initial view of the modifications of the coastline around the Bages and Sigean lagoons. Data from these studies are combined in a GIS (Geographic Information System) with data from geophysical surveys and archaeological investigations to better understand the difficulties of maintaining the port areas over the long term. The shifting of the river is a recurring problem in tracing the history of Narbonne: although the Aude now flows north of the city, in antiquity, a southern branch connected it to the Bages and Sigean lagoons.

Recent excavations conducted in the sectors of Le Castélou and Mandirac, south of Narbonne, revealed that the river mouth in the lagoons had undergone monumental work to channel the watercourse and create unloading areas. A 50 m wide and 5 m depth canal has been built in the mid part of the first century AD and was maintained until the 5th century AD. This canal has been built in order to facilitate the maritime access toward the colony of Narbonne, 10 Km upstream, and to provide two parallels harbour areas built on the top of both dikes of the canal. The resources expended attest to a strong determination by the public powers to ensure the smooth functioning of economic activities.

Since two years, further geophysical survey led by V. Mathé (La Rochelle University) has followed the course of this artificial waterway until the gate of the urban area of Narbonne and raised the question of its continuity throughout the city and more upstream. Thanks to a partnership with the ERC Rome’s Mediterranean Ports project, a new geophysical survey will be undertaken within the urban area in 2016 by a team from Southampton.

[1] Collaborative research project on the ancient ports of Narbonne, coordinated by C. Sanchez, CNRS and M.-P. Jézégou, DRASSM. Since 2010, this project has been a partnership between the Occitanie Region, the CNRS, Université Montpellier 3, the French Ministry of Culture (DRAC and DRASSM) and the cities of Narbonne and Gruissan.

It falls under thematic axis 3 of the scientific program of Labex ARCHIMEDE, program IA- ANR-11-LABX-0032-01.


Excavation at Port-la-Nautique (Narbonne, France)

Port La Nautique is located 4 kilometers south of Narbonne, on the northern shore of the Bages and Sigean lagoon. It is one of the main piers of Narbonne’s roman port system. The excavations undertaken since the beginning of the twentieth century, both on land and underwater, have shown that the site was occupied for a century, between 30 BC and 70 AD. Despite this relatively short interval the site shows signs of complex evolution, with luxurious residential areas (Lac de Capelles, Villa) and storage facilities.

Recent investigations carried out at Port-la-Nautique have shown the presence of big warehouses for the storage of dolia. The buildings are estimated to be around 150 m long and 16 m wide. This discovery proves that during the 1st century AD Narbonne was a harbour where bulk wine could be stored. The presence of pottery kilns and of a large dump filled with shells provides evidence for other activities in the port area.

These excavations have helped us understand the internal organization of this specific area in the harbour system. The roman site of Port La Nautique extends over 18 hectares, some of it being urbanized today. The digs were concentrated on a limited part of this site, and were coupled with geophysical surveys and small localized trenches in an attempt at reconstructing the roman topography.