The Porolissum Forum Project - Overview

The Porolissum Forum Project - Overview

Located in Salaj County, Porolissum is one of the largest and best-preserved archaeological sites in all of Romania. Despite its extent of about 150 acres within the walls (about the same size as ancient Pompeii and Ostia), archaeologists have only determined key moments in the historical development of the city and to date less than 10% of the site has been excavated. Our knowledge of the city derives from about 45 lengthy inscriptions (excluding the two longest texts of 211 and 515 words, the average length of the inscriptions consists of 20-25 words) and the archaeological record. There is no direct reference to Porolissum in the ancient sources, although the city is indicated in the Peutinger Tables.

There are five key dates in the history of Porolissum:

AD 106: the city was founded under the emperor Trajan (based upon a military diploma found at Porolissum)
AD 124: province of Dacia Porolissensis established by Hadrian with Porolissum as the capital city (historical knowledge)
AD 157: the amphitheater was rebuilt in stone (inscription)
AD 193-214 the city was renamed Municipium Septimium Porolissensis during the reign of either Septimius Severus or Caracalla (inscriptions)
AD 271: Aurelian withdrew Roman administration from Dacia (historical knowledge)

Historical summary:

The area around Porolissum was inhabited by about 3000 BC with a major indigenous Dacian settlement on Magura Hill (Pop 1997). There is no evidence for a native Dacian settlement on Pomet Hill, where Porolissum is set.

In AD 106, the Roman Emperor Trajan established Porolissum as the principle military base along the newly established border of the Empire. It was part of a sophisticated system of fortresses and watchtowers along a vulnerable stretch of about 40 km along the Meses Mountains between the Pannonian Plain and Dacia. Secondary fotresses were located at Tihau, Romita-Certiae, Romanasi and Bucium (Matei and Bajusz 1997).

In the 2nd century AD the Roman military center consisted of about 5000 auxilia (i.e. non-citizen) soldiers from cohorts including I Flavia Hispanorum, I and II Pannoniorum, III Britannorum, and I and VI Thracum (Gudea and Tamba 2001). Scholars are still uncertain about the system of fortresses on Pomet Hill; however, there is new evidence for several wooden fortresses at first, rather than a single fortress. Within half a century, a vicus developed on the eastern and southern sides of Pomet Hill and in AD 157, the stone amphitheater was constructed, replacing a wooden structure. It may have been at this time that soldiers were consolidated into the stone fortress at the top of Pomet Hill.

The later 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD witnessed further demographic and urban development and the compbined military and civilian population is estimated at 20,000 (Gudea 1998). The city was renamed Municipium Septimium Porolissensis during the first half of the Severan period. It was also around this time that the amphitheater and a pair of temples were renovated (Gudea and Tamba 2001). Carcalla was in Dacia around AD 214 and may have visited the site, as fragments of a bronze equestrian statue may suggest. The nature of the army clearly changed with the citizenship reforms of Caracalla; however, there is little evidence to suggest how the nature of troops was modified. The Romans officially withdrew from Dacia in AD 271 because of the need for troops in more problematic regions of the Empire. 

Archaeology at Porolissum:

The site was discovered in the later 19th century when a large landowner asked peasants to clear portions of Pomet Hill in order to obtain wood. Some architectural features, most importantly the stone fortress, were revealed and many objects were discovered from this time until the 1970's. Excavations were sporadic and many were illegal.

Systematic exploration of the site began in 1977 under the County Museum of History and Art, Zalau and the University of Cluj-Napoca. In the past 30 years, Romanian archaeologists and their foreign colleagues have assembled a large body of knowledge about Porolissum. The stone fortress has been investigated to the point that we understand its configuration: it consists of a walled area encompassing about 2 hectares with 4 imposing gates and a pair of roads that intersect directly in front of the principia (administrative headquarters). Barracks, storage facilities and a large cistern filled the remaining space. The main access road from the west, leading up the Pomet Hill, was lined with a customs house (the only known example in the entire Roman Empire) and two temples – one dedicated to Liber Pater and another dedicated to Bel or Jupiter Dolichenus (Gudea and Tamba 2001). To the south of the military complex, a 5000-8000 seat amphitheater has been fully excavated. Civilian houses and sections of the urban road network have been excavated to the east of the military complex. In addition, many segments of the fortification system have been documented – the most extensive of which has a perimeter of about 12 km (Matei 1997). Finally, the foundations of an aqueduct are visible 3 km to the southwest, along the slope of a hill where a natural spring still exists.

The Porolissum Forum Project: In the late 1990's, Prof. J.K. Haalebos and Dr. Alexandru Matei conducted a program of magnetometry on the slope of Pomet Hill to the east of the stone fortress. The results of this campaign indicated the presence of a large feature consistent with a Roman forum (i.e. a large courtyard surrounded on four sides with structures). Prof. Haalebos died in 2000 before any excavations could be conducted. Dr. Matei excavated a few trenches between 2001 and
2003 and it was around this time that he and Eric De Sena met at a conference in Rome and began planning a collaboration.

2004, Matei and De Sena led a pilot season, initiating the Porolissum Forum Project. This Romanian-American endeavor is intended to investigate the construction history and use of the Forum in the Roman and post-Roman periods as well as any pre-Roman features that may underlie the Forum. In addition to confirming the plan of the Forum as suggested by the geophysical survey, key questions regard the chronology and development of the civilian district, where the Forum is set, and its relationship with the military center. At the same time, this project seeks to address broader citywide questions, such as the changing patterns of nutritional and material supplies over time and the character of the city during the long post-Roman period. The Project is also intended to promote cultural and educational exchange between Romanian and foreign scholars and students.

Large-scale excavations were conducted in the summers of 2006-2011 with a team of about 40 people