Aerial photos bring Altinum, precursor to Venice, to life

Venice, the floating city, owes a curious debt to Attila the Hun. "The Scourge of God" sent the Venetians fleeing in A.D. 452 from their city, Altinum, to found Venice deep in the marshes on the edge of the Adriatic.

Now archaeologists have mapped the lost city, detailed in the current journal Science. "We have a rather unique opportunity of finding an abandoned Roman city," study lead author Paoli Mozzi of Italy's Padua University tells Science. "Now we can really start to make some kinds of reasoning about the way the city lived."

A combination of drought and aerial photography in July 2007 conspired to reveal the location of Altinum.

Infrared photography, which reveals heat given off from the ground, showed how drought affected corn and soybean crops growing over the site, in turn revealing the streets, buildings and even the large canal that once ran through the middle of the city, suggesting Altinum was a mini-Venice before Venice.

"Altinum was one of the most important cities in northern Italy," says classicist Kathleen Coleman of Harvard, who was not part of the discovery team, "because of its strategic position as a hub where routes over the Alps, around the top of the Adriatic and down the eastern seaboard intersected."

Archaeologists will consider targeted excavations of the important sites from the maps, Mozzi suggests.