A group of archeologists are digging in a site not too far away from the Italian capital, and they have just come to an astounding realization. An ancient Roman town has lain hidden under the surface in obscurity for many centuries. And now, the experts have figured out a novel way of revealing its secrets.
The experts have managed to show the intricacies of this ancient settlement without even needing to dig the site up. In fact, their work and the lessons learned could potentially transform our contemporary understanding of how ancient settlements once functioned. With the help of cutting-edge technology, the team have demonstrated an alternative means of archeological investigation.
This industrious group was made up of archeologists from the University of Cambridge in England and Belgium’s Ghent University. And the results of their collaboration were published in an academic journal called Antiquity in June 2020. This study is fascinating in its own right, but it might also have wider implications for the field of archeology more generally.
The more that we can learn about the Roman Empire the better; after all, a vast area of the Earth was once under its authority. At its height, this ancient power boasted territory all the way from Britain to Egypt. And this is all the more impressive when we consider the archaic means of travel that were available back at that time.
Rome was merely a city state in the year 500 B.C., but within three centuries the Roman Republic had come to encompass all of Italy. Then, over the following 200 or so years it took conquered Spain, Greece, France and parts of Britain, North Africa and the Middle East. As a result, by 27 B.C. the republic had fully transitioned into an empire.
The Roman Empire reached its most significant size in 117 A.D. when a figure named Trajan was emperor. At this time, its territory was split into various provinces to help with governance. But the number of these changed throughout history due to lands being won or lost, and sometimes certain territories were broken down into smaller provinces.
Eventually, of course, the Roman Empire could no longer handle the sheer extent of land under its control. By 476 A.D. it had broken up into two separate factions – one in the west and the other in the east. And the Eastern Roman Empire – otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire – survived for many hundreds of years after the western side collapsed.
Countless urban centers that we know in contemporary times were initially set up by the Romans. Indeed, ruins from the civilization can be seen all over Europe and parts of Africa. Modern nations such as the U.K. Spain, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Romania all bear evidence of Roman influence today. And that’s not to mention Italy, of course.
Cities throughout the Roman Empire were unique during their time for the sheer planning that seemingly went into their construction. Roman architecture was something to behold, and the general layout of the empire’s urban centers was unrivaled. They were generally set up in careful grids – with features and amenities being positioned very deliberately.
There are numerous examples of Roman streets being rather wide – positioned at 90° angles from each other. In some cases, one street in every five would be of a different size to the others. The buildings themselves were raised on robust foundations and often decorated with written characters.
The more developed Roman urban centers contained bath houses, pavements and water infrastructure. Furthermore, cities were often protected by walls and a towering gate. Communities also often housed theaters, racing tracks and an amphitheater. Temples would be built where citizens could worship their deities, and marketplaces were erected to facilitate trading.
It seems that urban centers throughout the empire tended to mirror the style of Rome itself. That is, they tended to have a courthouse, sites for leisure and a center of politics known as a forum. And even the general governmental infrastructure itself was similar to that of Rome’s.
Much of our contemporary knowledge of life in the Roman Empire comes from the ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These places, of course, were coated in ash following the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. And the towns remain frozen in place today – offering us a glimpse into everyday Roman life.
Certain characteristics of Pompeii and Herculaneum may have been lost to history had the ash not preserved the communities. For example, we can see evidence of artwork and graffiti in the towns. If these hadn’t survived, it’s plausible that we wouldn’t ever have learned about them from any other sources.
But Pompeii and Herculaneum aren’t alone; another Roman town called Ostia has also shone a light on ancient life in the empire. The settlement is less popular than Pompeii, but it has nonetheless has provided a tremendous source of information about ancient Rome. Experts ascertained that Ostia is a more working-class town in comparison to Pompeii, which was far wealthier.
The ruins of Pompeii contain much grander residences than Ostia. The latter town’s apartment buildings were constructed using red blocks and are generally less luxurious than the homes of Pompeii. As a result, Ostia offers an entirely different perspective of life in the empire.
However, the study of these two places – different as they are – doesn’t exactly amount to a rounded picture. And this is something that the archeologists from the University of Cambridge and Ghent University acknowledged in their study published in Antiquity. The experts wrote, “Our understanding of Roman urbanism relies on evidence from a few extensively investigated sites – such as Pompeii and Ostia – which are unrepresentative of the full variety of Roman towns.”
Classical archeology professor from the University of Cambridge Martin Millet was one of the study’s authors. And in June 2020 he told The Guardian, “ If you’re interested in the Roman Empire, cities are absolutely critical because that is how the… empire worked – it ran everything through local cities.”
So, it’s no surprise that Millett and his colleagues were so interested in the Roman city of Falerii Novi. The settlement – which is situated around 30 miles from Rome itself – dates back to around 241 B.C., and it lasted for over 450 years.
Falerii Novi is roughly half the size of Pompeii, according to The Guardian. And historians have long been aware of the place thanks to records. Moreover, archeologists have been busy investigating the specific nature of the area’s soil.
Falerii Novi originally came to be as a result of a rivalry between the Romans and a group known as the Faliscans. This latter faction lived in a town situated in the Italian region of Lazio. However, the Romans ultimately destroyed the settlement, while the Faliscans and their language were eventually wiped out. The Romans would then go on to establish Falerii Novi just a few miles from the original town.
Falerii Novi survived for many centuries – only beginning to collapse as the entire empire was crumbling in around 700 A.D. The site itself then stayed in relative obscurity for a long time and remained relatively untouched. So, the area represented a tremendous opportunity to learn more about Roman life when archeologists got to work there in recent times.
The group from the University of Cambridge and Ghent University ultimately made some fascinating discoveries. The team found a number of religious temples, a theater and a facility for public bathing. They also recorded a sizable monument which may have been associated with religious observance.
Furthermore, the archeologists came across a track snaking around the outer edges of the ancient Falerii Novi settlement. The team noted that this feature may have been closely tied to religious practices of the period. This trail passed by several buildings, which themselves seem to have been of religious significance.
It’s possible that the track represents evidence of the Faliscan people’s culture that once thrived in the area. But more work needs to be done to learn about the significance of the trail. In any case, study author Martin Millet explained to The Guardian that the discovery is tantalizing indeed.
Millett said, “One of the big areas of discussion about the Roman Empire is the way individual local communities worked, and how that interacted with the overall structures of Roman imperial power. What you’re seeing at Falerii – with this religious element to the landscape around the edge of the city – is probably the product of the local Faliscan identity. We’re seeing elements of their religious practice, we imagine, recreated within the Roman sphere.”
Another fascinating discovery made by Millett and his colleagues related to Falerii Novi’s water infrastructure. You see, this water network was found to have been set up beneath buildings – meaning it was laid before the structures themselves were raised. This implies that the city’s construction was unusually methodical for the time period.
The discoveries made by the team were wide-ranging and important, but how exactly did they do them? Well, it wasn’t down to traditional means of conducting archeological investigations. The team’s success actually came from looking beneath the surface of the ground using radar.
Millett told The Guardian, “Most of what we’ve got – apart from in sites like Pompeii – are little bits. You can dig a trench and get little insights, but it’s very difficult to see how they work as a whole. What remote sensing does is enable us to look at very large, complete sites, and to see in detail the structure of those cities without digging a hole.”
The publication notes that the Falerii Novi site spans some 74 acres, so the fact that technology has allowed for an immediate snapshot of this vast space is significant. But the conditions in the area were particularly suitable for such advanced tools to be deployed. The area was never subjected to building works over the centuries – meaning it was clear enough to allow an all-terrain vehicle to drag scanners over the land.
The technology utilized on the Falerii Novi site worked by firing radio waves down below the surface. And those waves would be deflected away when they came into contact with underground features. The echoes created by this would then allow for a clear image of what lay beneath the earth.
Different types of material would change the nature of the radio waves which were being reflected back to the researchers. And this ultimately helped their mapping exercise to be more precise. In addition to that, the technique also allowed them to establish how deep certain objects were buried beneath the surface.
The impact of this study could be huge for historians of ancient Rome. You see, its cities were once thought to be quite uniform in terms of how they were laid out. But Falerii Novi appears to go against the grain. Perhaps this means that broad assumptions about the civilization and its urban centers have now been proven wrong?
Millett elaborated on the importance of this study and how it was conducted. He said in a statement, “The astonishing level of detail which we have achieved at Falerii Novi, and the surprising features that GPR [ground-penetrating radar] has revealed suggest that this type of survey could transform the way archeologists investigate urban sites, as total entities.”
Interestingly, the archeologists have already used this GPR technology in past projects. But they intend to use it again on a bigger scale following the success of the Falerii Novi project. As Millett put it to The Guardian, “As I wander around the Roman Empire, I look at all kinds of places and think, ‘Wow, what we could do there.’”
Millet continued in a statement, “It is exciting and now realistic to imagine GPR being used to survey a major city such as Miletus in Turkey, Nicopolis in Greece or Cyrene in Libya. We still have so much to learn about Roman urban life and this technology should open up unprecedented opportunities for decades to come.”
However, GPR technology does have its pitfalls. As we mentioned earlier, it can help generate data related to a given site very quickly. But the process is extremely time-consuming; it takes around 20 hours to work through two and a half acres, according to CNN.
But the archeologists aim to make use of technology to help out with the time-lagging problem, too. They hope that automated techniques will help them analyze the data collected by this method much quicker. Though in the meantime, the group will continue to analyze the data gathered from the site through 2020 and the following year.
Evidently, GPR technology is an extremely handy tool that archeologists can make use of. And it will hopefully lead to more thorough investigations and discoveries down the line. However, experts will still have a lot of work on their hands after it’s been utilized.
But Martin Millett is optimistic – despite the challenges. He spoke to Reuters about the effectiveness of the new techniques used at Falerii Novi, adding, “This took one person about three to four months in the field. This really does change how we can study and understand Roman towns – the way of the future for archeology.”