Roman city revealed without any digging

British and Belgian archaeologists have comprehensively mapped an ancient Roman city without turning a single sod of earth.

Advanced ground penetrating radar (GPR) allowed them not only to discover how it looked around 700 CE, but also – by looking at different depths – how it evolved over hundreds of years.

Located 50 kilometres north of Rome and first occupied in 241 BCE, Falerii Novi was just under half the size of Pompeii.

By towing their GPR instruments behind a quad bike, the team from the University of Cambridge and Ghent University surveyed all 30.5 hectares within the city’s walls taking a reading every 12.5 centimetres.

They discovered a bath complex, a market, a temple, a public monument they describe as unlike anything seen before, and even the city’s sprawling network of water pipes.

“The astonishing level of detail which we have achieved at Falerii Novi, and the surprising features that GPR has revealed, suggest that this type of survey could transform the way archaeologists investigate urban sites, as total entities,” says Cambridge’s Martin Millett.

He and his colleagues have already used GPR to survey Interamna Lirenas, in Italy, and on a lesser scale Alborough in the UK.

Writing in the journal Antiquity, the researchers say their study challenges certain assumptions about Roman urban design, showing that Falerii Novi’s layout was less standardised than many other well-studied towns.

The temple, market building and bath complex also are more architecturally elaborate than would usually be expected in a small city.

GPR revealed a large rectangular building connected to a series of water pipes leading to the aqueduct and which run beneath its city blocks, not just along its streets as might be expected. The team believes this structure was an open-air pool, forming part of a substantial public bathing complex.

Even more unexpected is a pair of large structures facing each other within a porticus duplex – a covered passageway with a central row of columns.

The researchers say they know of no direct parallel but believe these were part of an impressive public monument, and contributed to an intriguing sacred landscape on the city’s edge.

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