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The Fascinating Ancient City Excavated… by Radar!

Steve Palace
The results from the GPR at a depth or .8-.85 meters. Image credit - L. Verdonck

In a world first, the Ancient Roman city of Falerii Novi was mapped without a single spade touching the ground.

2020 may have been a terrible year for the planet but it was a pretty good one for archaeology. Experts from Ghent University in Belgium and Cambridge England used GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to create a map of the buried city, which lies approx 30 miles north of Rome.

The place, covering about 75 acres, was inhabited between 241 BC – 700 AD. A previous, partial excavation took place the old-fashioned way. This however is on a whole other level.

As a statement on EurekAlert notes, while the tech has been around since the early 20th century it’s only now radar is fast enough to produce images of the right definition. In other words, the business of hunting for history just got an upgrade.

Reuters reported that an antenna “sends a pulsed radio signal into the ground and listens for the echoes bouncing off objects.” Readings were taken at intervals of 12.5 cm.

The individual layers from each GPR pass were combined and created into a 3D image. Image credit – L. Verdonck

The individual layers from each GPR pass were combined and created into a 3D image. Image credit – L. Verdonck

A multi-layered picture is built from the info, made up of billions of data points. “By looking at different depths,” the statement reads, “the archaeologists can now study how the town evolved over hundreds of years.”

Faster and cheaper, the radar isn’t a substitute for scraping and digging. It can definitely help with the process though, and offer insights archaeologists haven’t seen before.

The state of the art set up used some decidedly practical means to carry out the survey. Equipment was “pulled over the surface using an all-terrain vehicle” in a process that lasted several months.

What did the team discover? The most exciting feature was a 200 ft long monument of a sort unknown to archaeology. Close to the city’s North Gate stood a large public area of some kind, containing 2 sizeable structures placed opposite each other, according to EurekAlert.

Reuters wrote the monument had a colonnaded portico – basically an entrance – on 3 sides. A 130 x 300 ft square is also mentioned. Smithsonian Magazine reports the city was encircled by a path which would have taken people to the mysterious destination.

Current thinking suggests a sacred meeting point. Temples are another part of Falerii Novi’s long-buried make up.

The team’s study – published in the journal Antiquity – revealed an “architecturally sophisticated” approach unusual for an area of this kind. This was also reflected in the water system, where aqueducts ran below buildings – a far from typical arrangement based on available evidence.

Aside from the bath house, there was a market building and around 60 dwellings. The city could have been home to 3,000 people wrote Reuters.

What would they have got up to? In their coverage, Business Insider mentions shopping, exercising and keeping clean. Trips to the theater and religious worship apparently provided the culture.

As written by the archaeologists in Antiquity, Ancient Rome formed the centre of “a network of cities that played a pivotal role in the administration, social organisation and economy of its empire.”

The remains of this theatre were excavated in 1829, almost 200 years before work started with modern day ground penetrating radar. Image credit – Croberto68 CC BY-SA 3.0

The remains of this theatre were excavated in 1829, almost 200 years before work started with modern day ground penetrating radar. Image credit – Croberto68 CC BY-SA 3.0

Another more famous urban collective was Pompeii. Falerii Novi is reportedly less than half the size. Yet it provides much-needed alternative information on how the Romans lived. The less standardized layout of the city should be useful for both this and future explorations.

Not that the cutting edge kit comes problem-free. A quad bike drags the equipment and “drag” might be a good summary of the lengthy period needed to complete. Exploring 1 acre can take approx 8 hours.

Experts anticipated their findings to be concluded within a year. Covid may have put the brakes on those plans. Nevertheless, the achievement is massive. It’s the first time a city has been mapped using high resolution GPR after all.

Another Article From Us: Oldest Basket Ever Found is Part of Dramatic Discovery in Israel’s “Cave of Horror”

Falerii Novi was a walled city. Now modern day eyes are getting a look at what went on behind them. A bird’s eye view in the most unexpected way…