Archaeologists discover an entire Roman city without even putting a spade in the ground

Archaeologists discover an entire Roman city without even putting a spade in the ground
Map of the buried city of Falerii Novi. Image: L. Verdonck

With the help of an advanced ground radar, they were able to capture the buried city of Falerii Novi beautifully.

Researchers have for the first time managed to map an entire Roman city without any spade involved. It is the Italian settlement of Falerii Novi, which is buried under the sand. But now, using highly advanced technology, it has succeeded in revealing buildings and monuments in astonishing detail, while the city remains hidden deep underground.

The researchers used a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) – also known as ground radar – which they carried on a quad bike. Using this radar, scientists can examine or detect the soil and/or objects. GPR actually works like a regular radar and reflects the radio waves from buried objects. The ‘echo’ is used to create an image of what can be found at different depths. By examining different layers, the team was able to study how the city evolved over hundreds of years.

The archaeologists eventually managed to create a beautiful image of the buried city. For example, in a southern district, just inside the city’s walls, they discovered a large rectangular building connected to a vast network of water pipes leading to an aqueduct. These pipes run through a large part of Falerii Novi and not only along the streets – as is normally the case – but also under city blocks. A remarkable discovery. The team argues that the large building probably represents an outdoor swimming pool and was part of a large public bath complex.

Even more remarkable was the discovery of a row of buildings near the northern gate of the city that had been erected opposite each other. The researchers suggest that these structures may have once proposed an impressive public monument that may have been of a religious nature. In addition, the researchers found a market and a temple in Falerii Novi.

All in all, the study challenges certain assumptions about Roman urban planning. Falerii Novi’s map appears to be much less standardized than many other well-studied ancient cities, such as Pompeii. The temple, market building and bath complex discovered by the team are also more architecturally extensive than is normally expected of a small town. And that makes this buried city very interesting.

The findings also demonstrate the great potential of using a bottom radar. Because thanks to this promising technology, other and larger areas may also be explored more sharply than ever before. This is mainly beneficial for the study of ancient cities because many of them cannot be excavated because they are too large, or, for example, hide under modern buildings. The new approach could therefore even bring about ‘a revolution’ in investigations into ancient settlements.

At the same time, there are still some challenges to overcome. In this way, the method generates an awful lot of data, all of which then have to be organized. In total, the researchers spent about 20 hours documenting only one hectare in full. It will, therefore, be a while before the team has fully mapped Falerii Novi. However, in order to speed up this process, they are now working on new, automated techniques.

Despite the problems the researchers face, they are very pleased with the new method. “The amazing level of detail we have achieved at Falerii Novi and the surprising features that GPR has revealed suggests that this research method may change the way archaeologists have studied ancient cities so far,” said researcher Martin Millett. “It is exciting to think that GPR can also be used to explore a larger city, such as the ancient Turkish city of Miletus, the Greek city of Nicopolis or the former settlement of Cyrene in Libya. There is still so much to learn about Roman city life. The new technology will offer unprecedented opportunities in the coming decades.”