Buried Roman city reveals its secrets with new 3D technique

Scan of ancient site in Italy reveals complex water system and public monument

A view shows the remains of the ancient Roman city of Falerii Novi, which is mostly buried underground, after researchers announced they were able to map the entire city using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology, near Rome, Italy, June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
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Archaeologists have revealed hidden details of a 2,200-year-old Roman settlement in the first-ever three-dimensional “virtual dig” of an entire buried city.

The Anglo-Belgian team used ground-penetrating radar to scan the city of Falerii Novi in Italy without disturbing the soil.

Researchers said it is the first time that such a technique has been used for a whole city that was buried two metres below the surface. The success of the research paves the way for more ambitious scanning projects, such as the ancient Greek city of Cyrene in Libya, they said.

Roman archaeology. courtesy: L. Verdonck

As with Falerii Novi, Cyrene is located under agricultural land, making it relatively easy to scan using radar equipment, said Professor Martin Millett of Cambridge University, one of the authors of a paper about the operation that was published on Tuesday.

Falerii Novi was one of a network of 2,000 Roman cities in existence by the first century AD. Gaining insight into how these urban centres functioned is pivotal to understanding how the empire worked. The city was founded in 241BC and continued as a settlement for about 800 years.

The archaeologists, from the University of Cambridge and Ghent University in Belgium, transmitted radio waves into the ground and then used the echo to build up a three-dimensional picture.

The research team towed its instruments behind a quad bike to survey the 30-acre site, taking a reading every 12.5cm. The city, 50km north of Rome, is about half the size of Pompeii, which was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD.

The site has been previously surveyed but the new techniques identified more features, including a bath complex, a network of water pipes – which suggested an advanced level of town planning - and an intriguing public monument on the edge of the city.

“You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of complete plans we have of Roman cities,” said Mr Millett. “This was three or four months’ solid work by one person. Over the next 10 years, we could have 100 complete town plans.”

The technique would be particularly useful when an ancient site has been identified beneath an existing town. Depending on the soil, the technology can be effective to a depth of more than two metres, he said.

Roman archaeology. courtesy: Frank Vermeulen