Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

All roads lead to... North Tawton?

You may have heard that upstate New York is called a "four-season climate."  Sounds nice, doesn't it?  What they neglect to tell you prior to moving here is that the four seasons are Almost Winter, Winter, Still Fucking Winter, and Road Construction.

That last bit is a frustrating one, because even though the summers here are quite nice, the constant freeze-thaw cycle of the other three seasons plays absolute hell on our roads.  Ithaca, the nearest decent-sized town to where I live, is a lovely place in many respects, but it often seems like little more than a giant maze of potholes.  So it's no wonder that the road construction crews use our fleeting summers to make what repairs they can before the deluge of snow, ice, and road salt starts once again.

The difficulty we have in maintaining our transportation corridors highlights how amazing it is that there are still largely intact roads from Roman times, nearly two thousand years ago.  To be fair, they didn't have the amount (nor type) of traffic our highways have to endure, but still, it's a testament to Roman engineering prowess that they even still exist.

Blackstone Edge Long Causeway, West Yorkshire, second century C.E. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nigel Homer, Looking down the Roman Road - - 92590, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The topic comes up because of a cool new study out of the University of Exeter that used LIDAR (Laser Imaging, Detection, And Ranging), a technique that can detect surface structures even through dense undergrowth, to locate traces of a network of Roman roads in Devon and Cornwall that archaeologists didn't even know existed.

What was most surprising is that the hub of the road network wasn't the city of Exeter, but the much smaller town of North Tawton (which currently only has about two thousand inhabitants).  Exeter was a Roman town -- they called it Isca Dumnoniorum, after the Dumnonii, a local Celtic tribe -- but the more centrally-located site of North Tawton (the Roman Nemetostatio) was the center of the radial spokes of the network.

"Despite more than seventy years of scholarship, published maps of the Roman road network in southern Britain have remained largely unchanged and all are consistent in showing that west of Exeter, Roman Isca, there was little solid evidence for a system of long-distance roads," said Christopher Smart, who led the study.  "But the recent availability of seamless LIDAR coverage for Britain has provided the means to transform our understanding of the Roman road network that developed within the province, and nowhere more so than in the far southwestern counties, in the territory of the Dumnonii."

The result was that they were able to identify over a hundred kilometers of roads that were previously unknown to archaeologists, giving them a much better picture of how people moved in Romano-Celtic Britain.  The map they generated suggests that the network not only connected Roman outposts to each other, but incorporated pre-existing Celtic towns -- showing that the conquering Romans preferred to leave intact the settlements of the people they ruled (at least the ones who didn't fight back).

"In terms of chronology, it is likely that the proposed network is an amalgam of pre-existing prehistoric routeways, Roman military campaign roads or 'tactical roads' formally adopted into the provincial communications system, and of those constructed during peacetime in a wholly civilian context," said João Fonte, who co-authored the study.  "This evolutionary model is supported by the fact that the network does not solely connect Roman forts and their hinterlands directly, which are often connected by branch roads, but instead appears to serve a broader purpose than required by military supply."

It's astonishing to think that nearly two millennia later, we can still find the remnants of the roads used by the Romans in Britain.  Makes me wonder what future archaeologists will find of our civilization.  Will there be anything left of the asphalt paths we create for our cars?

Hey, if we can still locate the remains of the cobblestone paths put down by the Romans, I think there's an excellent chance the archaeologists of the future will be able to find out a good bit about our highways, too.  "Wow," they'll say.  "Those people in upstate New York sure knew how to repair potholes."


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