GPR survey results from Falerii Novi by depth slice.

A series of ground-penetrating radar images of a buried Roman town shows the bath complex (bright-white blob, lower left) and theatre (semi-circular arch, lower right) Credit: L. Verdonck et al./Antiquity

Archaeology

A Roman city’s splendours emerge while it’s still underground

Radar shows the surprisingly complex architecture of Falerii Novi, a now-buried settlement founded in 241 BC.

Archaeologists have revealed the public baths, monuments and other grand structures of a buried Roman city — without having to dig it up.

Excavating an entire city is both costly and labour-intensive. As a result, archaeologists’ knowledge of ancient Roman settlements is based on a few well-studied locales.

Instead of relying on excavation, Martin Millett at the University of Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to scan and map the buried city of Falerii Novi north of Rome. GPR enabled the team to survey the entire city, which was inhabited from 241 BC until the seventh century, at a resolution of 6.25 centimetres.

The scans revealed that for a fairly small Roman city, Falerri Novi had unexpectedly rich and complex architecture, including what the researchers believe to be a large monument or sacred site. The 3D reconstruction even allowed the team to identify the large underground network of pipes that carried water across the city.

When combined with other tools, the authors say, GPR has the potential to “revolutionise” urban archaeology.