Tag Archives: roman

Roman mosaic found beneath farmer’s field in the UK portrays famous Greek legend

A group of archeologists have found a Roman villa containing a mosaic that portrays scenes from Homer’s Iliad, the fight between Achilles and the Trojan hero, Hector. The mosaic dates back to the third or fourth century AD and it was first found by a farmer in Rutland, UK, who got in touch with researchers from the University of Leicester.  

Image credit: Historic England

Historic England, the public body that looks after England’s historic artifacts, described the mosaic as “one of the most remarkable and significant ever found in Britain.” It’s so striking that it has been immediately designated as a “Scheduled Monument” — the highest designation a monument can receive in the UK.

It’s not just beautiful, but also important from a historical perspective.

“It gives us fresh perspectives on the attitudes of people at the time, their links to classical literature, and it also tells us an enormous amount about the individual who commissioned this piece,” John Thomas, project manager on the excavations, said in a press statement. This is someone with a knowledge of the classics, who had money.”

A remarkable finding

The mosaic measures 11 meters by almost seven meters and forms the floor of what’s believed to be a dining or entertaining room. Mosaics were common in public and private buildings in the Roman empire, depicting famous figures. However, only a few handfuls have been found in Europe depicting the battle between Achilles and Hector, and mosaics this elaborate and intricate could only be commissioned by someone rich and knowledgeable.  

The room was part of a Roman villa building from the late Roman period, according to the archaeologists’ findings. The villa is also next to other buildings, such as aisled barns and possibly a bathhouse – all likely occupied by a wealthy individual. The site was re-used and re-purposed later on, based on breaks and fire damage in the mosaic.

“To have uncovered such a rare mosaic of this size, as well as a surrounding villa, is remarkable. Discoveries like this are so important in helping us piece together our shared history. By protecting this site we are able to continue learning from it, and look forward to future excavations,” Duncan Wilson, head of Historic England, said in a statement. 

The archaeologists also found human remains within the debris covering the mosaic. The individuals were probably buried after the building was no longer In use, and while their exact age is unknown, the researchers estimate the structure was repurposed in the late Roman or early Medieval period – a period in history not well understood. 

The villa was found within an arable field, where the remains had been disturbed by plowing and other activities — as it so often happens. Historic England will work with the landowner, Jim Irvine, for him to convert the fields to sustainable grassland and pasture use. These schemes are essential to protect historic and natural environments, they argue, while also offering some compensation for the landowners. 

The discovery of the villa and the mosaic will be features as part of the Digging for Britain TV show on BBC in early 2022. In the meantime, evidence from the site will be analyzed by a team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) and by specialists from Historic England, including the mosaic expert David Neal. 

“A ramble through the fields with the family turned into an incredible discovery. Finding some unusual pottery amongst the wheat piqued my interest and prompted some further investigative work,” Jim Irvine, who initially discovered the remains, said in a statement. “Later, looking at satellite imagery, I sported a very clear crop mark.”

Samples from this Ancient Roman pier, Portus Cosanus in Orbetello, Italy, were studied with X-rays at Berkeley Lab. Credit: J.P. Oleson.

Why Roman concrete is stronger than it ever was, while modern concrete decays

Samples from this Ancient Roman pier, Portus Cosanus in Orbetello, Italy, were studied with X-rays at Berkeley Lab. Credit: J.P. Oleson.

Samples from this Ancient Roman pier, Portus Cosanus in Orbetello, Italy, were studied with X-rays at Berkeley Lab. Credit: J.P. Oleson.

Almost 2,000 years ago, famed Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia about the concrete poured in harbors that “as soon as it comes into contact with the waves of the sea and is submerged, becomes a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger.”

This insight is surprisingly spot on, according to a 2017 study that found seawater is the secret ingredient that makes Roman concrete extremely durable by encouraging the growth of rare minerals.

Concrete in some Roman piers is not only still viable today but stronger than it ever was, whereas modern marine concrete structures made from Portland cement crumble within decades.

The ancient Romans used concrete everywhere, particularly in their mega-structures like the Pantheon and Trajan’s Markets in Rome. They would make the concrete by first mixing volcanic ash with lime and seawater to make mortar, which is later incorporated into chunks of volcanic rock, the ‘aggregate’. The combination produces a so-called pozzolanic reaction, so named after the city of Pozzuoli in the Bay of Naples. Another common naturally reactive volcanic sand used for manufacturing concrete is called harena fossicia. It’s thought that Romans might have first gotten the idea for this mixture after observing naturally cemented volcanic ash deposits called tuff.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the recipe for making concrete was lost and a concrete of equal worth wasn’t re-invented until 1824 when an Englishman named Joseph Aspdin discovered Portland cement by burning finely ground chalk and clay in a kiln until the carbon dioxide was removed. It was named “Portland” cement because it resembled the high-quality building stones found in Portland, England.

The ancient Roman recipe is very different than the modern one for concrete, though. Most modern concrete is a mix of Portland cement — limestone, sandstone, ash, chalk, iron, and clay, among other ingredients, heated to form a glassy material that is finely ground — with so-called “aggregates.” These aggregates, usually sand or crushed stone, are not intended to chemically react because if they do, they can cause unwanted expansions in the concrete.

Outliving empires: Roman concrete

University of Utah geologist Marie Jackson’s interest in Roman concrete was sparked by a sabbatical year in Rome where she studied tuffs and volcanic ash deposits. One by one, she approached the factors that made architectural concrete in Rome so resilient. One such factor, she says, is that the mineral intergrowths between the aggregate and the mortar which prevent cracks from lengthening, while the surfaces of nonreactive aggregates in Portland cement only help cracks propagate farther.

While studying drilled cores of Roman harbor concrete, Jackson and colleagues found an exceptionally rare mineral, aluminous tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) in the marine mortar. The mineral’s presence surprised everyone because it is very difficult to make. For Al-tobermorite to form, you need very high temperature. “No one has produced tobermorite at 20 degrees Celsius,” she says. “Oh — except the Romans!”

Seeing how Jackon is a geologist, though, she immediately realized that the mineral must have appeared later. The team concluded with experiments backing them up that seawater percolated through the concrete in breakwaters and in piers, dissolving components of the volcanic ash and allowing new minerals to grow from the highly alkaline leached fluids, particularly Al-tobermorite and phillipsite, the latter being a related zeolite mineral formed in pumice particles and pores in the cementing matrix.  In rare instances, underwater volcanoes, such as the Surtsey Volcano in Iceland, produce the same minerals found in Roman concrete.

“We’re looking at a system that’s contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete,” she says. “We’re looking at a system that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater.”

The Roman concrete samples were studied using a technique called X-ray microdiffraction at UC Berkeley Lab’s ALS. The machine produces beams focused to about 1 micron or about a hundred times smaller than what can be found in a conventional laboratory.

 “We can go into the tiny natural laboratories in the concrete, map the minerals that are present, the succession of the crystals that occur, and their crystallographic properties. It’s been astounding what we’ve been able to find,” Jackson said.

This microscopic image shows the lumpy calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) binder material that forms when volcanic ash, lime, and seawater mix. Platy crystals of Al-tobermorite have grown amongst the C-A-S-H cementing matrix. Credit: Marie Jackson.

This microscopic image shows the lumpy calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) binder material that forms when volcanic ash, lime, and seawater mix. Platy crystals of Al-tobermorite have grown amongst the C-A-S-H cementing matrix. Credit: Marie Jackson.

The concrete industry was valued at $50 billion in 2015 in the United States alone. That year, 80 million tons of Portland cement were made or roughly the weight of about 90 Golden Gate Bridges or 12 Hoover Dams. Given the durability of Roman concrete and the substantial carbon dioxide emissions resulting from Portland cement manufacturing, why aren’t we doing it more like the Romans?

It’s not that easy at all, says Jackson. The Romans were quite fortunate to find volcanic ash in their vicinity. Also, the ingredients for their concrete recipe can’t be adapted anywhere in the world. “They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don’t have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made,” Jackson said.

Additionally, Roman concrete takes time to develop strength from seawater and has less compressive strength than typical Portland cement.

Nevertheless, Jackson is closely working with colleagues to make an alternative recipe based on local materials from the western U.S., including seawater from Berkeley, California. Jackson is also leading a scientific drilling project to study the production of tobermorite and other related minerals at the Surtsey volcano in Iceland.

This kind of cement could be very useful for some niche applications. For instance, the Roman cement could be employed in a tidal lagoon project meant to harness tidal power, currently planned in Swansea, United Kingdom. To recuperate the cost incurred from building it, the lagoon would have to operate for 120 years.

“You can imagine that, with the way we build now, it would be a mass of corroding steel by that time,” Jackson said.

Unless it’s made of Roman concrete.

Meanwhile, more tests are being carried out to evaluate the long-term properties of marine structures built from volcanic rock and how these fair against steel-reinforced concrete.

“I think people don’t really know how to think about a material that doesn’t have steel reinforcement,” Jackson said.

A grape variety used to produce wine today can be traced back 900 years to an ancestral plant

It’s long been suspected that many of the grape varieties used for wine today, particularly the likes of Pinot Noir, are genetically identical to those used centuries ago or even in Antiquity. Now, researchers have tested that idea by comparing a modern grape genetic database with 28 archaeological seeds from French sites dating back to the Iron Age, Roman era, and medieval period.

The European grapevine (Vitis vinifera) was first domesticated 6,000 years ago, and it has become a staple ever since. People love eating grapes, but let’s face it — that’s not why grapevines are so cherished. Instead, there’s another reason why people love grapes so much: wine.

People have been making wine even before the vine was domesticated, with archaeological evidence of ancient winemaking found in Georgia (8,000 BC), China (7000 BC), Iran (5000 BC), and Greece (c. 4500 BC). France, which produces many of the world’s most popular wines, took a bit longer to start producing wine. Grapevines were introduced to France by the ancient Greeks in the 6th century BC, but it wasn’t until 500 years later, under Roman occupation, that wine production spread throughout southern France. Over the years, thousands of varieties of grapevine have been discovered or described in writing, but analyzing their genetic heritage and comparing them to modern cultivars has proven quite challenging.

Now, for the first time, researchers were able to analyze ancient grapes and compared them with modern varieties. Lead author Dr. Nathan Wales, from the University of York, analyzed grape seeds found in sites dating from the Iron Age (approx 500 BC) to Roman and medieval times. Wales explains:

“From our sample of grape seeds we found 18 distinct genetic signatures, including one set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites separated by more than 600km, and dating back 2,000 years ago.

“These genetic links, which included a ‘sister’ relationship with varieties grown in the Alpine regions today, demonstrate winemakers’ proficiencies across history in managing their vineyards with modern techniques, such as asexual reproduction through taking plant cuttings.”

Because grapevine is generally grown through cloning, it allows scientist to trace back their lineage as far back as seeds are available. Among the results, one particular variety stands out: a grape seed excavated from a medieval site in Orléans in central France was found to be genetically identical to Savagnin Blanc (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc). This indicates that this particular grape, which is currently used to make expensive wines known by the name of Vin Jaune in France or Traminer in central Europe, was popular for over 900 years, surviving the Medieval and modern ages with remarkable success.

When it comes to Roman wines, no exact genetic match was found with a modern variety. However several ancient varieties were genetically very close to two important grape families used today: the Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family, which is used to produce Syrah (also called Shiraz) wine, one of the most popular wines today, and the Pinot-Savagnin family, used to produce Pinot Noir — the “king of wines”.

In other words, Roman wine was very similar to the ones we drink today. Dr. Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Copenhagen, said:

“Based on writings by the Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, and others, we know the Romans had advanced knowledge of winemaking and designated specific names to different grape varieties, but it has so far been impossible to link their Latin names to modern varieties. Now we have the opportunity to use genetics to know exactly what the Romans were growing in their vineyards.”

The analysis also suggests that the grapes were probably used for wine — not eating. It’s not easy to trace back a genetic legacy through the centuries, but thanks to the particularities of winegrowing and the existing grapevine databases, researchers were able to make this distinction.

“We suspect the majority of these archaeological seeds come from domesticated berries that were potentially used for winemaking based on their strong genetic links to wine grapevines,” says Ramos-Madrigal.

“Berries from varieties used for wine are small, thick-skinned, full of seeds, and packed with sugar and other compounds such as acids, phenols, and aromas – great for making wine but not quite as good for eating straight from the vine. These ancient seeds did not have a strong genetic link to modern table grapes.”

As for winemakers and consumers, this is more than just an interesting piece of trivia: it could draw more attention on some varieties which are only grown at small scales. “For the wine industry today, these results could shed new light on the value of some grape varieties; even if we don’t see them in popular use in wines today, they were once highly valued by past wine lovers and so are perhaps worth a closer look,” concludes Wales.

The study “Palaeogenomic insights into the origins of French grapevine diversity” was published in Nature Plants


Roman fish salting workshops reveal two whale species lost from the Mediterranean

The Roman Empire used to dine on whale fished from the Mediterranean Sea — the two species have, since then, virtually disappeared from the area and the wider North Atlantic, however.

Grey whale.

Adult grey whale.
Image credits José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez.

Bones discovered in the ruins of a Roman fish salting compound near the strait of Gibraltar suggest that the Empire’s subjects may have hunted whales for food. The implications are interesting not only from a historical and archaeological point of view — the Romans are not traditionally regarded as accomplished sailors — but also from an ecological standpoint.

Bread, games, and salted whale

Back in Rome’s heyday, the Gibraltar region served as a central fish-processing hub. Ruins from hundreds of factories outfitted with large salting tanks (indicative of an industrial-scale endeavor) still litter the area. Based on the scale of the industry, it’s likely that the products manufactured here used to reach far and wide onto plates across the Roman Empire.

The recent discovery of whale bones amid these workshops in the Gibraltar region stands to change our understanding of the Roman fishing industry and the history of two whale species — which have now virtually disappeared from the North Atlantic area.

One team, led by researchers from the Archaeology Department at the University of York, drew on DNA analysis and collagen fingerprinting to identify the bones — their results showing the remains belonged to the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the Atlantic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus).

The findings surprised them, to say the least. On the one hand, the Mediterranean, despite housing several species of whales and other cetaceans today, was always considered outside of the historical range of both the gray and right whale. On the other hand, the Romans simply didn’t have the means to fish such large prey — none that we’re aware of, anyway.


Some fish-salting tanks in the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia (near today’s Tarifa in Spain). The largest circular tank is 3 meters / 10 feet wide, with some 18 meters3 / 193 cubic feet capacity. They were used to salt large fish such as tuna, but perhaps whales as well.

Right whales are listed as Endangered under the IUCN’s Red List, and are further protected by the Endangered Species Act in the US. The species is considered to be one of the hardest-pressed species of whales in the world. Populations in the western North Atlantic can only boast a few hundred individuals, while those in the eastern North Atlantic may already be functionally extinct, with under 50 members.

Gray whales technically fare much better and are listed under ‘least concern’ overall, as there are enough individuals to ensure a stable population and the last three years have seen an increase in their numbers. The western subpopulation is listed separately — based on genetic evidence showing they’re an isolated, distinct group — as ‘Critically Endangered.’ However, it must be noted that the gray whale has been completely wiped out in the North Atlantic, and the family’s range is now limited to the North Pacific exclusively.

Both species got so ragged after centuries of whaling. For context, the first records of right whale hunting come from Basque (northern Spain) whalers plying their trade in the Bay of Biscay in the 11th century. Gray whales have been hunted by indigenous populations since antiquity, although it’s likely that right whales suffered a similar fate.

Previously widespread

The findings, however, suggest that both species once inhabited much wider ranges than we ever suspected. The findings were only made possible by their use of “new molecular methods” to analyze the whale bones, the team says.

“Whales are often neglected in Archaeological studies,” says Dr. Camilla Speller, paper co-author, “because their bones are frequently too fragmented to be identifiable by their shape.”

“Our study shows that these two species were once part of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem and probably used the sheltered basin as a calving ground.”

Since both species are migratory, their presence east of Gibraltar (the strait that connects the Mediterranean sea to the Atlantic) suggests they came here to give birth in safer waters.

Southern Right Whale.

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis).
Image credits Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith / Flickr.

The findings also raise the possibility that the Romans developed a form of whaling alongside traditional fishing practices. However, the evidence is far from conclusive. There is evidence that they fished for large species such as tuna, but based on what we know of their sailing and boat-building capabilities, it seems rather unlikely they would be able to hunt something as large as a whale.

“[…] perhaps the bones are evidence of opportunistic scavenging from beached whales along the coast line,” adds Dr. Speller.

“Romans did not have the necessary technology to capture the types of large whales currently found in the Mediterranean, which are high-seas species. But right and gray whales and their calves would have come very close to shore, making them tempting targets for local fishermen,” says study lead author Dr. Ana Rodrigues.

The opportunistic approach is more likely, especially since we know Basque whalers centuries later would successfully hunt for their prey using small rowing boats and hand harpoons.

The findings also help clarify historic sources such as texts penned by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, which describes killer whales attacking newborn calves and their mothers in the Cadiz bay. Today, such descriptions simply don’t make any sense, “but it fits perfectly with the ecology if right and gray whales used to be present,” according to co-author Anne Charpentier, a lecturer at the University of Montpellier.

The authors hope that — armed with their findings that coastal whales once formed an important part of the Mediterranean ecosystem — historians and archeologists can make better sense of other primary sources.

The paper “Forgotten Mediterranean calving grounds of gray and North Atlantic right whales: evidence from Roman archaeological records” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.


The Antonine Wall was adorned with brightly-colored, grisly propaganda to keep Scottish tribes at bay

Ancient Romans didn’t have any qualms about using some propaganda to keep Scottish tribes in line (and far away).

Bridgeness Slab.

The original Bridgeness Slab, currently at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Image via Wikimedia / user Barnimg.

What’s the best way to keep roving, rampaging Scottish tribesmen from pillaging your forum? To be honest, it’s probably a heavily-armed legion — but dazzling red, yellow, and white paints come a close second, according to Louisa Campbell, an archaeologist at the University of Glasgow.

A great, big, physical, painted wall

Known as the Antonine Wall, the fortification was built in the mid-second century AD right on the edge of Rome’s holdings in England. Like The Wall in Game of Thrones — for which it likely served as inspiration — the Antonine Wall was meant to keep dangerous northerners away. To make sure it worked, the Romans made sure this wall was scary — stone slabs placed along the wall were adorned with bloody-beaked Roman eagles, and images of victorious legionnaires with decapitated enemies. Just for good measure, the stones also sported carved-in Latin inscriptions alongside these graphic warnings.


The inscription on the Bridgeness slab is a dedication to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. It reads (often with abbreviations):
Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius / Hadrianus Antoninus / Augustus Pius, Father of his Country, The Second Legion / Augusta, made (built) four thousand six-hundred and fifty-two paces (of the wall).
Image via Wikimedia / user dun_deagh.

According to Louisa Campbell, an archaeologist at the University of Glasgow, the stone slabs were “Roman propaganda” used to scare off local tribespeople living north of the Antonine Wall (basically, today’s Scotland). The stones are now their natural plain grey, but Campbell’s research shows they were once painted in bright colors. She reports finding residues of natural red and yellow ochre pigments, of matter and realgar (a plant used to make red dye and a red mineral respectively), white lead, and orpiment (a bright yellow mineral).

Campbell studied 19 such slabs (or “distance stones”) found along the wall, including the two most famous of these stones: the Summerston and the Bridgeness Slab. Both depicted scenes of Roman cavalry mowing through northern warriors or guarding bound captives. The Bridgeness Slab also showed a decapitated warrior in the midst of a battle, and Campbell found residue of red paint on both ends of the severed neck. The Summerston Slab might have featured a blood-red painted Roman eagle.

Red seems to have been primarily used to paint details, such as the cloaks of Roman soldiers and spatters of blood on the enemies of said soldiers. It seems to me like a subtle, quite smart use of the color. On one hand, it makes the legionnaires clearly distinguishable, capitalizing on Rome’s iconic red uniforms. On the other hand, it made it clear that invaders would be met with a bloodbath. Perhaps less immediately apparent, but no less intimidating, is that the only red on the legionnaires was on the cloaks — ‘Rome will defeat you’, this symbolizes, ‘and you won’t even be able to scratch our soldiers’.

Summerston slab.

The Summerston slab.
Image credits George MacDonald.

These propaganda stones were placed at intervals along the Antonine Wall to mark Roman superiority in the region, and discourage any thoughts of invasion. It’s also possible that the stones were as much a show of force for Roman subjects as they for invaders, there to make the people feel safe and keep them content.

[Read More] Safe, content, and probably writing dirty things on the city walls — like any respectable Roman would.

Modern advertisers would probably applaud the design ideas behind these slabs.

“I would suggest the red on the beak of the eagle (the symbol of Rome and her legions) symbolizes Rome feasting off the flesh of her enemies,” Campbell wrote in an email for Live Science.

Rome didn’t hang on to the wall for very long, despite its propaganda efforts; maybe northern warriors thought the legions were overcompensating? Whatever the case, the Antonine Wall (whose construction was commissioned in 142 A.D.) was abandoned sometime in 161 A.D. for unknown reasons. The Empire briefly re-captured it between 208 to 211 A.D., but they never succeeded in establishing the wall as Rome’s permanent northernmost border.

“The public are accustomed to seeing these sculptures in bland greys, creams, white (for marble) and don’t get the full impact that they would have had on the Roman and indigenous audiences 2,000 years ago,” Campbell told the Bailiwick Express.

“Knowing how colour was used by the Romans to tell stories and create impact is a huge leap forward in understanding these sculptures,” added Patricia Weeks, Antonine Wall coordinator at Historic Environment Scotland. 

Long stretches of the wall’s stone ruins are still visible today, although the earth-and-wood sections haven’t fared as well.

Learn how to bake ancient bread from this 2,000-year-old Roman recipe

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

In AD 79, a baker prepared a loaf in the Roman city of Pompeii. He stamped it with his name — ‘Property of Celer, Slave of Q. Granius Verus’, the loaf reads — and split it into eight pieces. Sadly for him, both he and the bread were subjected to a much higher temperature than expected when Mount Vesuvius violently erupted, burying the city of Pompeii with virtually all its inhabitants. However, the bread was excellently preserved. Some 2,000 years later, archaeologists found it and put it in a museum in Napoli, from where it was borrowed to the British Museum for a temporary exhibition. There, researchers worked with Giorgio Locatelli, an Italian chef working in the United Kingdom, to backtrace the recipe. Here’s what they came up with:


  • 400g biga acida (sourdough)
  • 12g yeast
  • 18g gluten
  • 24g salt
  • 532g water
  • 405g spelt flour
  • 405g wholemeal flour


Sourdough bread features a fermented batter-like dough starter to make them rise more and enhance their flavour. The dough is fermented using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast and it has a mildly sour taste due to the fermentation. The advantage of it is that it naturally keeps longer (and some people prefer the taste).

Of course, it’s hard to say that this is exactly the Roman recipe or exactly the Roman method, but it’s pretty damn close.

Method #1 — easy mode

Basically, you melt the yeast in the water like you would in any bread and you add it to the biga. Mix and sieve the flours together with the gluten and add to the water, continuing to mix until homogenous. After this, add the salt and keep mixing for three minutes. By now, you should have a pretty nice mix — make a round shape like this one and leave it to rest for an hour.

After an hour, it should start taking shape — we’re now just looking at cosmetics. Put some string around it to give it the distinctive shape and make the cuts on top. We don’t know why the cuts were there, but perhaps it was easier to split or sell by the slice. Then, put it in the oven at 200 degrees for 30–45 minutes and voila!

Thankfully, bread-making techniques have evolved significantly since Roman times and modern bread makers enable anyone, with very little effort, to enjoy the smell and taste of freshly baked bread from the comfort of their own home.

Method #2 — the real artisanal bread

As the writers at The Fresh Loaf point out, this doesn’t really feel like an artisanal bread. It features modern gluten and yeast, which the Romans, of course, wouldn’t have used. So they took out the modern flour, yeast, and gluten additive and replaced them with a sourdough preferment, ancient flours, and artisanal techniques to develop gluten. They used Kamut, rye, and spelt flour, which were common in the Roman world. The technique they used gets pretty complex (and a bit more expensive), so I recommend checking it out on their page — at the very least, it should make for an interesting reading. I’d only recommend it if you have a lot of baking experience and want to take things to the next level. Be sure to have a stamp to mark your bread!

If not, then the first method should make for an excellent (and delicious) experiment. It’s definitely something to get the dinner conversations rolling.

Roman baking

If you find this interesting and would like to explore the subject even further, research has revealed quite a bit about Roman baking. Baking flourished in the Roman Empire from as early as 300BC. In 168 BC, the first Bakers Guild was formed as bread turned from a luxury to a common good. Within 150 years there were more than three hundred specialist pastry chefs in Rome.

The best bakers were trained at the Collegium Pistorum, and did not allow the bakers or their children to withdraw from it and take up other trades.

In the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists have found dozens of bakeries, as well as communal ovens to which you could bring your dough (bread-stamped, of course) to be baked overnight. Rather ironically, many of the ovens were made from volcanic rock. Eighty charred loaves alone were recovered from the ovens of one baker, Modestus. Sometimes, the Romans would add milk, eggs and butter to their bread — but this was a privilege only the rich could afford.

There were also oyster bread (to be eaten with oysters); ‘artolaganus’ or cakebread; ‘speusticus’ or ‘hurry bread’, tin bread, Parthian bread and the Roman Style Slipper Loaf. All in all, they had quite a rich tradition

Amazing inventions lost through time

Science has progressed amazingly in recent years, but a handful of spectacular inventions have remained lost to knowledge. Whether it’s the Greek Fire, Roman Nanotechnology or a wonder-material desired by NASA, we’ve lost some great things along the way – these are just some of them.

Greek Fire

Image via Wikipedia.

You can’t really talk about lost inventions without mentioning Greek Fire; one of the greatest kept secrets of all time, Greek Fire was developed around 672, being used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The empire was in dire straits, losing several painful naval battles in wars with the Arab countries. Then, as they found themselves overwhelmed by the vast Arab fleet with few chances of success, something almost magical happened. The Byzantine ships started spitting out their new fire through specially installed siphons and the fire started consuming everything in its path, burning even on water. Nothing could put it out, except sand, vinegar or urine – not something you’d find in large quantities on any ship.

The chronicler Theophanes was among the first to describe the Greek Fire, and he assigns the invention to Kallinikos, an architect (and presumably chemist) from the former province of Phoenice – then overrun by Muslims. However, this is a questionable account, and historian James Partington (among others) believes that the fire was not the creation of a single person, but rather invented by a team of chemists in Constantinopole who inherited scientific information from the Alexandrian school. Whatever the mixture included, it was probably quite complex as despite stealing or capturing some of it, other civilizations weren’t able to copy it.

The Greek Fire could also be deployed on land. Image via Wikimedia.

Its significance was so huge that its discovery was ascribed to divine intervention. As for its composition and manufacture, historians are still debating that one. The only indication concerning its production comes from Anna Komnene, a Byzantine princess and scholar:

“This fire is made by the following arts. From the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies.”

Whatever it contained, Greek Fire burned on water, and forever changed the course of history.

A 1st Century Steam Engine, a Vending Machine and a Windwheel

Hero of Alexandria, also known as Heron of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and engineer most known today for his formula to calculate the area of a triangle. But Heron was an amazing inventor, taking credit among others for the first windwheel, the first vending machine, and even the first steam engine. That’s right, the first steam engine was invented in ancient Greece.

The Aeolipile. Image via Wikipedia.

The Heron Engine (also called an aeolipile) was a simple bladeless steam turbine, spinning when the central water container is heated. It produced torque from steam jets exiting the turbine, much like a rocket engine does today. Basically, water was heated in a simple boiler which was connected to the rotating chamber through a pair of pipes that also served as pivots for the chamber. Heron was quite generous and explained how one could make his own aeolipile. However, it wasn’t until 1698 that Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine of 1 horsepower (750 W). It had no piston or moving parts, only taps. Heron’s invention went unnoticed for over 1500 years.

Image via Mlahanas.

As if that wasn’t enough, he also invented a vending machine, as described in his book “Mechanics and Optics”; a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine and a fixed amount of holy water was dispensed. He also invented the first windwheel and consequently the first wind-powered organ, a programmable cart powered by a falling weight and created by himself an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. Many of his inventions were praised and immediately adopted but others, like the steam engine, were forgotten for centuries.

Starlite, the Wonder Material

OK, so we lost some Antique inventions, but we’re not losing anything modern, right? Well… not quite. Maurice Ward was an amateur chemist who liked to tinker and invent things. In the 70s and 80s, he invented a material he called Starlite that was able to withstand and insulate from extreme heat. Several organizations were allowed to conduct test on its, but none were allowed to take samples for the fear of reverse engineering. Even NASA exhibited interest in the material but unfortunately, Starlite’s composition was kept a secret by Ward and after his passing, no one knew the secret.

Now I know what you’re thinking – this is another cook that claims he invented something… and didn’t. But the Atomic Weapons Establishment and ICI conducted tests on the material and confirmed the claims. Furthermore, a telling demonstration (see above) was shown on BBC. The inventor held a blowtorch directly above an egg covered in Starlite. After five minutes, the egg wasn’t even cracked, and when the inside was revealed, it hadn’t even begun to cook.

Damascus Steel

We’re sticking in the realm of wonder materials, but moving to something completely different: Damascus Steel has been the golden standard for blacksmiths for centuries.

The Distinctive pattern of Damascus Steel. Image via Flickr.

Known by its distinctive pattern, extreme toughness and ability to be honed to extreme sharpness, Damascus Steel is a prime example of an invention lost due to a lack of source material. We’re pretty sure that the steel was made from ore deposits originating in India and Sri Lanka. The original steel was brought in from India to Damascus where local bladesmiths learned to make the highest quality steel – and swords. Damascus still was known and respected by blade wielders and smiths all around the world, but its production was brought to an end rather unceremoniously, as the raw material deposits ran out. The key trace impurities of vanadium and tungsten made the deposits so special, and a similar deposit has never been found.

Image via Wikipedia.

It’s not clear why the technique was then forgotten or abandoned so fast. The very long trade route likely played a part. The technique for controlled thermal cycling after the initial forging at a specific temperature was also lost, and to this day, we don’t know how Damascus Steel swords were made. However, many modern blacksmiths have attempted to recreate it – they may have even gotten it right, but we’ll likely never know.

Roman Nanotechnology – The Lycurgus Cup

A colorful chalet now stored in the British Museum might not seem like much at a first glance, but believe it or not, it’s an example of ancient nanotechnology. The Lycurgus Cup looks differently depending on how light falls upon it. Lift from behind, it’s red, but lit from the front it’s green. It’s one of the most beautiful and well-decorated pieces of glass in all human history.

The same cup, illuminated differently.

The effect was achieved by mixing tiny proportions of nanoparticles of gold and silver dispersed in colloidal form throughout the glass material. The exact process is still unknown, and was probably so complex that some historians believe it may have been achieved by mistake. However, it seems unlikely that glass-makers would leave anything to chance when creating a piece so intricate.

The cup is also an example of a complete Roman cage-cup, or diatretum, where many parts of the cage have been completely undercut to create space for the other decorations. Most cage-cups have an abstract geometric design, but here there is a clear composition of figures, showing the mythical king Lycurgus who tried to kill Ambrosia, a follower of the god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans). She was transformed into a vine which ultimately twined around the kind, restraining and eventually killing him. Dionysus and two other followers are shown here taunting the king. The cup is the “only well-preserved figural example” of a cage cup.

Muslin Cloth

Muslin cloth was primarily manufactured in pre-British era India and Bangladesh and was exported throughout many parts of Asia and Europe. In essence a cotton fabric of plain weave, Muslin was traded by ancient Greeks and Romans from the East Indian port town Masulipatnam, known as Maisolos.

Muslin dress. Image via Wikipedia.

However, in British colonial times, the Bengali muslin industry was ruthlessly suppressed in order to favor textile imports from Britain. William Bolts, a Dutch-born eighteenth-century merchant active in India noted that  “instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs to prevent their being forced to wind silk.” As a result, the quality and skill of producers greatly decreased and the ultimate process for Muslin cloth has been lost.

Image via Wikipedia.

Over the past couple of centuries there have been several attempts to revive the industry and in 2013, the traditional art of weaving Jamdani muslin in Bangladesh was included in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. However, the quality and finesse are not the same.

The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism is quite possible the most spectacular ancient artifact ever recovered. An ancient analog computer, it was designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, and even included features for the Olympiads – the ancient Olympic games.

Antikythera mechanism. Image via Wikipedia.

The artifact was recovered in 1900 from the Antikythera shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera and was dated around 200 BC – over 2200 years ago! It could replicate the irregular motions of the Moon using two front dials had pointers for the Sun and Moon. Its quality and complexity are simply stunning, and nothing got even close to it until the 14th century when the first mechanical watches were being developed.

Front panel of a 2007 reconstruction. Image via Wiki Commons.

“This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind,” said study leader Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University in the UK. “The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right…In terms of historical and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”


Not really an invention, Silphium was a plant used in classical antiquity both as a seasoning and as a medicine. Its importance was highlighted by the Egyptians and Knossos Minoans developing a specific glyph to represent the silphium plant, while Romans often said it was worth its weight in silver.

Image via Wiki Commons.

The plant was said to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies but its most cherished medicinal properties were as a contraceptive; its leaves were ground into a resin that was placed in the vagina as a spermicide. The plant went extinct due to an increase in demand, but some speculate overgrazing and increasing desertification in North Africa were also decisive.

To this day, biologists are still debating in what family this species belong and whatever medicinal properties it could have had are forever lost.

Comparison between the graphic source used for reconstructing the peristylium and the 3d model. Credit: Lund University

What the villa of a wealthy roman from Pompeii looked like before it was buried by ash

Comparison between the graphic source used for reconstructing the peristylium and the 3d model. Credit: Lund University

Comparison between the graphic source used for reconstructing the peristylium and the 3D model. Credit: Lund University

Since the year 2000, Swedish researchers have been working with Italian authorities to map and reconstruct the ancient Roman settlement of Pompeii which was obliterated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Using advanced digital archaeology, the team from Lund University, Sweden, made 3D models of the ruined city offering a glimpse of how it must have looked like in its heyday.

Among the fully reconstructed city district is also the villa of a wealthy man called Caecilius Iucundus, interior included. The video below shows the splendour of Iucundus’ villa before all hell broke loose.

The Swedish Pompeii Project analyzed then reconstructed an entire Pompeian city-block, Insula V 1. To this aim, onsite archaeologists excavated the site until they found the floors of the buildings. Later, laser scanning was used to map and later model the district.

[button url=”http://www.pompejiprojektet.se/modelmeasuring.php” postid=”” style=”btn-info” size=”btn-lg” target=”_blank” fullwidth=”false”]Examine the 3D models of the Insula.[/button]

Among the most notable buildings they identified and reconstructed were three large wealthy estates, a tavern, a laundry, a bakery and several gardens.

Researchers also studied how the urban planning of the district evolved in time. For instance, the water and sewer system revealed the social hierarchies at the time. Many retailers and restaurants had been dependent on the neighbouring wealthy families whose villas supplied water from their reservoirs. Towards the end, before the eruption, conditions improved, though, as an aqueduct was built in Pompeii.

“By combining new technology with more traditional methods, we can describe Pompeii in greater detail and more accurately than was previously possible,” says Nicoló Dell´Unto, digital archaeologist at Lund University.

Ref:  Emanuel Demetrescu, Daniele Ferdani, Nicolò Dell’Unto, Anne-Marie Leander Touati, Stefan Lindgren. Reconstructing the Original Splendour of the House of Caecilius Iucundus. A Complete Methodology for Virtual Archaeology Aimed at Digital Exhibition. Scires It, October 2016 DOI: 10.2423/i22394303v6n1p51

Ancient Chinese skeletons found in London could hint at unknown ancient community and trade

Two ancient skeletons discovered in a Southwark cemetery cast a new light on the Roman Empire’s and London’s history, and could indicate a Chinese trading community once called the island home.

Part of the remains found in Southwark.
Image credits Museum of London.

Dr Rebecca Redfern, curator of human osteology at the Museum of London, has revealed two sets of remains found in a London cemetery which she believes are likely of Chinese origin. The bones were found at a site in Lant Street, Southwark, in a group of over 20 sets of human skeletons dated from between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. Dental enamel samples from the remains were examined using cutting-edge techniques, revealing the surprising origin of the two skeletons.

“This is absolutely phenomenal. This is the first time in Roman Britain we’ve identified people with Asian ancestry and only the 3rd or 4th in the empire as a whole”, Redfern told BBC Radio 4.

Previous archaeological discoveries have shown that the city of Londinium, as it was known in Roman times, had a multicultural population and was an important trading hub. However, it was always believed that its people included only residents of the Roman Empire. The skeletons fly in the face of this traditional belief that Roman Britain was a pretty homogeneous society.

It also suggests that the Roman and Chinese empires had much more interaction than previously believed. They also raise the possibility of trade taking place between the two nations outside of the famous Silk Road — London is a good distance away from the route. The findings raise the possibility that Chinese traders settled in the area, and may have even set up their own trading communities.

One of the skeletons the team identified as Chinese.
Image credits Museum of London.

This is only the second time an individual of possibly Chinese origin has been found at a Roman site, the first being the discovery of a man with Asian ancestry man in Vagnari, Italy.

“The expansion of the Roman Empire across most of western Europe and the Mediterranean, led to the assimilation and movement of many ethnically and geographically diverse communities,” wrote Dr Redfern in The Journal of Archaeological Science.

The archeological community is still divided on what to make of the finding. Two skeletons is still a meager testimony of a whole community living in Roman Britain.

“Its power and wealth meant that it also had trade connections for raw materials and products, such as silk throughout Europe, Africa and also to the east, including India and China. Many people travelled, often vast distances, for trade or because of their occupation, for example in the military, or their social status, for example if they were enslaved,” Dr Redfern added in her paper.

“It may well be that these individuals were themselves or were descended from enslaved people originating from Asia, as there were slave-trade connections between India and China, and India and Rome.”

The full paper “Identifying migrants in Roman London using lead and strontium stable isotopes” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Israeli archaeologists uncover roman-period glass factory underpinning trade throughout the empire

Israel Antiques Authority (IAA) archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a 1,600 year-old complex of glass kilns in the Jezreel Valley. Their size indicates that Israel was one of the most important glass manufacturing center in the ancient world, says Dr. Yael Gorin-Rosen, IAA’s Glass Department head curator.

Small fragments of raw glass found at the site. Now that’s pretty.
Image credits Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

The structures are built in two compartments — a firebox where fuel was burned to create the huge temperatures required for the process and a melting chamber. Here, clean beach sand and salt were mixed and melted at temperatures in excess of 1,200 degrees Celsius (2190 Fahrenheit.) The raw glass would take a week or two to form into huge chunks, some of which weighed in excess of 10 tons. When the kilns cooled, the blocks were broken into smaller pieces that were sold to workshops where it was melted again to produce glassware.

“This is evidence that Israel constituted a production center on an international scale; hence its glassware was widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe,” said Dr. Gorin-Rosen.

The kilns, undisturbed for 1,600 years.
Image credits Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

“We know from historical sources dating to the Roman period that the Valley of Akko was renowned for the excellent quality sand located there, which was highly suitable for the manufacture of glass,” Dr. Gorin-Rosen said. “Chemical analyses conducted on glass vessels from this period which were discovered until now at sites in Europe and in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean basin have shown that the source of the glass is from our region.”

“Now, for the first time, the kilns have been found where the raw material was manufactured that was used to produce this glassware,” he added. “This is a very important discovery with implications regarding the history of the glass industry both in Israel and in the entire ancient world.”

Demand for glassware soared during the Early Roman period. It was highly appreciated for its transparency, beauty, the feeling of delicacy these items exuded. As glass blowing was adapted throughout the empire (an inexpensive production technique that dramatically sped up production and lowered costs,) the demand grew even higher.

Glass thus became a common sight from the Roman period onward, being used in almost every household and adorning public buildings as windows, mosaics and lighting fixtures. Large quantities of raw glass were required to fill this demand, production being taken over by specialized centers who could manufacture it on an industrial scale.

A price edict issue by Emperor Diocletian early in the 4th century CE differentiated between two kinds of glass. The first one, known as Judean glass (from the Land of Israel) was a light green color and less expensive than the second – Alexandrian glass (from Alexandria, Egypt).

“This is a sensational discovery and it is of great significance for understanding the entire system of the glass trade in antiquity,” added Prof. Ian Freestone, a researcher with the University College London, UK.

3,000 jars of ancient Roman fish sauce discovered in shipwreck

Archaeologists working off the coast of Italy have found a Roman shipwreck containing three thousand fish sauce vessels.

Two amphoras of Roman fish sauce, not from the shipwreck. Image via Wikipedia.

The Romans controlled the Mediterranean, and a salty fermented fish sauce was ubiquitous in Classical Roman cooking, often mixed with wine, vinegar or honey. The fish sauce, or garum, was a staple for cooking in Spain, Portugal and Italy, and the ship was likely heading to one of these countries to transport the shipment.

“It’s an exceptional find that dates to the first or second century AD,” team leader Simonluca Trigona said in a statement. “It’s one of just five ‘deep sea’ Roman vessels ever to be found in the Mediterranean and the first one to be found off the coast of Liguria. We know it was carrying a large cargo of garum when it sank.”

The ship was 25 meters long and sank down to 200 meters beneath the surface. Archaeologists spent two years tracking it before ultimately locating it; of course, the fish sauce was long gone after the passing centuries, but the jars still remained.

“After we filmed the wreck and analysed an amphora [clay jar] and some fragments that a robotic craft brought back to the surface, we realized the ship was carrying a huge quantity of fish sauce when it sank. The amphora are almost all of a certain type, which was used exclusively for garum.”

They also found wine jars, which makes them know with almost certainty where the ship was heading.

“It’s a nice find because it means we are almost sure about the route this ship was on,” Trugona said. “She most likely sailed out of Rome along the Tiber and sank a couple of weeks later while making the return journey, weighed down by all that fish sauce.”


2,000 Year Old Cat Pawprint Found in Roman Tile

Society has changed a lot in 2,000 years, but you know what hasn’t really changed? Cats. Cats don’t really care about much today, and they didn’t really care about much 2,000 years ago – and now archaeologists have evidence of that.

Gloucester City Museum

Paw prints made by a cat 2,000 years ago have been found on a Roman roof tile. The tile was unearthed back in 1969, in Gloucester, England, but no one really bothered looked at it – they just stuffed it into the museum collection.

“At that time the archaeologists seem to have been more interested in digging things up than looking at what they found,” David Rice, curator at Gloucester City Museum, said in an interview.

Gloucester City Museum

The likely scenario for the paw print is quite common: some Roman guy was building some tiles for a roof, and while the tiles were left out to dry in AD 100, a cat nonchalantly just walked over them. It’s actually quite possible for the cat to be a Roman army cat – the pet of a legionary soldier. Despite the print, the tile was used and placed on a roof, until it was discovered in the 20th century.

“The marks are the only example for Roman domestic cats that visitors can see in the museum,” Rice said.

He also believes there are many similar prints just waiting to be found.

“I believe there are more cat paw prints found on ancient Roman tiles in Britain than anywhere else in the Roman Empire including Italy. Roman Britons must have had a special liking for cats,” he added.

Roman Gladiators were mostly Vegetarian, Drank Sports Drinks from Bone and Ashes

Roman gladiators – some of the most feared warriors in history were mostly vegetarian, a new anthropological study has shown.

A retiarius (“net fighter”) with a trident and cast net, fighting a secutor (79 AD mosaic). Image credits: Wiki Commons.

Gladiators fought to entertain audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations; they fought each other, wild animals, and convicted criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked not only their social standing, but also their lives, but most of them were actually slaves, schooled under harsh conditions, socially marginalized and even as they were admired for their fighting prowess, they were still despised as inferior citizens. But even as gladiators themselves were marginalized, the idea of a gladiator was immortalized in pieces of art, from commonplace objects to magnificent pieces of art.

You’d expect someone with such a brutal “profession” to have a pretty brutal diet – eating lots of meat, living for the moment, feasting as much as possible. But a new study on gladiator bones revealed that gladiators enjoyed a diet of mostly grains and meat-free meals, suggesting that even athletes relying on their strength and speed can thrive with a vegetarian diet.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern and the bones came from Ephesos (today’s Turkey), being dated at 2nd and 3rd century B.C. At the time, Ephesos was the Roman capital of Asia, with a remarkable population of over 200,000.

Image from Ephesus. People gathered in the colosseum theater to watch gladiators fight.

Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii–literally, “barley men” – and there is more true to that statement than initially thought. Karl Grossschmidt, a paleo-pathologist at the Medical University of Vienna subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc. By checking what chemical elements their bones have, you could reverse trace what they ate – and Grossschmidt found that they ate much more vegetables than animal protein. But they didn’t do this due to a personal belief or because they weren’t allowed to eat meat. Gladiators, it seems, were pretty fat – that’s what their bones indicate anyway. They ate a lot of carbohydrates, which helped them in two ways: it gave them strength and protected them from wounds.

 “Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat,” Grossschmidt explains. “A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight.” Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds “look more spectacular,” says Grossschmidt. “If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on,” he adds. “It doesn’t hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators.”

But this diet had a big drawback – it left gladiators with a calcium deficit. If you don’t have enough calcium in your bones, they can simply snap, or at the very least, not support your muscles properly. But here’s the kicker: the gladiator bones had “exorbitant” levels of calcium compared to the general population. So this almost certainly means one thing – in order to compensate for this deficit, they drank vile brews of charred wood or bone ash, both of which are rich in calcium.

“Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing,” explains study leader Fabian Kanz from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna. “Things were similar then to what we do today — we take magnesium and calcium (in the form of effervescent tablets, for example) following physical exertion.”

The clear formula for the drink is not clear, but whatever they used, it worked. In a way, gladiators pioneered the usage of sports drinks.

 “Many athletes today have to take calcium supplements,” he says. “They knew that then, too.”

If anything, this is yet another indication of how rough the gladiator life was. Compared to most of the world, life in the Roman Empire had some obvious perks, but not for gladiators. The crowds loved them when they won, artists revered them, but in day to day life, they were outcasts who risked their life on a regular basis with little recognition outside the arena. Wounds were also quite common.

“The proportion of wounds to the skull was surprising, since all gladiatorial types but one wore helmets,” says Harvard’s Coleman. Gladiators usually fought one-on-one, with their armor and weaponry designed to give opposite advantages

The existence of the four-pointed dagger (replica pictured here) was known from inscriptions, but its function was a mystery until this crippling quadruple knee wound was identified. (Courtesy Karl Grossschmidt)

There were different classes of Roman gladiators, and a fight usually comprised of warriors from different classes. For example, an agile lightly armored helmetless retiarus with a net and trident would be pitted against a plodding murmillo wearing a massive helmet with tiny eye slits and carrying a thick, long shield. Some match-ups were more common than others. The retiarius was traditionally pitted against a secutor or, possibly on rare occasions, a murmillo. Despite significant differences in armor and weaponry, modern analysis and reconstructions showed that the different type of gladiators were balanced – no class had a decisive advantage over another class, as bone wounds of all types have shown.

Journal Reference: Sandra Lösch, Negahnaz Moghaddam, Karl Grossschmidt, Daniele U. Risser, Fabian Kanz. Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) – Implications for Differences in Diet. PLoS ONE, October 15, 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110489

Berkeley develops new, earth-friendly way to create concrete – inspired from the Romans

In a quest to make concrete not only more durable but also more sustainable, a group of geologists and engineers have found inspiration in the ancient Romans – whose imposing buildings have passed the test of time, surviving two millennia.

Geology and the Romans

Chris Brandon of the ROMACONS project collects a sample of ancient Roman concrete drilled from a breakwater in Pozzuoli Bay, near Naples, Italy.

Chris Brandon of the ROMACONS project collects a sample of ancient Roman concrete drilled from a breakwater in Pozzuoli Bay, near Naples, Italy.

Using classic microscopy, as well as the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), a synchrotron light source, one of the world’s brightest sources of ultraviolet and soft x-ray beams, the team examined the fine scale structure of Roman concrete. They have described, for the first time, how the extraordinarily stable compound – calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) – binds the material used to build the sturdy constructions.

Their work could improve the quality and sustainability of concrete, particularly in ocean environments. Modern concrete starts showing significant signs of degradation after approximately 50 years (quite often sooner). The method also leaves behind a smaller carbon footprint than the common counterpart.

Portland vs the Romans

croman concrete 2Portland cement (often referred to as OPC, from Ordinary Portland Cement) is the most common type of cement in general use around the world. The process for creating Portland cement requires fossil fuels to burn calcium carbonate (limestone) and clays at about 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit); about 7% of all CO2 emissions each year come from this activity. The production of lime for Roman concrete, however, is much cleaner – requiring about 1.000 degrees Celsius to be created (2/3 of its counterpart).

“Roman concrete has remained coherent and well-consolidated for 2,000 years in aggressive maritime environments,” said Marie Jackson, lead author of both papers. “It is one of the most durable construction materials on the planet, and that was no accident. Shipping was the lifeline of political, economic and military stability for the Roman Empire, so constructing harbors that would last was critical.”

Marie Jackson holds a 2,000-year-old sample of maritime concrete from the first century B.C. Santa Liberata harbor site in Tuscany.

Marie Jackson holds a 2,000-year-old sample of maritime concrete from the first century B.C. Santa Liberata harbor site in Tuscany.

The Roman Empire, arguably the most important Empire in all history, left behind numerous stunning constructions. Concrete was their material of choice, and the process was described around 30 B.C. by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, an engineer for Octavian, who became Emperor Augustus. The key ingredient, which is not really a secret, is volcanic ash – which the Romans combined with lime to form mortar. They packed this mortar and rock chunks into wooden molds which they then immersed in seawater – harnessing the salt and water as important parts. This also led to the development of a very rare hydrothermal mineral called aluminum tobermorite (Al-tobermorite).

“Our study provided the first experimental determination of the mechanical properties of the mineral,” said Jackson.

A modern solution

So if their method was so good, why did it decline then?

“As the Roman Empire declined, and shipping declined, the need for the seawater concrete declined,” said Jackson. “You could also argue that the original structures were built so well that, once they were in place, they didn’t need to be replaced.”

While Roman concrete is incredibly durable compared to what we use today, it is pretty much impossible to use it nowadays; why? Because it takes too long to dry, and you can’t apply it in constructions where fast hardening is necessary.

But researchers are now finding ways to apply their findings on Roman concrete. Fly ash, one of the residues generated in combustion, is commonly used in the fabrication of concrete, and now, they are trying to prove that you can use volcanic ash instead of it – like the Romans did.

“There is not enough fly ash in this world to replace half of the Portland cement being used,” said Monteiro. “Many countries don’t have fly ash, so the idea is to find alternative, local materials that will work, including the kind of volcanic ash that Romans used. Using these alternatives could replace 40 percent of the world’s demand for Portland cement.”

They are trying to take the best of the 2 cements, and mix it together.

The research was published in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society

Via Berkeley

Buried soldiers may be the victims of ancient chemical warfare

Whenever you hear about chemical warfare, modern times come to mind; if someone were to ask you when chemical warfare did its first victims, what would you say ? The 20th century, maybe late 19th ? Probably something like this. After all, it would be almost impossible to consider something like this 2000 years ago – or would it ?

In 256 AD, 19 Roman soldiers were rushing into a small underground tunnel, to defend the Syrian city (held by Romans) of Dura-Europos; their enemies were the Persians, who were digging a tunnel to undermine the city’s mudbrick walls. The Romans were the elite soldiers of their time, armed with crystal-pommeled swords, and sturdy shields to protect them from every weapon known to them. But what they were up against in that day was unknown to them – and it led them to their doom. Fighting against an enemy they couldn’t see, the Roman soldiers succumbed after inhaling toxic black smoke that turned to acid in their lungs. They didn’t even stand a chance.

At that time, the fight between the two sides was in a way like a game of hide and seek, with the Persians digging up tunnels to bring down the city walls, and the Romans diggin counter tunnels, to intercept the Persian ones. It was the Persians who outsmarted their opponents this time, showing a better understanding of chemical warfare; they quickly created a fire and threw crystals of sulphur and bitumen in their own tunnel, departing quickly and leaving the Romans to face a sudden death. They had one casualty though, one Persian probably falling victim of his own weapon.

“It’s a circumstantial case,” he said. “But what it does do is it doesn’t invent anything. We’ve got the actual stuff [the sulfur and bitumen] on the ground. It’s an established technique.” If the Persians were using chemical warfare at this time, it shows that their military operations were extremely sophisticated, James said. “They were as smart and clever as the Romans and were doing the same things they were,” he said.

As a matter of fact, chemistry was used a lot in Ancient warfare, despite what most people think; the horrors of war back then were somewhere between brutal and unimaginable, and even archaeologists sometimes wonder as to how much creativity human people can show, with ancient means, when it comes to hurting or killing other people.