Ancient roads and bridges

Cart-ruts at at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, MaltaHow could wheeled vehicles get about without roads? Initially they could make use of open grassland, or flat, sandy terrain. Just as covered wagons crossed the North American prairies long before there were metalled roads, so wagons crossed the Eurasian steppes. Also tracks between settlements were no doubt trampled flat by people on foot and their animals long before the wheel and wagon. Traffic wore the track down below the level of the surrounding terrain, leaving a characteristic sunken lane or hollow way. Satellite images can show more subtle land depressions, which may be much less obvious on the ground. This approach revealed an ancient road system in Northern Mesopotamia.1J. Ur, CORONA satellite photography and ancient road networks: a northern Mesopotamian case study, Antiquity (March 1, 2003).

The case of the mysterious cart-tracks has long puzzled archaeologists. Parallel grooves cut into bedrock, up to several hundred metres in length, appear in abundance on the island of Malta. Some have also have been found along the Mediterranean coasts of Greece, Italy and France. In Azerbaijan such tracks run from stone quarries to the Caspian Sea. How could wooden wheels erode stone so deeply? Would it require massive loads? Were the ruts cut by hand instead? Could they have been for sleds or travois? Derek Mottershead and his colleagues from the University of Portsmouth decided to test the matter scientifically. They found that the key factor on Malta was the soft limestone rock. A wooden-wheeled cart carrying a normal load would be enough to erode a track over time through all the rocks of Malta in wet conditions, and the type of erosion was more compatible with a wheeled vehicle than a sled or travois. Loads could have included building stone from quarries.2D. Mottershead, A. Pearson and M. Schaefer, The cart ruts of Malta: an applied geomorphology approach, Antiquity, vol 82, no. 318 (2008), pp. 1065-1079.

Choirokoitia Neolithic archeological site, Cyprus (Wikipedia)Urban paths of beaten earth would get churned up by heavy, wheeled traffic. So it is in the first cities that we would expect the first paved thoroughfares. In Mesopotamia Ur and Uruk had stone-paved streets. So did the Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. It is is more surprising to find cobbled streets in the much earlier Halaf Culture (6100 to 5400 BC) village at Tell Arpachiyah in Northern Mesopotamia, and at the Neolithic village of Choirokoitia in Cyprus.3K.R. Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (1998), p. 18.

Longer paved roads were massive undertakings, most likely to be financed by a wealthy polity. The Royal Road was built by the Persian king Darius I (550–486 BC) across his vast empire from Susa to Sardis (2,699 km). He probably incorporated earlier highways, but improved them with a hard-packed gravelled surface held within a stone curbing.

The Romans are famed for their straight, well-constructed roads. It is generally assumed that they brought roads to all parts of their empire. This idea is now being vigorously challenged. Raimond Karl points out that the Irish law texts have a great deal to say about roads, which were certainly not Roman, for Rome never conquered Ireland. He argues from references to roads and bridges in Caesar's account of his conquest of Gaul, that the Celts had a pre-Roman a road network in Gaul, and deduces a similar system in Celtic Britain and Ireland.4R. Karl, ..on a road to nowhere ..: Chariotry and the road systems in the Celtic world, IRQUAS Online Project (2001); R. Karl, Iron Age chariots and medieval texts: a step too far in "breaking down boundaries"?, e-Keltoi, vol. 5, (2003). Supporting evidence has recently emerged from a quarry in Shropshire. Archaeologists working at Bayston Hill quarry, near Shrewsbury, have found a metalled and cambered road dated to the first century BC.5British Archaeology, no. 118 (May/June 2011), p. 9; British Archaeology, no. 120 (September/October 2011), pp. 14-20. It is unique so far. There were older-established routes in Britain, such as the Jurassic Way, that links Oxfordshire and Lincolnshire, but they are simply tracks beaten down by use. These long-distance roads would have joined together a network of local tracks which can sometimes be identified as sunken lanes.

The Corlea Iron Age timber trackway, near Kenagh, County Longford, IrelandPre-Roman Celts were certainly capable of making causeways across marshy ground. This was nothing new. Neolithic villages on natural or man-made islands in lakes or wetlands generally had timber access tracks. The remarkable survival of these ancient wooden tracks is due to the boggy ground into which they eventually sank. These early tracks were intended for pedestrians - there was no thought of wheeled traffic in the Neolithic.6W.A. Casparie and A. Moloney, Neolithic wooden trackways and bog hydrology, Journal of Paleolimnology, vol. 12, no. 1 (January, 1994), pp. 49-64. But by the Bronze Age timber tracks in Germany and the Netherlands are associated with wheels. In Britain the most famous example is at Flag Fen, built in 1350 BC. The oldest wheel found in Britain, dated 1100 BC, comes from the same site. 7. Fagan, New Finds at Flag Fen, Archaeology, vol. 48, no. 2 (1995), pp.24-26. (The dates of these tracks and wheel have all been obtained by dendrochronology, so they are the felling dates of the timber.) In Ireland a trackway was built in 986 BC in what is now Longford Pass, Co. Tipperary, from oak planks laid across oak beams. At 4 metres wide, it could have taken vehicles, but archaeologists have found no tell-tale ruts or hoofprints.8Oak tracks at 10th century road site leave archaeologists puzzled, Irish Times 2 September 2010. The equally massive Corlea trackway was built of split planks in 147 BC. Similar tracks built around the same time were used by vehicles.9B. Raftery, Trackway excavations in the Mountdillon bogs, Co. Longford, 1985-1991 (1996). At Doogarrymore, Co. Roscommon, two wooden wheels from a cart used in the 400 BC were found in association with such a trackway.10National Museum of Ireland.

Bridges

Alcántara Bridge, Spain, built 104-6 AD by order of Emperor TrajanAnyone who can construct a causeway across a bog should be able to build a bridge across a stream or river. Celtic bridges of the late La Tène period are known from Switzerland.11H. Schwab, Cornaux-les-Sauges (canton de Neuchâtel) et les ponts celtiques sur la Broye et la Thielle, Cahiers d'Archéologie Romande (1992), pp. 317-322. However timber bridges have a poor survival rate. So it is not surprising that the earliest bridges that survive even in part today are solid stone structures. The earliest known stone bridge in Europe was built c. 1900 BC at the Palace of Knossos, Crete. Most impressively, some Roman stone bridges are still in use today, though most of them have undergone many repairs and rebuildings.

Notes

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  1. J. Ur, CORONA satellite photography and ancient road networks: a northern Mesopotamian case study, Antiquity (March 1, 2003).
  2. D. Mottershead, A. Pearson and M. Schaefer, The cart ruts of Malta: an applied geomorphology approach, Antiquity, vol 82, no. 318 (2008), pp. 1065-1079.
  3. K.R. Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (1998), p. 18.
  4. R. Karl, ..on a road to nowhere ..: Chariotry and the road systems in the Celtic world, IRQUAS Online Project (2001); R. Karl, Iron Age chariots and medieval texts: a step too far in "breaking down boundaries"?, e-Keltoi, vol. 5, (2003).
  5. British Archaeology, no. 118 (May/June 2011), p. 9; British Archaeology, no. 120 (September/October 2011), pp. 14-20.
  6. W. A. Casparie and A. Moloney, Neolithic wooden trackways and bog hydrology, Journal of Paleolimnology, vol. 12, no. 1 (January, 1994), pp. 49-64.
  7. B. Fagan, New Finds at Flag Fen, Archaeology, vol. 48, no. 2 (1995), pp. 24-26. (The dates have been obtained by dendrochronology, so they are the felling dates of the timber.)
  8. Oak tracks at 10th century road site leave archaeologists puzzled, Irish Times 2 September 2010.
  9. B. Raftery, Trackway excavations in the Mountdillon bogs, Co. Longford, 1985-1991 (1996).
  10. National Museum of Ireland.
  11. H. Schwab, Cornaux-les-Sauges (canton de Neuchâtel) et les ponts celtiques sur la Broye et la Thielle, Cahiers d'Archéologie Romande (1992), pp. 317-322.