February 14, 2016

Miles of lost ancient Roman roads discovered in the United Kingdom

Having been lost for hundreds of years, miles of ancient Roman roads have recently been uncovered in the United Kingdom— but there's no word yet on whether or not they all lead to Rome.

And it’s all thanks to the UK Environmental Agency. Since 1998, the agency has been using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)—which involves using lasers to map the distance between an airplane and the ground to scan the terrain—to help with things such as flood modelling and coastline erosion, collecting terabytes of data over the years. In the summer of 2013, they released this data to the public, which has since used it for everything from building virtual replicas in Minecraft to surveying for ancient historical sites.

Discovering lost roads

And finally, one man hit gold—or rather, stone: After 45 years of searching, David Ratledge discovered 23 miles (17 km) of a lost Roman road between Ribchester and Lancashire in England.

“This has been one of Lancashire's biggest puzzles for over 150 years,” he wrote online. “These were the county's most important Roman sites so good communications between them must have been essential.”

In fact, Roman roads were the key to the empire maintaining power and order over the locals. After Rome invaded in 43 CE, much of the north part of the island resisted their control. In 69 CE, the tribe that controlled the large part of the north—the Brigantes—revolted, leading to a bloody war.

The emperor at the time, Vespasian, then sent in a new governor named Quintus Petilius Cerialis to stop the rebellion and conquer the northern part of England. Cerialis went to work quickly re-securing Rome’s power over the region—and building roads throughout the countryside to link forts and settlements to aid in troop and supply movement.

Reclaimed by the weather

Some of these roads are still visible—they are quite wide, up to 20 or so feet (7 meters), but most have disappeared over the centuries, thanks to weathering and locals using road stones for their own building needs.

“The preservation of the remains varies massively,” said Ratledge in a Environmental Agency statement. “Parts of a road could still be half a metre high and easy to spot whilst in other parts it could be so subtle that you’d definitely miss it on the ground.”

There were hints before in the case of Lancashire, but the road had been hidden well over the course of time.


“Previously in Lancashire we only had aerial photographs from the 1940s and 1960s to go on, but with photographs features only show up after a drought and we don’t get many of those!” said Ratledge. “With LIDAR, once you know what to look for, it’s blindingly obvious – you just know you’ve found a road… It’s been revolutionary.”

Meaning that, thanks to LIDAR, an enormously huge part of the UK’s history has been brought back to the light of day.

“Lancashire has some of the Country's most spectacular Roman Roads and in tracing them we will travel through some of Lancashire's finest countryside seeing many stunning views,” wrote Ratledge. “There are very few sites in England where the Roman Road surface has been exposed and put on display. Lancashire has one of them and you can literally walk in the footsteps of the Legions!”


All images credit of: The UK department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs.