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New Research Shows How Romans Innovated Building Methods Over Time

Posted November 20, 2019

Roman architecture is a beloved relic of the modern world. Its designs have influenced building techniques for centuries — the evidence exists clearly in governmental structures across the U.S.

Remnants of Roman buildings provide glimpses into past lives, but neglect to tell the whole story. Archaeologists and historians still hunt for answers as to how and why the Romans created these marvels.

Image credit: Chait Goli via Pexels (Free Pexels licence)

Image credit: Chait Goli via Pexels (Free Pexels licence)

Scientists from the Italian National Research Council recently unveiled new information on how the Romans built the Atrium Vestae. Numerous researchers previously concluded there were at least five stages of construction, although there was a dispute over building methods.

This research opens a door into the intricacies of Roman architecture and sheds light on how it came to be.

The Methodology

Francesca Rosi and her team used several high-tech analytical tools and techniques to conduct their research. These methods include x-ray diffraction and energy dispersive x-ray microscopy, used in conjunction with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). A SEM provides images more detailed than regular optical scanning by focusing an electron beam at a specimen. The specimen emits x-rays that scientists use to determine its composition and elements.

SEMs detect elements in quantities as small as nanometers, giving scientists a closer look at what they’re studying. Within contemporary construction projects, this technology helps companies identify trace amounts of toxic substances in building materials.

This methodology allowed Rosi and her colleagues to identify silicate to carbonate ratios in Roman building materials. The materials and techniques Romans employed changed as they gained more knowledge, evident in the Atrium Vestae’s stages. Other information gleaned includes elemental compositions and material texture and quality. Much of this data is entirely new to those involved in the science of Roman architecture. This knowledge represents a significant breakthrough in the modern understanding of ancient construction.

The Science of Construction

The methods researchers used to discern how Romans built the Atrium Vestae are comparable to those employed in forensic engineering. This field merges forensic investigation with architecture — most commonly in resolving construction disputes. Forensic engineers run tests and conduct visual inspections on buildings to identify the causes of structural problems. Many techniques require advanced computer modeling software and electron microscopy.

Thermal imaging is another standard component of building analysis. Engineers use infrared cameras to detect minute imperfections that are invisible to the naked eye. Infrared radiation cameras save contractors and building owners from structural damage. Air and water leaks aren’t always visible in walls or ceilings. If they’re left alone, they can cause substantial damage.

Computer modeling software allows engineers to replicate architectural scenes molecule by molecule. From there, they place these scenes in virtual laboratories to study material failures. They can create an objective picture of a construction site and find out how the damage occurred.

Though forensic engineering differs in its core purpose, it shares strong ties with how scientists investigate historical sites. A reconstruction project from Princeton University showed that scientists often intertwine this field with historical architecture to preserve ancient sites and artworks.

What This Means Going Forward

New knowledge of Roman building techniques will enable researchers to categorize the Atrium Vestae’s phases. This technology will be useful for other creations experts know little about. How did builders control the high temperatures required to bake bricks? Do the timelines for specific material usage offer information on resource availability? A single clue to a former point in history is all it takes to unlock other mysteries.

Ancient buildings no longer have to remain an enigma in how they came to be. Uncovering the truths about Roman structures will eventually give way to the details of their Greek predecessors. The possibilities for cultural and scientific enrichment are endless. Scientists can learn the architectural secrets of many cultures and preserve buildings for future exploration.

Discovering Marvels of Ancient Construction

This discovery will fuel subsequent journeys into the history of Roman architecture and culture. The insight researchers gain can provide enlightening answers to the puzzles of historical restoration. As scientific research grows in accuracy and complexity, the world will uncover more mysteries of its ancient past.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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