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The Science and History of Ancient Roads

Archaeological Remnants of Transportation Networks

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We take our road systems for granted today, but in fact they represent the latest in thousands of years of technology, construction methods built long ago, in far flung places which needed to be connected to one another for trade, or, more sinisterly, for empire building and maintaining. Here are a few examples of the ancient roads of our collective pasts.

Plumstead (UK)

The oldest type of prepared road yet discovered have been in the peat bogs of the United Kingdom. These are basically planked roads, made to cross wetlands, and the reason they survived as long as they have is because the marsh preserved the wood.

This trackway is called Plumstead, and at 6,000 years, it is the oldest road yet discovered. The ancient timber trackway was found in August 2009, some 14 feet beneath a peat bog near Belmarsh Prison in London.

Sweet Track (UK)

The most famous trackway, Sweet Track is an 1800 meter-long planked road that crossed the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury, England. These planks were raised above the marsh using a set of crossed poles, which kept the road for sinking, for a while at any rate. Based on tree ring dating, Sweet Track was built during the winter of 3807 BC or the early spring of 3806 BC.

Abbots Way (UK)

Abbot's Way, dated to about 2000 BC, is also in the Somerset Levels in England, but it dates to over a thousand years later than Sweet Track. This track is over 2500 meters in length, and it crossed the water way between two islands.

Royal Road of the Achaemenids

Library of Celsus at Ephesus
Sarah Ferguson © 2009 Ancient World Image Bank
The Royal Road of the Achaemenid Dynasty of the Persian Empire connected what is today Iran with the Aegean Sea. Built by Darius the Great in the 5th century BC, the Royal Road connected the cities of Susa and Ephesus on the coast, a journey of some 93 days on foot. Archaeological evidence suggests that the roadway may have been established perhaps 500 years earlier by the Hittites.

Corlea Trackway (Ireland)

The Corlea Trackway was built ca 148 BC, during the Iron Age in Europe, of massive oaken planks. Archaeologists believe that its amazing state of preservation is the result of having sunk into the bog nearly as soon as it was built.

Silk Road

Probably the most famous ancient road in the world is the Silk Road, reported to have been used first during the Han Dynasty of China, ca 206 BC-22 AD). The network of trails crosses Asia with some 4500 kilometers along three major routes eventually connecting the capital city of the Roman Empire (Rome, Italy), and the capital city of the Han Dynasty, (Chang'An, China).

Roman Road System

Appian Way and Roman Ruins at Puglia, Egnazia (Italy), Sunset October 2006
David Epperson / Getty Images
The Romans, those great empire builders, were experts at engineering transportation networks, and beginning about 350 BC, they build a network of roads, aqueducts and bridges to make keeping their conquered cities under control, and easily accessed.

Roman Aqueduct at Nimes

The height of Roman engineering beauty, the Pont du Gard and the Aqueduct at Nimes, built between AD 40 and 60 to cross the Gard river in France is too beautiful not to consider separately from your standard Roman Road.

Pompeii Streets (Photo Essay)

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Among the astonishingly preserved ruins were Roman city streets, winding their way through the ancient cities, providing access to its residents--and a pathway for sewage through the streets.

Nazca Lines

Hummingbird, Nazca Lines
Abel Pardo López (cropped and enhanced)
The Nazca lines are geoglyphs, large abstract and animal images laid out into the desert of northern Peru by moving stained stones out of the way. The images are connected by a series of radial paths, and archaeologists are convinced that the drawings were part of ritual pathways used by the Nazca in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

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