Slimy Plasmodiumque Romanus? Let’s Not Get Too Excited …

As I try to reestablish my blogging rhythms here, I couldn’t help but wonder how much excitement will be generated by a recent story making the rounds due to an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Here’s the an excerpt from a University of the West of England press release:

A paper entitled ‘Slime Mould Imitates Development of Roman Roads in the Balkans’ has just been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The unique heuristic abilities of the slime mould, Plasmodium polycephalum, inspired the scientists to apply the method for the first time in archaeology.

Co-author Andrew Adamatzky, a professor in unconventional computing from UWE Bristol, said, “We used acellular slime mould P. polycephalum to analyse the historical development of the ancient Roman road network in the Balkans.

“Plasmodium is a single cell organism which – when foraging for food – spans its environment with a network of tubes that under strictly controlled conditions can reproduce human-made transport networks such as roads or railways. Research done during the last decade has shown that the slime mould can physically imitate technological artefacts and processes in a variety of ways undetected by conventional computational methods.

“After conducting a series of experiments and with the help of a computer-based simulation the team discovered that the slime mould managed to develop a network of tubes providing a good match to the network of roads that served the needs of Roman Empire from around 100 BC to 400 AD and its expansion into the Balkans 2000 years ago.

“The living mould not only reproduced the two major military roads that crossed the area, Via Egnatia and Via Diagonalis but also the smaller roads or routes connecting the hinterland of the Balkans with the coastal Aegean area.” […]

As might be expected, the original report is behind a paywall … the free abstract from Science Direct isn’t exactly helpful either:

Due to its unexpected computing abilities, Physarum polycephalum, a vegetative stage of acellular slime, has been repeatedly used during the last decade in order to reproduce transport networks. After conducting a series of biological experiments and with the help of a Cellular Automata (CA) model we try to explore the ability of the slime in order to imitate the Roman road network in the Balkans, an area which was of great strategic importance for the stability of the Roman Empire in the East. The application of Physarum machines hopes to offer a first step towards a new interdisciplinary, almost unconventional, approach to archaeology.

We still don’t know exactly what these unconventional interdisciplinarians did, but fortunately someone does seem to have had accessed the study … over at Popular Science, inter alia:

Using a map of the Balkans made of agar gel, the researchers placed oat flakes in the locations of 17 major Roman cities. The mold was placed initially on the oat flake for Thessaloniki, a city in the northern Aegean region that was a major urban center at the time (and still the second-largest city in Greece today). The researchers ran the experiment 18 times, with the mold starting its spread from Thessaloniki for each run. The molds recreated with remarkable accuracy a network of roads similar to that used by the ancient Romans, even tracing out paths of relatively unknown and obscure roads like the West-Pontian road traveling northeast though the Balkans. […]

So basically, they put food on the cities and waited for the slime to find it. It’s apparently an amazing thing that this mould travels in straight lines, but I’m not sure why. Just to get an idea of the process, though, this sort of thing has existed on Youtube for ages. Here’s the Tokyo subway, e.g.:

… or the U.S.:

Somehow I don’t think this is going to have the impact the Journal seems to think it will …

Ruts in the Roman (?) Road at Ipplepen

From the University of Exeter:

The excavation at Ipplepen, run by the University of Exeter, is back on site following the discovery of a complex series of archaeological features thought to be part of the largest Romano-British settlement in Devon outside of Exeter.

Wheel ruts found in the newly excavated road surface are thought to be like those at Pompeii caused by carts being driven over them. This is cause for excitement according to archaeologist Danielle Wootton, the Devon Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme. She said:“The road must have been extensively used, it’s intriguing to think what the horse-drawn carts may have been carrying and who was driving them. This is a fantastic opportunity to see a ‘snap shot’ of life 2000 years ago.”

The geophysical survey and a significant number of Roman coins found when the site was first discovered highlighted the importance of this extensive site and its potential to explore the relationship between the Romans and Devon’s native population.

This year’s dig, directed by Dr Imogen Wood has uncovered a few more Roman coins, two of which date from between AD 43 to AD 260 and around six late Roman 4th century coins. One can be accurately dated to AD 335 – 341. However, the location of personal artefacts, such as the newly discovered Roman hair pin , brooch and bracelet are equally as thrilling for the archaeological team.

The pin would have been used to hold the hair together much in the same way similar items are used today. Danielle Wootton said:“Roman women had some very elaborate hairstyles which changed through time like our fashions do today. Hairpins were used to hold complex hairstyles like buns and plaits together and suggests that Devon women may have been adopting fashions from Rome. This period in history often gets flooded with stories about Roman soldiers and centurions; this is interesting as they are artefacts worn by women.”

Green and blue glass beads have been unearthed, which suggests that colourful necklaces were also worn. Two amber beads have been discovered which are likely to have travelled many miles possibly from the Baltic coast to their final location at Ipplepen in the South Devon.

Wootton explained:“During the Roman period amber was thought to have magical, protective and healing properties. These very personal items worn by the women that lived on this site centuries ago have enabled us to get a glimpse into the lives of people living everyday lives on the edges of the Roman Empire.”

Pottery has also been discovered by the Archaeology Department’s students and local volunteers on the excavation. Dr Imogen Wood, University of Exeter said:“The pottery recovered suggests people were making copies of popular roman pottery for cooking and eating, but also importing a small amount of fine pottery from the continent such as drinking cups and Samian bowls for dinner guests to see and envy.”

The excavation is being carried out until the end of July and is likely to reveal further exciting finds which will help to further our understanding between Roman Britain and its native population. […]

Hmmm … I wonder if this is a Roman road we’re talking about; we certainly seem to be expected to infer that. I also wonder, given how frequently wheel ruts in a Roman context are linked to other things, whether we should be taking bets on how quickly we see the Railroad Gauge Canard again?


Alternate/Derivative sources:

Our previous coverage of the site and its finds:

… and possibly this:

Roman Road in Jerusalem

From the IAA press release (which seems to be rewritten to a greater or lesser degree in all of the other press coverage):

An ancient road leading from Yafo to Jerusalem, which dates to the Roman period (second–fourth centuries CE), was exposed this past fortnight in the Beit Hanina neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. The road remains were revealed in an archaeological excavation the IAA conducted in Beit Hanina prior to the installation of a drainage pipe by the Moriah Company.

The wide road (c. 8 m) was bounded on both sides by curbstones. The road itself was built of large flat stones fitted to each other so as to create a comfortable surface for walking. Some of the pavers were very badly worn, indicating the extensive use that was made of the road, and over the years the road also underwent a series of repairs.

According to David Yeger, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Several segments of the road were previously excavated by research expeditions of the IAA, but such a finely preserved section of the road has not been discovered in the city of Jerusalem until now”.
“The Romans attached great importance to the roads in the empire. They invested large sums of money and utilized the most advanced technological aids of the period in order to crisscross the empire with roads. These served the government, military, economy and public by providing an efficient and safe means of passage. Way stations and roadside inns were built along the roads, as well fortresses in order to protect the travelers. The construction and maintenance of the roads was assigned to military units, but civilians also participated in the work as part of the compulsory labor imposed on them by the authorities.”

The road section discovered in the IAA excavations in Beit Hanina is part of the imperial network of roads that led to Jerusalem from the coastal plain. We know about these roads from both historical sources and archaeological excavations. Two main arteries led from Yafo to Jerusalem during the Roman period. One is the road that passes through Bet Horon and the other runs via Shaar HaGai. This particular segment belongs to the Bet Horon road. The road began in Yafo and passed through Lod where it split it two different directions: one to Shaar HaGai and the other by way of Modiin along the route of what is today Highway 443 to Bet Horon. From there the road continued eastward as far as Bir Nabala and turned south to Kefar Shmuel where it merged with the highlands road that led to the Old City of Jerusalem.

In some places we can see that the modern Bir Nabala road was paved just a few centimeters above the route of the ancient road, which indicates that until a few decades ago the ancient road in this region was visible and was used.

The Huffington Post coverage includes some decent photos … Discovery has a video report

Roman Road Beneath York Minster

From the Northern Echo:

A SOLID link to the real Roman past has been uncovered beneath one of the region’s greatest places of worship.

During construction work for a new visitor development in the undercroft of York Minster a team of archaeologists have unearthed an intact section of Roman road.

The road is believed to have been a backstreet, part of the old Via Quintana, which ran behind the Roman basilica on the site where the medieval Minster now sits.

The backstreet was used for hundreds of years and was frequently patched and repaired, falling into disuse at the same time as the basilica itself.

The Dean of York, the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, said, “While it was not as grandly paved as the main streets of Roman York, you can imagine that this backstreet, situated as it was between the Basilica and the Praetorium, was exactly the kind of place where the real business of the Empire was done.

“It probably even witnessed the very first Christians on their way to worship.”

The development of new visitor displays in the undercroft has given archaeologists a rare opportunity to investigate York Minster’s earliest layers of history.

And the newly discovered section of road will allow further analysis of the remains found in previous excavations.

The lead member of the York Archaeological Trust team, Ian Milsted, said: “Before this, there had been no archaeological excavations at York Minster for over 40 years, so it’s a huge privilege to be revealing pieces of the past in such an iconic building, all of it contributing to our picture of life in ancient York.’’

The Roman road is one of the many stories about the Minster’s ancient past which will be revealed next February when the archaeological analysis on all of this year’s excavations is released.