Biblical Archaeology Review 46:1, January/February 2020

Strata: Then and Now: Potholes: A Common Irritation

Potholes are the bane of many a northerner during the winter months. Even if you don’t live in an area with heavy snowfall and ice, you’ve surely experienced roads in severe need of repairs for one reason or another. In modern times, we have road crews to handle these repairs and taxes to pay for the cost. But how were road repairs handled in pre-modern eras?

Ruts and divots plagued the Roman driver as much as they do the modern one. Roman roads were often paved with stone; horse-drawn carts loaded with passengers, goods, or both caused deep grooves and holes to form in the stone pavement. Repaving roads was costly, time consuming, and could delay traffic for months. However, archaeologists working at Pompeii recently discovered an alternative form of road repair, conveniently and tragically preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Roman “road crews” (composed mostly of slaves) would heat either iron or slag to a molten state and then carry it through the city to make spot repairs to the roads. The molten iron, mixed with other materials such as stone or ground up ceramics, would fill holes and harden as it cooled, leaving a smooth, flat surface for carts.

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