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Lost city found with radar and a quad bike

Harry Pettit, June 10, 2020 6:45PM The Sun

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Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) data from the Roman city of Falerii Novi, near Rome, Italy, revealing the outlines of the town's buildings. Picture: AFP/L. Verdonck/ University of Cambridge media_cameraGround Penetrating Radar (GPR) data from the Roman city of Falerii Novi, near Rome, Italy, revealing the outlines of the town's buildings. Picture: AFP/L. Verdonck/ University of Cambridge


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An ancient Roman city in Italy has been mapped in incredible detail without any digging. Instead, archaeologists* used a ground-penetrating radar* strapped to a quad bike.

Falerii Novi is more than 2000 years old but today is mostly underground, leaving many of its ancient buildings undiscovered until now.

Scans of the site reveal a bath house, theatre, shops and even the city’s entire plumbing system.

Archaeologists say ground-penetrating radar (GPR) tools could completely change our understanding of ancient settlements.

The technology allows researchers to survey vast* regions trapped beneath Earth’s surface without having to do time-consuming excavations*.

Team member Professor Martin Millett said: “This type of survey could transform the way archaeologists investigate urban* sites.”

The technology was used at Falerii Novi, a walled city spanning 30ha about 50 km north of Rome.

Falerii Novi was founded in 241BC during the time of the Roman Republic and was inhabited until around 700AD in the early Middle Ages.

The city, not quite half the size of ancient Pompeii, had previously been partially excavated but mostly remained buried.

With a population of perhaps 3000 people, it had a very fancy public bath complex and market building, at least 60 large houses and a rectangular temple with columns near the city’s south gate.

Near the north gate was a public monument unlike any other, with a colonnaded portico — a roofed structure supported by columns — on three sides and a large open square measuring 40m by 90m.

media_cameraThe porticus duplex and public monument to the east of Falerii Novi’s north gate, near Rome, shown on a GPR time-slice, at an estimated depth of 0.80-0.85m, as the white dots mark the central row of columns of the covered passageway. Picture: AFP/L. Verdonck/University of Cambridge
media_cameraThe newly discovered temple in the Roman city of Falerii Novi, near Rome, Italy. Picture: AFP/L. Verdonck/University of Cambridge

Falerii Novi had a network of water pipes running beneath the city blocks and not just along streets, indicating advanced city planning like we would expect in a modern city.

The research marks the first time a complete ancient city was mapped using ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

Working in a similar way to regular radar, GPR bounces radio waves off objects and uses the “echo” to build up a picture at different depths.

The GPR equipment was pulled over the surface using a four-wheel motorbike, or quad bike.

“This took one person about three to four months in the field*,” Prof Millett said.

“This really does change how we can study and understand Roman towns – the way of the future for archaeology.”

Ancient Roman city mapped using GPR media_cameraThe GPR equipment was pulled over the surface using a four-wheel motorbike. Picture: AFP/ L. Verdonck/University of Cambridge

Prof Millett and his colleagues have already used GPR to survey the ancient Roman settlement of Interamna Lirenas in central Italy, and, on a lesser scale, Alborough in North Yorkshire, UK.

They now hope to see the technique used on far bigger sites.

“It is exciting and now realistic to imagine GPR being used to survey a major city such as Miletus in Turkey, Nicopolis in Greece or Cyrene in Libya”, said Prof Millett.

“We still have so much to learn about Roman urban life and this technology should open up unprecedented* opportunities for decades to come.”

The research was published in the journal Antiquity.

Face of the Emperor Constantine and latin script media_cameraA statue of Roman Emperor Constantine with Latin language behind.

The Roman Empire began soon after the founding of the Roman Republic in the 6th century BC (600BC to 501BC).

It was a powerful empire for around a thousand years until 476AD.

During this time, the Romans ruled over many countries in Europe and parts of Africa and the Middle East

At its peak, 90 million people lived in the Roman Empire.

It evolved from a monarchy* to a democratic republic to a military dictatorship* and then was finally ruled by emperors.

One of the most well-known and successful Roman leaders is Julius Caesar.

Latin language, straight roads, well-planned cities, underfloor heating and the spread of Christianity are all attributed to the Romans.

This story was first published on The Sun and is republished with permission.

Arena di Verona, Italy media_cameraUNESCO world heritage site Verona, Italy. Ancient Roman buildings and cities across Italy and beyond are popular tourist attractions. Picture: iStock


  • archaeologists: experts in studying human history by digging up things
  • radar: a technique of sending out radio waves and then measure how the waves bounce back
  • vast: over a huge area
  • excavations: diggings
  • urban: city
  • in the field: out on site
  • unprecedented: never happened before
  • monarchy: ruled by a royal family
  • dictatorship: one person or party in charge with no opposition


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  1. Name the city. What modern day country is it in?
  2. If they didn’t use radar, how would they study the city?
  3. What are some features of this buried city?
  4. How many people lived in the Roman Empire at its peak?
  5. List some things Romans are credited for.


1. GPR of your Town
Imagine we are 2000 years down the track and the town you live in or near has been lost over time or buried. Technology would be even further advanced. However, if they were to use this Ground-Penetrating Radar technology to map what your town looked like (major landmarks, roads, buildings etc) draw a rough birds-eye view sketch of some of the major features they would find. You may choose to work with a partner as often two brains are better than one.

Present your town map to the class.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Visual Arts, Mathematics, Personal and social

2. Extension
List some of the limitations of physically digging to find these ancient cities that this new technology overcomes.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History, Critical and creative thinking

Underground Lair
Welcome to Spy Kids. Your assignment is to take the new ground-penetrating radar attached to your stealth quad bike, to discover the location and extent of Dr X’s evil plans.

Keep a journal of your trek and your discoveries and send them through as you camp each night.

We expect this to be a 3-day mission, but you must maintain contact with base should you need extraction or back up.

Once you discover Dr X’s location, send us a detailed plan of what the radar picks up.

Read the article of our test of the radar’s capabilities as we sent teams to go undercover as archaeologists to discover Spy Kids’ Roman ancestors.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What buried treasure or place would you like to discover?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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