Roman Road Reveals Oldest Potholes

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Potholes have been a nuisance to drivers as far back as the Roman Empire, a newly discovered Roman road has revealed.

Unearthed at Ipplepen, a site thought to be part of the largest Romano-British settlement in Devon outside of Exeter, U.K., the road featured wheel ruts similar to those found at Pompeii.

According to the archaeologists, the grooves were caused by horse-drawn carts being driven over the road over a long period of time.

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“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,” Danielle Wootton, the Devon Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, said.

Drivers at the time had to deal with hazardous road surfaces — archaeologists found evidence for some of the oldest-known potholes.

Holes were filled in with lots of tightly packed stones in order to make the surface smoother and easier for travlers.

“A smooth road surface meant that there was less chance of getting the wheels of your cart stuck,” Wootton said.

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The signs of wear and maintenance on the road suggest that heavy traffic characterized the site at that time.

“For this reason, it was important to keep it in a good state of repair,” University of Exeter archaeologist Ioana Oltean told Discovery News.

Although archaeological evidence revealed the ancient Romans drove on the left in some parts of England, it wasn’t possible to tell if left-hand driving also ruled traffic at Ipplepen.

“Like their modern counterparts, Roman roads were made to accommodate traffic both ways,” Oltean said.

“Potholes or wheel ruts created in the process are indicative of the intensity of traffic on a particular stretch, but not of any traffic conventions,” she added.

Photo: Archaeologist Danielle Wootton at the Ipplepen road. Credit: Jim Wileman