Seen here is a part of ground penetrating radar data obtained from the ancient city of Falerii Novi, showing the outlines of the town’s buildings. Image Credit: L. Verdonck / University of Cambridge.

Researchers Reveal Lost Ancient City Without a Single Excavation

Among the discoveries, archaeologists found a public monument unlike anything seen before, and even the city’s sprawling network of water pipes. 


An ancient city rises from beneath the surface in a recent study where scientists used state-of-the-art technology to unravel a mystery hidden beneath the surface without excavation. Archaeologists have mapped, for the first time, an entire ancient city—Falerii Novi in ​​Italy—using advanced ground-penetrating radar (GPR). This allowed experts to look beneath the surface with incredible precision without excavating a single millimeter.

A Revolutionizing Technology

According to scientists, this technology could revolutionize our understanding of ancient settlements and help preserve many already severely damaged. The Cambridge University and Ghent University team discovered a bath complex, a market, a temple, a public monument unlike anything seen before, and even the city’s extensive network of water pipes using ground-penetrating radar.

Revealing a Lost Ancient City

By observing different depths, archaeologists can now study how the city evolved over hundreds of years without excavating the city. The research, published in Antiquity, took advantage of recent GPR technology advances that allow experts to explore larger areas in higher resolution than ever. This is likely to have important implications for studying ancient cities because many cannot be excavated, either because they are too large or trapped under modern structures. One such example is the ancient city of Aleppo.

The modern city of Aleppo (Syria) was built atop the remains of the ancient city of Aleppo. This has made it extremely difficult for experts to excavate the site and reveal the extensive history of the ancient city of Aleppo. GPR works like a normal radar, bouncing radio waves off objects, using ‘echo’ to build an image at different depths.


Ground Penetrating Data

Towing their GPR instruments behind a quad, archaeologists surveyed 30.5 hectares within the city walls, taking a reading every 12.5 cm. Located 50 kilometers north of Rome and occupied for the first time in 241 BC, Falerii Novi survived until the medieval period (until around 700 AD). The team’s GPR data can now begin to reveal some of the physical changes the city experienced throughout its long history.

They have already found evidence of stone theft. The study also challenges certain assumptions about Roman urban design, showing that Falerii Novi’s design was less standardized than other well-studied cities, such as Pompeii. Falerii Nov is believed to be half the size of Pompeii.

Finding Temples, Markets, and More

The temple, the market building, and the bath complex discovered by the team are also more architecturally elaborate than expected in a small town. In a southern district, just within the city walls, ground-penetrating radar revealed a large rectangular building connected to a series of water pipes leading to the aqueduct. Surprisingly, these pipes can be traced through much of Falerii Novi, running underneath its insulas (city blocks) and not just along its streets, as expected. The team believes this structure was a swimming pool or outdoor pool, part of a major complex of public baths.

An Unexpected Find

Perhaps even more unexpectedly, archaeologists identified, near the city’s northern gate, a pair of large, opposing structures within a duplex porticus (a passageway covered with a central row of columns). They don’t know any direct parallels but believe they were part of an impressive public monument and contributed to an intriguing sacred landscape on the city’s edge.

Professor Martin Millett from Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics revealed: “The astonishing level of detail which we have achieved at Falerii Novi, and the surprising features that GPR has revealed, suggest that this type of survey could transform the way archaeologists investigate urban sites, as total entities.”


GRP Technology in the Future

Millett and his colleagues have already used the GPR to probe Interamna Lirenas in Italy and, to a lesser extent, Alborough, North Yorkshire. Still, now they expect to see it deployed at much larger sites. I look forward to seeing what GRP technology could reveal in other sites, especially those in the Amazonian Rainforest and Egypt. Many ancient cities, temples, and pyramids remain buried beneath the surface, waiting for new technology to help reveal them. I believe that GRP technology is a complete game-changer in archaeology. When used with LiDAR, it creates a never-before-seen set of tools that will revolutionize archaeology as we know it.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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