Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Romans - Part 2 - The Original Master Builders

I just wonder if the modern buildings that we are currently constructing will leave a similar legacy to that of the Romans. If we can make the same positive impact that the Romans made to the built environment then we will leave behind a similar positive lasting legacy for our future generations

In last week’s article I demonstrated how the Roman occupation of the UK left a lasting impression on our built environment and how the introduction of new building techniques allowed larger, bolder buildings to appear, the like of which had never been seen before in the UK. I also explained that the location of towns and cities was carefully planned to make optimum use of the natural resources available in a particular location, and how gravity was used to provide fresh flowing water into towns and cities often using lead pipes, sometimes over great distances incorporating aqueducts which made use of masonry constructed arches.  For the rich and important in Roman society their homes and other buildings became status symbols. The size of the building, the inclusion of mosaics and painted plastered walls, under floor heating and fresh running water would demonstrate how rich and powerful the occupants were. 

If you ever watch programmes such as Time Team (for those who do not know, this is a TV programme where Archaeologists, Geo-Technical Engineers and Historians have three days to unearth and re-construct a particular building/structure), you will see that there is always a great deal of excitement when they suspect they have unearthed a mosaic.  The reason for the excitement is because this will often tell the Archaeologists that they have found a significant or high status building.  Mosaics were usually constructed within floors however wall mosaics were also used.  Making an elaborate mosaic was a task that would require the skills of a master mosaic craftsman would set out the picture/design while others would complete the actual work of making the mosaic.  Small pieces of stone or clay would be used to create the image of the mosaic which would often depict a historical event, have a cultural or spiritual meaning, possibly depict an animal or even be an elaborate geometric design. Some of the best examples of Roman mosaics in the UK can be seen at Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex (see image at the beginning of this article), where Archaeologists discovered a number of elaborate mosaics which they have dated back to AD75 – 80, making them the oldest discovered mosaics in the UK. The mosaics at Fishbourne Palace provide a good insight into the skill that would have been necessary (to design and construct), remember over nearly 2000 years ago, to produce such elaborate designs.

Roman Atrium - Ephesus - Source:
Larger Roman houses were designed around a central atrium.  You can see from the image that a Roman atrium would have no roof and would therefore be open to the elements.  A recess or trough would be built into floor which would collect rainwater, which would be used for many different things including drinking and washing.  You could say that this is an early form of rainwater harvesting!, something that is becoming increasingly popular today.  Various rooms would then be designed directly off the atrium for which the amount and use of the rooms would depend on the size and status of the buildings.  Larger villas/houses would incorporate a second atrium, something referred to as a Peristylium, which would include a garden area and would also be designed to have rooms accessed directly off it.  The orientation of the building would be designed so that Peristylium would be able to catch as much sun as possible (south facing), however for comfort, in warm weather the courtyard would also incorporate trees to provide much needed shade.

Arguably, one of the most innovative ‘inventions’ that was introduced by the Romans was under floor heating.  It is staggering to believe that this would have been possible at the time however palaces, bath houses and high status buildings would often incorporate under floor heating, which was provided by a system know as a hypocaust.  A hypocaust comprised a raised floor which would typically incorporate a two foot (600mm), void underneath.  The void would be created by the stone floor surface being supported off pedestals (small columns).  Heat was then be introduced into the void by a furnace, where a person (usually a slave) would ensure that a fire was continually burning.  As the heat would built in the floor void the stones forming the floor surface would start to absorb this heat, which through conduction would eventually increase the temperature at the floor surface, this would heat the rest of the room as well as the floor. Furnaces were reasonably large and therefore took up a lot of space so the Romans usually designed these to be out of sight and therefore located them in an adjoining room.

Roman hollow box tiles - Source:
The Romans were so ingenious they even thought about ventilation!  As you would image the furnaces used for the hypocaust system would also create a lot of smoke/fumes, which needed to be directed away from the internal spaces. The Romans dealt with this by building spaces into walls, known as flues, to provide a safe path for escaping smoke and fumes.  Excavations at Ashtead Villa in Surrey revealed that the Romans used box flues to vent hypocaust systems. ‘Box-flues are hollow box-like tiles set into walls to allow hot air from an under floor hypocaust to heat the room walls' Source:

There is no doubt that Roman Architecture and Roman Engineering was well ahead of its time, evidenced by the vast array of buildings and structures that still exist today in many parts of the World.  Within this and last week’s article I have briefly discussed a small number of Roman techniques such as rainwater harvesting, the use of mortar, the use of arches, under floor heating, ventilation etc. for which although technology has developed, these are still used extensively today. I just wonder if the modern buildings that we are currently constructing will leave a similar legacy. If the earth still exists in 2000 years (a completely separate discussion!), what conclusions will the people of that time draw about us and the built environment we are creating now? If we can make the same positive impact that the Romans made to the built environment then we will leave behind a similar positive lasting legacy for our future generations.  I suspect however that very little of the World we are creating today will remain compared proportionally to the amount of Roman remains that exist today.  This really tells its own story.  If I am around in 2000 years I will be more than happy to be proved wrong! 

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