Understanding Traffic in Pompeii


There is a misconception that cities in ancient societies were incomparable to the cities of today. However, cities of the past had many of the same problems that modern cities face today,  including: poverty, pollution, and even traffic. Archaeologist Eric Poehler, an assistant professor of Classics at University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote The Traffic Systems of Pompeii, which analyzes the wear and tear of the streets of Pompeii to determine the infrastructure.

Traffic in Pompeii


Pompeii left an immense archaeological record that has proven to be instrumental in understanding ancient roman cities.  Professor Poehler focused his research specifically on the the streets and road systems. In an interview with Archaeology magazine,  Poehler explained how he was able to study the traffic in Pompeii. “The most obvious features in Pompeii are wheel ruts left in the paving stones. You can easily imagine the thousands of vehicles that made them. The ruts tell us there was heavy traffic” (Conversation: Rush Hour in Pompeii in Archaeology 2008). However, Sarah Bond, an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, brings to light why studying the infrastructure and traffic systems of Pompeii is important.“The historic growth of a city’s road system is itself a reflection of the ideas, ideals, laws and people that pulsed within a community and the economy that underpinned it”( Pompeii Had Some Intense Rush Hour Traffic Too in Forbes 2017).

For instance, traffic systems  had to be put in place because in an city if there was no regulation, then there was chaos. Professor Poehler illustrated how the Roman government enforced the traffic system in Pompeii.  “They didn’t have stop signs or one-way signs. So while it’s clear traffic flow was designed by the city administration, it was actually run by the people who were involved in it–the drivers. It was their cooperation that actually kept the system going”(Conversation: Rush Hour in Pompeii in Archaeology 2008).  Two thousand years ago, governments were faced with the challenge of implementing rules that the citizens would obey.

Archaeologists can use traffic as a medium for comparing cities ancient and modern.  It is easy to  forget that transportation has always been a problem of society. In cities, old and new, thousands of people were/are asking how do I get from point A to point B the quickest?  Answering this question has been proven to be crucial in  determining the best layout of the city. By learning about how ancient cities, such as Pompeii, dealt with their own traffic problems, city planners of today can use this information to improve the urban landscape.  

The street layout of Pompeii


Additional Readings on Roman Traffic:




Bond, Sarah. “Pompeii Had Some Intense Rush Hour Traffic Too.” Forbes, 16 Oct. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2017/10/16/pompeii-had-some-intense-rush-hour-traffic-too/#7edd23127b5b.

“Conversation: Rush Hour in Pompeii.” Archaeology, vol. 61, no. 6, Nov.-Dec. 2008, archive.archaeology.org/0811/etc/conversation.html.

Picture Sources:

“Principle Streets on Pompeii.” Destruction and Re-discovery, sites.google.com/site/ad79eruption/pompeii/principal-streets. Map.

Traffic in Pompeii. University of Pennsylvania Museum, www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-embattled-driver-in-ancient-rome/.

Radiocarbon Dating Leads to a New Discovery on an Ancient Manuscript

An Indian text commonly referred to as The Bakhshali Manuscript is documented as the oldest record of the concept of zero and it was believed to be originally from the 9th century.  However, the document was recently tested at the University of Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and the results determined that The Bakhshali Manuscript is from 224-383 AD.

Radiocarbon dating is a technique used by archaeologists to determine the approximate age of an artifact and or ecofact. It measures the radioactive decay  of  carbon-14, which is found in all organic material. It is the most common and reliable absolute dating technique. Researchers were able to use radiocarbon dating on The Bakhshali Manuscript because it was made out of birch bark, an organic material. However, it was difficult to determine the true age of The Bakhshali Manuscript because the 70 page document is composed of materials from three different time periods. When the University of Oxford tested the document with their Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit they used three different samples and each sample came from a different century. One sample came from 885-993 AD, another from 680-779, and the most shocking from 224-383 AD.  There may be more information on why The Bakhshali Manuscript  comes from three different time periods but, an official report of the results have not yet been published.

The University of Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit

There is little information on how The Bakhshali Manuscript was discovered. Researchers do know that the document was found in 1881 by a farmer in Bakhshali, a small village in  Pakistan,  buried in a field. In 1902, The  Bakhshali Manuscript was transferred to The Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  Translations of the Sanskrit text on the document reveal that it was a reference book for traders on the Silk Road. The  Bakhshali Manuscript contains simple arithmetic exercises, most likely for determining profitable exchanges. It are these  exercises where the zeros, which are used as place holders and found as solid dots,  are located . It is a shame that there is no context recorded of the site where the manuscript was discovered and perhaps more artifacts are waiting to be found. However, there is still a lot to learn from the document itself.

The zero is found as a dot on The Bakhshali Manuscript

The  new discovery of The Bakhshali Manuscript’s true age  reveals  how cemented the idea of zero was in India. It is challenging to image a world without zero, but many cultures, especially European found it difficult to adopt this new concept.  India has had a long religious history of contemplating nothingness.  Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, believes that this is why the concept of zero might have been influenced through cultural practices. Du Sautoy stated,  “This [The Bakhshali Manuscript ] is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite.That is exciting to recognise, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs.”  The Bakhshali Manuscript is a remarkable artifact that demonstrates the interwoven relationship between complex math concepts and culture.

Additional Readings




“A Big Zero: Research Uncovers the Date of the Bakhshali Manuscript.” YouTube, University of Oxford, www.youtube.com/watch?v=pV_gXGTuWxY&feature=youtu.be.

“Carbon Dating at Oxford University Finds Bakhshali Manuscript Contains Oldest Recorded Origins of the Symbol ‘Zero’.” Fine Books, 14 Sept. 2017, www.finebooksmagazine.com/press/2017/09/carbon-dating-at-oxford-university-finds-bakhshali-manuscript-contains-oldest-recorded-origins-of-th.phtml.

Devlin, Hannah. “Much ado about nothing: ancient Indian text contains earliest zero symbol.” The Guardian, 13 Sept. 2017, www.theguardian.com/science/2017/sep/14/much-ado-about-nothing-ancient-indian-text-contains-earliest-zero-symbol.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials. London, Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Picture Sources

The Bakhshali Manuscript. media2.intoday.in/indiatoday/images/stories/zero-xl_091517122744.jpg.

The University of Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. www.arch.ox.ac.uk/rlaha.html.