The Science and History of Ancient Roads

The History and Science of Multi-Cultural Ancient Road Building

We take our road systems for granted today, but in fact they represent the latest in thousands of years of technology, construction methods built long ago, in far flung places which needed to be connected to one another for trade, or, more sinisterly, for empire building and maintaining. Here are a few examples of the ancient roads of our collective pasts.

Belmarsh Trackway, London
The structure consisted of a timber platform or trackway found at a depth of 4.7m (about the height of a double-decker bus) beneath two meters of peat adjacent to an ancient river channel. University College London

The oldest type of prepared road yet discovered have been in the peat bogs of the United Kingdom. These are basically planked roads, made to cross wetlands, and the reason they survived as long as they have is because the marsh preserved the wood.

This trackway is called Plumstead, and at 6,000 years, it is the oldest road yet discovered. The ancient timber trackway was found in August 2009, some 14 feet beneath a peat bog near Belmarsh Prison in London. More »

Sweet Track, Somerset Levels, England
Sweet Track, Somerset Levels, England. Sheila Russell
The most famous trackway, Sweet Track is an 1800 meter-long planked road that crossed the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury, England. These planks were raised above the marsh using a set of crossed poles, which kept the road for sinking, for a while at any rate. Based on tree ring dating, Sweet Track was built during the winter of 3807 BC or the early spring of 3806 BC. More »

Abbots Way (UK)

Clapper Bridge over the Dean on Abbot's Way
Clapper Bridge over the Dean on Abbot's Way. Herby
Abbot's Way, dated to about 2000 BC, is also in the Somerset Levels in England, but it dates to over a thousand years later than Sweet Track. This track is over 2500 meters in length, and it crossed the water way between two islands.
Library of Celsus at Ephesus
Ferguson, Sarah, Library of Celsus at Ephesus (I), Ancient World Image Bank (New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2009-). Sarah Ferguson © 2009 Ancient World Image Bank

The Royal Road of the Achaemenid Dynasty of the Persian Empire connected what is today Iran with the Aegean Sea. Built by Darius the Great in the 5th century BC, the Royal Road connected the cities of Susa and Ephesus on the coast, a journey of some 93 days on foot. Archaeological evidence suggests that the roadway may have been established perhaps 500 years earlier by the Hittites. More »

Corlea Trackway (Ireland)

Corlea Trackway (Ireland)
Corlea Trackway (Ireland). milezero

The Corlea Trackway was built ca 148 BC, during the Iron Age in Europe, of massive oaken planks. Archaeologists believe that its amazing state of preservation is the result of having sunk into the bog nearly as soon as it was built. Description from Bernd Biege, About's expert to Ireland for Travelers. 

Silk Road

The Pamirs (The Roof of the World), Kyrgyzstan
The Pamirs (The Roof of the World), Kyrgyzstan. Ben Paarmann
Probably the most famous ancient road in the world is the Silk Road, reported to have been used first during the Han Dynasty of China, ca 206 BC-22 AD). The network of trails crosses Asia with some 4500 kilometers along three major routes eventually connecting the capital city of the Roman Empire (Rome, Italy), and the capital city of the Han Dynasty, (Chang'An, China).
Appian Way and Roman Ruins at Puglia, Egnazia (Italy), Sunset October 2006
Appian Way and Roman Ruins at Puglia, Egnazia (Italy), Sunset October 2006. David Epperson / Getty Images
The Romans, those great empire builders, were experts at engineering transportation networks, and beginning about 350 BC, they build a network of roads, aqueducts and bridges to make keeping their conquered cities under control, and easily accessed. More »
Pont du Gard, Roman Aqueduct, France
Pont du Gard, Roman Aqueduct, France. Karoly Lorentey
The height of Roman engineering beauty, the Pont du Gard and the Aqueduct at Nimes, built between AD 40 and 60 to cross the Gard river in France is too beautiful not to consider separately from your standard Roman Road. More »
Pompeii Street
Pompeii Street. Sam Galison
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Among the astonishingly preserved ruins were Roman city streets, winding their way through the ancient cities, providing access to its residents--and a pathway for sewage through the streets. More »
Hummingbird, Nazca Lines
Hummingbird, Nazca Lines. Abel Pardo López (cropped and enhanced)
The Nazca lines are geoglyphs, large abstract and animal images laid out into the desert of northern Peru by moving stained stones out of the way. The images are connected by a series of radial paths, and archaeologists are convinced that the drawings were part of ritual pathways used by the Nazca in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. More »
Coba Sacbeob
Coba Sacbeob. SABET sabet
Sacbeob (singular sacbe) or "white road" in the Maya language, were the network of roads that connected the disparate city centers of the ancient Maya civilization. Operating at least by the Classic Period (250-900 AD), sacbeob were part transportation, and part political tool. More »
Approach Road to Banteay Srei Temple
Approach Road to Banteay Srei Temple. Anandajoti
The Khmer Empire, a major chunk of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam between the 9th and 13th centuries AD, established a 1000-kilometer long set of roads connecting its great capital city Angkor with the pieces of its far-flung empire. Among the many materials moved along the road were metals such as iron, tin, copper and zinc and the terrifically useful salt. More »
Jacob's Ladder on the Chaco Road
Jacob's Ladder on the Chaco Road. jim_mackenzie
The Chaco Road System, built by the Anestral Puebloan (Anasazi) of the American Southwest between 1000 and 1125 AD, are a set of roads radiating out from Chaco Canyon and connecting the great houses within the canyon to those scattered outside. More »
Qoricancha Temple and the Church of Santa Domingo in Cusco Peru
Qoricancha Temple and the Church of Santa Domingo in Cusco Peru. Ed Nellis
The ceque system is a system of trails built by the Inca in the 14th century AD for the purpose of pilgrimages. The trails connect a set of shrines sacred to the Inca, including pieces of the natural and build landscape. More »
Inca Fountain on the Road to Abra Choquetacarpo
Inca Fountain on the Road to Abra Choquetacarpo. Mike & Amanda Knowles

The Inca road system, built during the 15th century AD, were quite comparable to the Romans; arguably better at it, because the 40,000 kilometer long transportation network connecting Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Ecuador crossed all kinds of environments, from mountains, where they built long switchbacks, staircases and tunnels, to marshes and wetlands, where they build causeways and bridges, to deserts, where they marked the paths with cairns. More »

Moai Along a Road on Easter Island
Scholars believe these moai were deliberately set up along the road to be visited by travelers. gregpoo

The statues of Easter Island called "moai" are justifiably famous: but what is less known is the road system built by the people of Rapa Nui to move the statues from the quarry where they were carved to their preferred locations around the island.  More »

Rest Houses and Way Stations

Dogubayazit Caravansary in Turkey
Dogubayazit Caravansary in Turkey. Charlie Phillips
Every decent road system needs places for the traveler to rest her weary head. Archaeologists have discovered the archaeological ruins of ancient motels dating to at least 2,500 years ago. Rest houses and way stations out been identified on all the great road systems of the world, including the Achaemenid Royal Road, the Roman Road, the Inca Trail, and the Silk Road. Here's a brief survey of some of the ancient roadside inns identified by archaeologists so far.