Thursday, April 21, 2022

How To Get There - Roads

I never gave roads much thought before. References to "The Silk Road" did not refer to a "road"; instead, it was a series of routes (and alternate routes) from one city/town to another, linking the West and the East.  I always just assumed that these were well-traveled paths. There are, however, routes that need infrastructure because the way is not easy.

One example is in areas where it is necessary to travel over wetland, for instance the Sweet Track (named for the discoverer in 1970, Joe Sweet). It allowed travelers to go from one small island at Westhay (four miles northwest of Glastonbury) over marshland to a high ridge at Shapwick to the west. Wooden posts were driven into the wet ground, and then oak planks were laid end-to-end. It allowed travelers to cover the 1.2 miles distance and stay dry. By examining the rings in the wood and comparing them to known patterns of tree rings (a technique called dendrochronology), it can be determined that the causeway was built in 3808-07 BCE. As it turns out, the Sweet Track was preceded by an even earlier system called the Post Track, which was built in 3838 BCE, which used ash planks over lime and hazel posts. This suggests a community effort to maintain the causeway over at least a couple generations. Changing climate and the drying up of some areas would have eliminated the need for some of these causeways.

The Romans were amazing road builders, and examples of their stonework can still be found throughout Europe and Great Britain. (The illustration shows a section of the Appian Way, an important Roman road in Italy.) Trade and military personnel needed to move swiftly, and the Roman Empire made sure they could. At the height of the Empire, 29 great highways led to/from the capital, helping to support the saying "All roads lead to Rome." It is estimated that 250,000 miles of roads were made and maintained, 50,000 of which were stone. Great Britain has at least 2500 miles of Roman roads. During there Roman occupation of Britain, many known pathways were paved in the Roman style. This helped passage in all weathers, since many well-worn walking routes could become muddy trails at certain times of the year.

Roman roads and timber trackways have left evidence throughout Europe. Getting from place to place over longer distances, however, required more than a smooth surface to tread. Westhay to Shapwick was easy and obvious. The Appian Way led from Rome to Brindisi in southeast Italy. What if I needed to get from Westhay to Brindisi, however? Did the Middle Ages have AAA that could create a personalized map? Let's find out tomorrow.

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