timber Roman timber trade trading

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

timber Roman timber trade trading
Some of the oak planks in situ in the foundation of the portico. Credit: Bernabei at al., 2019, CC-BY

The ancient Romans relied on long-distance timber trading to construct their empire, according to a study published December 4, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Mauro Bernabei from the National Research Council, Italy, and colleagues.

The timber requirements of ancient Rome were immense and complex, with different types of trees from various locations around the Roman Empire and beyond used for many purposes, including construction, shipbuilding and firewood. Unfortunately, the timber trade in ancient Rome is poorly understood, as little wood has been found in a state adequate for analysis. In this study, Bernabei et al successfully date and determine the origin and chronology of unusually well-preserved ancient Roman timber samples.

The twenty-four oak timber planks (Quercus species) analyzed in this study were excavated during Metro construction in Rome during 2014-2016. They formed part of a Roman portico in the gardens of via Sannio (belonging to what was once a lavishly decorated and rich property). The authors measured the tree-ring widths for each plank and ran statistical tests to determine average chronology, successfully dating thirteen of the planks.

By comparing their dated planks to Mediterranean and central European oak reference chronologies, the authors found that the oaks used for the Roman portico planks were taken from the Jura mountains in eastern France, over 1700km away. Based on the sapwood present in 8 of the thirteen samples, the authors were able to narrow the date these oaks were felled to between 40 and 60 CE and determined that the planks all came from neighboring trees. Given the timber's dimensions and the vast distance it travelled, the authors suggest that ancient Romans (or their traders) likely floated the timber down the Saône and Rhône rivers in present-day France before transporting it over the Mediterranean Sea and then up the river Tiber to Rome, though this cannot be confirmed.

The authors note that the difficulty of obtaining these planks--which were not specially sourced for an aesthetic function but used in the portico's foundations--suggests that the logistical organization of ancient Rome was considerable, and that their trade network was highly advanced.

Bernabei notes: "This study shows that in Roman times, wood from the near-natural woodlands of north-eastern France was used for construction purposes in the centre of Rome. Considering the distance, calculated to be over 1700km, the timber sizes, [and] the means of transportation with all the possible obstacles along the way, our research emphasises the importance of wood for the Romans and the powerful logistic organisation of the Roman society."


Citation: Bernabei M, Bontadi J, Rea R, Büntgen U, Tegel W (2019) Dendrochronological evidence for long-distance timber trading in the Roman Empire. PLoS ONE 14(12): e0224077. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224077

Funding: WT received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG, TE 613/3-2). UB received funding from the Czech Republic Grant Agency (17-22102s).

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Press release from the Public Library of Sciences.


Mysterious volcanic ash layer from 29,000 years ago traced to volcano in Naples

Mysterious volcanic ash layer from 29,000 years ago traced to volcano in Naples

Researchers from the University of Oxford have traced the origin of a pre-historic eruption that blanketed the Mediterranean region in ash 29,000 years ago to Naples' lesser-known volcano Campi Flegrei, located immediately to the west of the city.

Since the late 1970s scientists have identified the same pre-historic volcanic ash layer in sediment cores extracted from sites ranging across 150,000 square kilometres of the central Mediterranean. This widespread ash layer, dated at 29,000 years ago, blanketed the region and clearly indicated a large volcanic eruption. Whilst the region is well known for its many active volcanoes, such as Mount Vesuvius which famously destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD, scientists had failed to confidently match this older, far-ranging ash deposit to a specific volcano or eruption.

The research, led by Dr Paul Albert, a Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology, has now identified an ash rich-eruption deposit within the city of Naples which was produced by Campi Flegrei volcano and has a chemical composition that matches the prehistoric ash layer traced across the Mediterranean region. The work was done in partnership with international researchers, including those from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), the National Research Council in Italy, the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement in France, and the Berkeley Geochronology Centre in the USA.

"Part of the challenge of reliably attributing this major ash fall event to Campi Flegrei volcano has been that there is limited evidence for a large eruption close to the volcano," says Albert. "This is in part because a more recent large-scale eruption of the volcano buried the Naples area in a thick ash deposit, largely destroying or concealing the evidence of this older event," says Albert.

The team used a computer-based ash dispersal model to reconstruct the size of the eruption. "By linking the thickness of the ash deposits found in Naples, to those preserved in cores from across the central Mediterranean, the model was able to demonstrate and provide important constraints on the size of this large magnitude eruption," says Albert.

This research positions the timing of this previously un-reported large-scale eruption of Campi Flegrei between two well-known large-scale eruptions of the volcano, at 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, drastically reducing the reoccurrence interval of large magnitude eruptions at the volcano.

The research, published today in the journal Geology, also highlights the importance of considering ash fall events preserved well away from the volcano when reconstructing the timing and scale of past explosive eruptions. "Ash fall preserved hundreds of kilometers away from the volcano has been critical here in the identification and reconstruction of this large eruption at Campi Flegrei," says Albert.

Campi Flegrei Phlegrean Fields Naples Mediterranean Sea
I Campi Flegrei dall'Eremo dei Camaldoli. Foto di Baku, CC BY-SA 4.0

Press release from the University of Oxford