Deflecting Earthquakes The Way Ancient Romans Did It

A recent French study indicates that the ancient Romans may have figured out how to deal with earthquakes by simply deflecting the energy of the waves using structures that resemble metamaterials. These are materials which can manipulate waves (electromagnetic or otherwise) in ways which are normally deemed impossible, such as guiding light around an object using a special pattern.

In a 2012 study, the same researchers found that a pattern of 5 meter deep bore holes in the ground was effective at deflecting a significant part of artificially generated acoustic waves. One of the researchers, [Stéphane Brûlé], noticed on an aerial photograph of a Gallo-Roman theater near the town of Autun in central France that its pattern of pillars bore an uncanny resemblance to this earlier experiment: a series of concentric (semi) circles with the distance between the pillars (or holes) decreasing nearer the center.

Further research using archaeological data of this theater site confirmed that it did appear to match up the expected pattern if one would have aimed to design a structure that could successfully deflect the acoustic energy from an earthquake. This raises the interesting question of whether this was a deliberate design choice, or just coincidence.

Additional research on the Colosseum in Rome and various other amphitheaters did however turn up the same pattern, which makes it seem like a deliberate choice by the Roman builders over a long period of time. With this pattern apparently capable of protecting a structure from the destructive effects of the acoustic waves generated by an earthquake, the remaining question is whether they discovered this pattern over time by observing damage to buildings and decided to implement it in new buildings.

Although we’ll likely never get an answer to that question, this discovery can however lead to improvements to individual buildings today, as well as entire cities, that may protect them against earthquakes and save countless lives that way.

26 thoughts on “Deflecting Earthquakes The Way Ancient Romans Did It

    1. The one thing that people don’t know about italy are earthquakes , we have plenty of them, especially in the south.

      It was probably a trial and error way to get there but I think it’s reasonable to think they archive it for that reason.

      Depending who you ask , the roman empire lasted 200/300 years, for the empire, building innovation was the technological obesseion, like us with technology or science/research. They archived many many advancement that we are redescovering only now (floor heating?)

      1. From roughly 500 BC to roughly 500 CE, it is 1000 years (Republic and Empire). With Byzantinum, 2000 years. And people existed before Romans too.

        We are not even clear about how the pyramids in Egypt were built.

  1. It’s interesting, sure, but it’s cherry-picking data.
    Of course the observable structures are earthquake resistant. The ones that weren’t fell down millennia ago.
    Exactly the same fallacy as saying old houses were just built better. Bad buildings don’t (usually) last.

    1. I think the point is that ancient people are more capable than the whole “primitive society” trope modern man has in some kind of attempt to feeling superior. As for superior/inferior “back in the day” that’s what statistics is for demonstrating trends even if some falls at the ends of the curve.

    2. Because we actually know so little you could also reasonably suggest that this building method just wasn’t widely known. It could have been the builder’s own proprietary method or maybe other people thought their way was better. It could have also been a cost issue. It may have been more expensive to build such a resilient structure and so cheaper buildings just weren’t built as well.

  2. I’m not sure this hypothesis is more than pattern-matching. However, there was certainly genuine effort to ‘quake-proof’ structures in the ancient world and later from an engineering perspective, including using wood framing for its ductile purposes, and substituting clay for mortar, again to create elasticity – there’s an interesting set of papers published here:

    1. Yeah I agree it seems like a forgone conclusion piece. While I admire them putting in the science effort, this looks strangely reminiscent of a bleacher section or coliseum seating support where the back is taller and needs more support vs the lower height seating of the front row.

  3. Hmm, interesting that the article should show a picture of the Coliseum, a structure that has partly collapsed during an earthquake because it was partly built on a buried riverbed.

  4. Compression waves can certainly cause catastrophic sway in a structure but how many structures with this pattern are tall/ narrow enough for that to be a problem? A pyramid is pretty damn earthquake proof just from its mass and shape.
    Compression (what I assume they’re calling acoustic) waves are only half the problem with quakes. When Italy jumps over the Mediterranean plate you’re gonna get some vertical displacement that no amount of fancy wave bending posts in the ground will help.

  5. Maybe they built so many structures in so many different shapes and the ones with coincidentally beneficial shapes had a better probability of surviving all this time.

    It’s too bad they didn’t build any buildings that could reproduce.

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