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Roman Ruins Found in France Are Called ‘Exceptional’ (nytimes.com)
275 points by whocansay on Aug 4, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 145 comments

Some beautiful timber-framed tithe barns from the 800's survive in England.


Build with massive timbers (no nails), keep the wood dry (and watch for beetles), and your beautiful, practical structure can last many centuries.


A friend of ours recently built a large tithe barn replica (including the masterful traditional English joinery, more complex than American) in North Guilford, CT at the Dominican Sisters' convent (unfortunately, can't find it on the web anywhere), and it's truly an eighth wonder of the world (at least in the timber framing business).

(Timber-framing is my (somewhat now dormant) hobby, and also a convenient hobby-horse here. ;-)

Timber framing is beautiful and long lasting, but expensive, requiring fine workmanship and specialized skills, and more importantly, high quality wood - long, straight trees for beams.

It was more or less obliterated in the late 19th century with the arrival of inexpensive machine-made nails. Cheap nails allowed a shift from timber framing to balloon framing using 2x4 boards, using both cheaper wood and less-skilled labor. Until manufactured nails came along, nails had to be made one at a time, by hand, by a blacksmith. Nails were expensive. That's why 19th century and earlier furniture has such beautiful joinery - it was cheaper to hand-carve dovetail joints and other woodwork than it was to nail it together.

The history of architecture is a history of economics. Fascinating stuff! (None of this is meant as a knock on timber framing, btw - it's superior in every respect but cost.)

Nails were so expensive, I had heard that people would sometimes burn buildings down to recover the nails.

However, it appears this might by a myth: https://historymyths.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/revisited-myth...

All true, but my memory is that timber framing is only 20% more expensive when looking at whole-house costs. So it's not prohibitive by any means.

There's also survivorship bias here. Perhaps there were a lot of poorly made 9th century buildings and barns that didn't survive.

No, this is a little different. It's not "poorly made", it's that the technologies didn't even exist. Without nails, there wasn't a market for the other materials of the balloon-frame construction world.

I live in a neighborhood of century-old houses (my own house is either 104, 106, or 110 years old - it's unclear from the paperwork). Many of the houses in this neighborhood are in rapid decay, mostly due to inadequate foundations or inadequate maintenance. We're seeing a building boom, with developers buying up battered rentals, tearing them down, and building something new on the lot - trying to look old, but with modern construction and materials.

I wonder how the new houses will hold up in another century, relative to the sturdier of the now-old houses?

This is my theory about the amazing Victorian era bridges built before there was good theoretical understanding of how to build steel structures. All the crummy ones fell down.

Timber framed buildings that have survived are a different story, but again that's because they are the result of thousands of years of learning how to get it right.

There are an absolute ton of poorly made 9th century buildings that did not survive, which is why it makes news when one is found and ones that exist are tourist attractions.

If our ancestors were anything like us, a lot of those got torn down because the needs of the community changed.

Read How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand, for more on that subject.

English timber framing is cool and everything, but the Japanese really deserve the title for figuring out how to make more or less permanent wooden buildings a very long time ago:


I am sometimes surprised, in my research into permaculture, at how many of these problems were solved by the Japanese a thousand years ago. In food, clothing, homes, tools, the level of efficiency and sophistication in the ancient techniques is astounding.

I've often thought Japanese culture strange, but lately I tend to conclude it's because they dealt with issues centuries ago that the west has only now started to think about.

Didn't the Japanese adapt these techniques from China? AFAIK Chinese joineries are very similar, but the Japanese were best able to preserve the culture (no foreign invasion until WW2, no communism).

Would you care to share some other Japanese practices that demonstrate efficiency and sophistication?


Edinburgh Castle's great hall is like this. Though the story we were told by the guide was that it was built by shipwrights (who were the most skilled timber craftsmen in that day), and so they basically built an upside down boat frame for the ceiling. But seeing that other building makes me doubt this story!



Hammerbeam truss or roof, is the search term. There are some lovely examples.


I am thinking the Hammerbeam design was a later development of what we see in the tithe barn designs.

It's like the flying buttress before it was taken and turned inside out so that cathedrals could be built of stone.

Very interesting, thanks!

No, it's true that shipwrights were often involved in early timber framed building--there's a reason the "nave" of a church is called that.

Your comment reminds me of this, near the original Guildford (with a 'd' :-)


Although pronounced without the ’d’. Also, why have I never heard of Wanborough Grange? Will have to visit.

That's really neat, thanks for sharing.

They rather look like upside-down ships.

I wonder if anything from today will still be around in 2000 years, it is such a long time by today's standards.

The humankind progressed very slowly from the early time of Babylon (some five thousand years ago) through the time of Rome - both civilizations seem equally ancient to us. But today, even one hundred years seems an incredibly long time.

On the other hand - and somehow it is hard to believe - hundreds or thousands of years ago people were the same as now, with the individual and cultural differences from us probably being smaller than the differences that exist between us right now.

Shoot we just cracked how to make Roman Concrete that can last 2000 years being beaten by seawater. https://www.nature.com/news/seawater-is-the-secret-to-long-l...

I recall an article saying that

a) We use rebar in concrete for tensile and shear strength, which massively decreases the amount of concrete you need but shortens lifespan.

b) Our concrete sets a lot faster.

c) The specific mineral that the nature article is about, was already known. (I'm not sure if it was widely known.)

(These are the main things I remember, anyway.)

A thought just crossed my mind: can you patent rediscovered ancient technology? I mean, prior art and all... (not joking)

If there's no extant disclosure of the means to work the invention then I don't see why not. For example we could find that you got the method wrong, and thus that no prior art existed. If there's a document, stele, or something you can examine to learn how to work the invention then that would be prior art.

Recall, USA have harmonised with the other systems now on using "first to file".

However you'd have to be the inventor, so you'd need to be able to argue you'd reinvented it. In practice you could just not reveal your source and probably get away with saying you invented it.

You can certainly patent the process.

I think it is nearsighted to say that "humankind progressed very slowly" when we can't even figure out all of the wonders accomplished by our ancestors and to the precision of the way they built so many of structures that still exist today without our "modern tools" and knowledge. There were no books that survived to tell us of all the lost knowledge uncovered before us. The reason why I think our society is laying the foundation for future progress is the Internet. All knowledge aggregated and never lost in one central place. We have to still discover what was lost thousands of years before us. What could be "new" to us may have been already known common knowledge in the past? And who knows the many lost civilizations that could have been just as technically knowledgeable before us.

> There were no books that survived to tell us of all the lost knowledge uncovered before us.

Not always true. We do have surviving technical documents (reports from governors to kings) dealing with water management in Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, the specialized vocabulary in those documents is untranslatable because we don't already know the details of Mesopotamian water engineering.

Also the collective goals of humankind have changed. We can't measure past civilization "progress" on our metrics of progress today. They weren't trying to "progress" in the ways we are progressing today.

We never know what will happen in the future. Imagine if "something" happened, and no computers were built for 50 years. The Internet relies on a constant stream of replacement hardware. The information is geographically scattered and at least partially redundantly stored, but the hardware it's stored in is all pretty fragile.

> when we can't even figure out all of the wonders accomplished by our ancestors and to the precision of the way they built so many of structures that still exist today

Err, source?

There are a few surprising examples of advanced stuff (Damascus Steel for example) but almost always they are due to taking advantage of luck/sources (like Damascus Steel) rather than inherent skill or design that was "lost".

Have any examples in mind?

Societal loss of skill is well attested; Mycenaean fortresses were so impressive to the post-dark-age Greeks that they assumed the fortresses had been built by cyclopes rather than men. (Also, the Mycenaeans kept written records; their writing system was lost and the classical Greeks had to develop a new one.) And the Australians who colonised Tasmania soon lost most of the technology they'd brought with them.

Whether we today can understand how to build massive stone fortresses or make bows and arrows is a somewhat different question.

Many things will be left in 2,000 years. The Killarney Copper Mines were in use starting over 4,000 years ago, and we've found remains from that era. Think of all the tunnels and mines we've built, many with things inside.

The faces of the four presidents carved on the illegally confiscated Six Grandfathers aren't going to erode away in 2,000 years.

Watch the long-running BBC series "Time Team" to see just how much is in the ground still from the Middle Ages, Roman era, and even back to the neolithic.

Our trash heaps are the middens of the future.

> carved on the illegally confiscated Six Grandfathers

Hadn't heard of the Six Grandfathers or the confiscation thereof (other than that the entire country is built on confiscated land), but here's an interesting, if biased, article on the topic: http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/1212

> In 1884, New York City attorney Charles E. Rushmore came to the Black Hills to check on legal titles to some properties. On coming back to camp one day, he asked Bill Challis about the name of a mountain. Bill is reported to have replied:

> “Never had a name but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore.”

> With that offhand comment, the mountain known to the Sioux as Six Grandfathers became Mount Rushmore.

Time Team wasn't a BBC series, it was made by Channel 4 (one of the other main UK TV Channels)

It is however an exceptionally good show


One of my favourite episodes

Oops! Thanks for the correction.

I watched the series on YouTube.

> illegally confiscated Six Grandfathers

Odd description. Illegal according to US law, or Lakota law?

(Legality has interesting implications in war between two nations.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Rushmore#History "Originally known to the Lakota Sioux as "The Six Grandfathers" ..."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hills_Land_Claim - "The United States Court of Claims on June 13, 1979, in a 5-2 majority, decided that the 1877 Act that seized the Black Hills from the Sioux was a violation of the Fifth Amendment."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Fort_Laramie_(1868) - "On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians,[3] the United States Supreme Court ruled that the government had illegally taken the land. It upheld an award of $15.5 million for the market value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years worth of interest at 5 percent, for an additional $105 million. The Lakota Sioux, however, have refused to accept payment and instead continue to demand the return of the territory from the United States."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Sioux_Nation_... - "As of 24 August 2011 the Sioux interest on their money has compounded to over 1 billion dollars".

Possession is nine tenths of the law.

The Black Hills (a small mountain range) were ceded to the Sioux by treaty. We were all well and good with it until gold was discovered there. Then the US government stepped in, claimed the Black Hills, and forced out the Sioux (the descendants of the survivors live on the Pine Ridge Reservation southeast of the Black Hills, a stretch of land "worthless" for agriculture or valuable natural resources).

Because power, not righteousness, is the true path to victory.

Heil Hitler! /s

(Seriously, read Snyder's _Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning_ for how Hitler saw the US as a role model.)

It's not difficult to imagine an alternate history in which the nazis did a little better and the allies a little worse, in which the end result was a ceasefire and peace - which would see the allies recognise the legitimacy of the nazi state, based on, exactly, it's possessions at the time of the ceasefire.

Come to think of it, possession by the red army was exactly how eastern Europe ended up vassals to USSR after WW2.

The USSR was as bad as the Nazis, if not worse. Arguably a stalemate on the eastern front would have been better than the actual results.

It was a war started to invade a nation with whom we made a treaty (Treaty of Fort Laramie) to respect their sovereignty. So, we broke the treaty which is illegal and then we proceeded to plunder their sacred lands in the name of God and gold.

Speaking as a Catholic, I have no idea how people can break a treaty and think they're fighting for God. Isn't He traditionally called to witness that treaties will be kept sacrosanct?

Here's the relevant treaty: http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/four/ftla... .

Not one mention of God.

TREATY WITH THE OTTAWA, ETC., 1821 - http://www.kansasheritage.org/PBP/books/treaties/t_1821.html . No mention of God, outside of a "in the year of our Lord".

Treaty With The Osage, 1825 - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Treaty_With_The_Osage,_1825 only mentions "in the year of our Lord" and doesn't otherwise mention God.

Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Fort_Bridger_Treaty_of_1868 has three "year of our Lord"s but otherwise no mention of God.

Moving now toward treaties with European nations:

Jay's Treaty (1794, with Britain) - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Jay%27s_Treaty mentions God once, in a parenthetical note "If at any Time a Rupture should take place (which God forbid) between His Majesty and the United States ..." Otherwise, no mention of God.

Pinckney's_Treaty (1795, with Spain) - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Pinckney%27s_Treaty again has no mention of God.

Treaty of Tripoli (1786) - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Tripoli doesn't call on God. This is the one which (in the English text ratified by the US Senate) famously says "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." It is therefore unlikely to call on God as a witness.

Louisiana Purchase Treaty (1803, France) - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Louisiana_Purchase_Treaty . No mention of God.

Where do you get your idea that treaties traditionally call on God as a witness?

EDIT: I looked for non-US treaties, but couldn't find the text for the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle or the Treaty of Åbo, which were the first I looked for. I then chose British treaties:

Treaty of Seville ("between the Crowns of Great Britain, France, and Spain, concluded at Seville on the 9th of November, N. S. 1729") - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Seville . That one has "In the Name of the most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, three distinct Persons, and one only true God." and is made between "THEIR most Serene Majesties the King of Great Britain, the most Christian King, and the Catholic King". Otherwise, no mention of God as a witness to ensure the peace.

The closest I found was in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Peace_and_Friendship_Treaty_o... has many references to God, including "But if (which God forbid) the disputes which are composed should at any time be renewed between their said Royal Majesties". The text "God forbid" was also used in two clauses regarding what happens should a royal not having children in the line of succession, so even this isn't quite the same as a "witness that treaties will be kept sacrosanct".

The Washington Monument will be there a very long time. It's all load-bearing stone masonry, 15 feet thick at the base. It's not far above sea level, so I guess its foundations could be threatened by rising seas, but stone foundations should do just fine submerged in briny water.

Currently major repairs are done every 30 years or so "to address stone masonry deterioration mechanisms". The 2011 earthquake and hurricane did some damage. "[T]he aspect ratio and manner in which the Washington Monument was originally constructed may have rendered it uniquely vulnerable to ground motion associated with an earthquake." Quotes from https://www.nps.gov/wamo/upload/Post-Earthquake-assessment12... .

I can't project how 200 years of no maintenance will affect the building, especially as there's a difference between a building which is safe for visitors and one which is whole but unsafe.

I think it's incredibly optimistic to think that there will be people around in 2,000 years to analyze our remains. The way things are going, I can't help but to lose faith in our species.

It seems hard to imagine that humanity could be completely wiped out. Billions dying in a huge catastrophe? Maybe. Terrible survival conditions for the survivors? Possibly. Complete annihilation? Improbable.

We're quite tough at a species and now we have the technology to make even the most terrible environments survivable.

That's why I find plans to colonize Mars as a "backup" in case something terrible happens on Earth rather ridiculous. It would be incredibly difficult to make Earth more inhospitable than Mars is right now. Nuclear winter Earth would probably be paradise compared to normal Mars.

If you're worried about humanity's survival build underwater cities and bunkers in the arctic, Mars isn't worth it.

If our civilization falls, it will be difficult to rebuild. We've exhausted many of the easy to get to minerals. The conditions that let us bootstrap the industrial revolution won't exist again.

But more than that, technology improves every day. The only reason we aren't extinct now is because nuclear weapons happen to be very difficult to build. Imagine if the materials required to build them were common, and any idiot could do it with some parts from the hardware store. How long do you think the world would last?

Well who is to say the next world destroying technology will be the same? Maybe there's a reason the sky is empty.

Exhausted all the minerals? Pfft, who cares about minerals when refined alloys and other recyclable materials are all over. The parking lots of one USA town has more metal than the (few) survivors of any civilazation collapsing level event could even use.

Also, civilization existed before the industrial revolution. In fact that would be a good point to mark the start of the fall. Giving the rate of increase in pollution, overconsumption, climate and environment destruction since and before then.

We've taken concentrated deposits of minerals and scattered them widely. And exposed them to the air where they quickly corrode away into nothing useful.

Sure, digging up landfills for a handful of aluminum cans might meet the needs of a small primitive post apocalyptic town. But that's not enough to sustain an industrial revolution.

Preindustrial civilizations are nothing to aspire to. By all measurements the quality of life was abysmal and almost not worth living for the majority of the population. I'd rather our species just go extinct than endure that forever.

Ehh, try welding aluminum. I agree with you, but it ain't no walk in the park. Oil and coal seem like the real keys to industrialization. We took most of the easy stuff.

If you're worried about humanity's survival build underwater cities and bunkers in the arctic, Mars isn't worth it.

We could do both. In fact, the technology for both likely has overlap.

Oh yeah, it's not an argument against space exploration. I'm just pointing out that if your only objective is survival of the species then building autonomous bunkers on earth is probably massively more cost effective than building autonomous stations on Mars. And once the danger clears out you can start to recolonize right-away.

I think the "eggs in one basket" argument is also concerned about asteroid impacts. A large enough rock wouldn't be survivable anywhere on or beneath the Earth.

More than 99% of all species are extinct. And we are currently at an extinction rate 100-1000x the "normal" rate. I.e. we are in a mass extinction event.

But, 2000 years is nothing. Humans will be off the planet in that time and it would be really, really hard to wipe us all out in that tiny timescale.

Btw, we are not tough as a species. Trilobites are tough. Those fuckers survived 3 mass extinctions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aji2VnQFUCs&index=11&list=LL...

True. I wonder though, what the cultural and psychological impact on the Earth survivors would be... if...

  if the struggling survivors knew there was a population on Mars, living on unscathed by the disasters on Earth.

Sounds like the premise of novel.

Indeed! The plot twist is, that when the Earthers after hundreds of years rebuild their industrial base and go back Mars, the "martians" are long since dead.

> It seems hard to imagine that humanity could be completely wiped out. Billions dying in a huge catastrophe? Maybe. Terrible survival conditions for the survivors? Possibly. Complete annihilation? Improbable.

"Maybe" and "Possibly" are pretty vague. You seem to imply the odds are quite low. You list the last case as "Improbable". Do you really have any solid ground for making these judgements?

You say it seems hard to imagine. One thing that history clearly shows is that the future is always hard to imagine, and that you always have to expect the unexpected.

Even just "terrible survival conditions" contains such a vast range of possibilities, including humans I might not consider people, and itself is dwarved by terrible political and social conditions. The question isn't so much will there still be some form of two-legged entitites. Technology doesn't help here at all, to the contrary, it can be used to enforce the wiping out of all people as I understand them, and not at all to protect that. That does have to come from people; and it's not. So, the trends remaining as they are, it's curtains.

Alarmists have been warning us of impending catastrophe for thousands of years. People have feared overpopulation since Hannibal was marching the elephants over the Alps. Ministers have said for generations "this is as bad as it can get, we are doomed".

You'll have to pardon my skepticism.

Whatever people's opinions are of the dangers is independent of whatever the actual dangers are/aren't.

Two things are worth keeping in mind.

One, in real terms the human race has existed for a tiny amount of time. What we've experienced so far doesn't tell us anything definitive about what can happen.

Two, a catastrophe that wipes out humanity only needs to happen once. You don't get a second chance, and history won't be any guide if it did happen.

One, in real terms the human race has existed for a tiny amount of time.

Right, but we're talking about 2000 years in the future, so the argument is reversed: we've existed for quite a long time compared to a couple of millennia.

It's not clear to me what you're saying. 2000 more years is nothing in broad terms.

Humans almost went extinct 72,000 years ago.. look it up, kind of neat

Everything is great until it isn't. I find this "people have said that before and it wasn't true" argument to be lacking.

For one thing, having massive arsenals of nuclear weapons ready to go at a moment's notice is qualitatively different from anything in history. Global thermonuclear war wouldn't wipe out humanity, but it would wreck civilization badly enough to qualify as "doom" as I see it.

And the catastrophe came, steadily like glaciers, it had even arrived before the first person tried to describe it; and because it came so far as it is now, most people don't even see it as a catastrophe anymore. You talk like there is nothing broken, while I see very little that is not.

That same kind of doom and gloom end of the world thinking existing 2,000 years ago, it obviously exists today and guaranteed if we are around in 2,000 years it will exist then.

A quote I like that just about sums up human nature from the time of the Romans to today:

"When Jesus comes back, these crazy, greedy, capitalistic men are gonna kill him again." - Mike Tyson

That's not "human nature", that's the nature of sick people who were mistreated in some form (most of them considered benign by too many) as children or later (which is at least a better simplification than most rationalizations I hear most of the time). That that now engulfs the planet so much it is considered "human nature" kind of proves the point that we're fucked.

Look at a baby who is acknowledged and treated well, and doesn't happen to have a problem to cry about atm. That's "human nature" to me. Now skip forward to kids, that's human potential. Now skip forward to youths, and you see people with all sorts of sticks up their butts; skip to adults, you see and smell death. Yes, I'm generalizing, but I also see what I see. Something usually goes wrong very quickly, but it still goes wrong, and people call all sorts of things personalities or cultures (or even "human nature") because they're not able or willing to ask what is really going on.

If we keep building everything in glass, there won't be much ruins to look at in 2000 years.

All that will survive from our civilization is probably going to be a few motorway interchanges and perhaps some soviet-area, all-concrete monuments.

I agree, they most definitely wont be human. Some AI/bio-hack hybrid.

Probably Javascript.

The things we have today aren't as new as we like to think. The Antikythera mechanism is a clockwork calculator for astronomical phenomena from 2150 years ago. It wasn't surpassed until Babbage.

Vikings supposedly used polarity of sunlight to determine the suns position through cloud cover.

Eg https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20052-vikings-crystal....

I'm just now holding a 1996 Intel Pentium 150 MHz CPU (A80502150) with a ceramic encasement and gold-plated pins. I think it will survive for a very long time.


Every time I read about one of these discoveries I'm reminded of Zeugma[1] and the effort to save the artifacts and mosaics[2] discovered there before it was flooded. The BBC made a great documentary[3] about it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeugma,_Commagene

[2] http://cdn.sci-news.com/images/enlarge/image_2307_1e-Zeugma-...

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkluUBePzNc

I find it amazing that you can find Roman mosaics that have survived 2000 years without any significant damage but the tile installation in your bathroom barely last 10-15 years without maintenance or renovation.

In 2000 years they will still be finding Roman Ruins but nothing from the 20 + century will survive.

Modern construction, even when it uses good materials, is shit-tier, (I think) because labor's so expensive.

For a while we lived in an upper-middle-class house (at the time it was built) constructed around the time of WWI. National historic registry, the whole thing, but little reno or updating. The hardwood floors were intact but in terrible shape. Siding probably needed to be replaced. No air conditioning (Iowa, so summers hot enough for at least a month or so that you really want AC) inadequate gas heating, no insulation, etc. Point being that, even when occupied, the house experienced swings between ~55f in the winter and ~100f in the summer.

The remarkable thing? It had incredible woodwork, just... everywhere. Bannisters, fireplaces, big wooden pillars with accompanying massive trim between rooms, everywhere. The doors were all custom built, paneled, and solid wood—they'd be considered top-end luxury today. It'd cost a fortune in material to do that now, the lumber was so good, but the really crazy part? The intricate joins and such were so tight you couldn't fit a piece of paper between them. I mean perfect, despite ~100 years of temperature swings like that. Good freakin' luck finding anyone who can do that today, and if you manage it, good luck finding enough money to pay them to custom-trim an entire house that way. It'd be off-the-charts expensive.

Indeed. I live in a 1920's built Arts and Crafts style house. We had some carpentry work done a couple of years ago and the chap that did it also happened to specialise in period restoration work for the National Trust. He estimated that it would cost more to replace the downstairs oak paneling and staircase than it would to buy the house and land.

A corollary to the labour cost also seems to be a reduction in high end craft skills. Modern houses don't have the features that require high end skills as they're too expensive so there's less demand for those skills. Another anecdote: it took us ages to find a plasterer who could do the ceiling in one of the bedrooms as the cornering was so complex and most refused to quote. Eventually, one of them put us in contact with a retired gentleman who did the work (at a quite reasonable price considering). Watching him work was amazing.

The only time I recall being more impressed was, many years ago, seeing a spray painter paint a propeller as a template for the robot. It was a bit like watching dancing but to a micron (or so) tolerance. Masterful.

Please could you explain the last paragraph a little more?

Sure. For a while I worked at a company that made props for aircraft and hovercraft. We had a robot arm that painted them. This was about 20 years ago so it was fairly unusual, at least for me as an engineering student.

The problem was that the software for defining the arcs that the paint gun needed to move through was, well, a bit shit. It always produced inconsistent thicknesses.

Obviously, prior to getting the arm, the props were painted by hand. There was this one chap who was just incredible. He'd move his arm in a motion that followed the contours of the prop perfectly but at such a consistent pace that the paint was laid down beautifully. In the end they gave up with the software and just motion captured his arm movements so they could replicate it. It wasn't as good as he was but was close enough.

BTW my job there was to design jigs for a batch of Spitfire blades that they were building. Someone had commissioned new 'planes to go with some Merlins that had been found at Rolls (if I recall correctly). I worked at Dowty who had made the original blades and landing gear so we were making them from the original blueprints. Was a lot of fun.

With changing technology, I think we've actually sorta lost a lot of the early methods of construction. The world's last remaining whaling ship the Charles W Morgan, took 7 months to build in 1841 but 5 years to restore in 2008-2013 using the original shipbuilding tools and techniques (when possible).[1] I just imagine the craftspeople restoring the ship were learning the old techniques for the very first time.

Ironically, she was supposedly built to only last 25 years. That might be just an urban legend tho.

[1] https://www.newbedfordguide.com/charles-w-morgan-whaling-shi...

Another factor is the changed support system.

Story is that once upon a time you could sail a ship into Mariahamn in Åland and be able to hire someone for any position from cabin boy to captain. You can't now - those skills are much more diffuse.

Same thing with steam engines. Used to be you could find a boilermaker locally, because the demand was so high. Or farriers, or wheelwrights, or any of a large number of skills related to horse transport.

Even things like home milk delivery and cloth diaper services are harder to get now than in the 1950s, because improvements in pasteurization and disposable diapers have changed the economics.

If you want a new boiler, or want to hire a sailmaker for canvas, or decide you want to keep your own horse&carriage, you'll find it's harder to do so it now than 100 years ago. Not because we've "sorta lost" those skills but because the support infrastructure has dwindled.

For example, the ship the Götheborg is a replica of an 18th-century Swedish East Indiaman. It uses linen sails instead of hemp, as the original would have, because 1) growing hemp was banned in Sweden in the 1970s, and 2) the Hungarian weaving company they were going to use for the hemp sails went out of business in 2000. The linen sails, btw, were made in the UK.

Of course, 200 years ago it would have been much easier to order hemp sails for an East Indiaman.

> The world's last remaining whaling ship the Charles W Morgan, took 7 months to build in 1841 but 5 years to restore in 2008-2013 using the original shipbuilding tools and techniques (when possible).

I'm not sure that's great evidence.

Working with a historical artifact means you have to be more careful - it's more museum curation than construction. It's also generally slower to take something apart and rebuild it than to just put it together the first time.

I don't know if it's true but a guide at the Athens museum told us that it is not possible to match sculptures like Venus de Milo or the Caryatids. I am not sure why though. We are more advanced in everything now, but not in sculpture?

Last remaining whaling ship? Unfortunately the Japanese whaling factory ships that come done this way are very real.

Oh, I'm sorry, I should have been more specific. I meant the old school, obsolete, 19th century-type "golden age of whaling* ships, certainly not contemporary whaling.

In my mind I (rightly or not?) consider that in a different category altogether.

From what I understand, a good portion of that woodwork was built on-site as well. The fine trim carpentry and plaster work of past eras was unbelievable. In many older houses, a lot of detailed trim was made from plaster. Prior to the specialization of careers in the modern industrial era, many people dedicated their lifetime to learning these skilled trades. Today, those skills are sadly rare.

I really hope that there will be a shift back to supporting these sorts of skilled trades over the next generations. Is it too wishful to think it might happen as "industrial revolution" style jobs continue automating away and perhaps if UBI can provide a basic net? To some extent we're seeing it emerge already with "millennial artisanal X". Besides providing economic opportunities, this sort of work would also help some with the spiritual malaise which will no doubt continue to spread over the next century.

As software engineers we are blessed with the opportunity for depth in craft much more than most workers nowadays, but we still live a fairly nerveless existence, with the tips of our fingers being just about our only meager contact with the world while the rest of our body atrophies.

I've started learning woodworking with old hand tools, but so far it's just made me appreciate more just how skilled these old woodworkers were.

Well to be fair, most Roman stuff didn't survive, and plenty of non-steel-reinforced concrete things will last just as long as the Roman stuff.

Often times buildings are disappointingly short lived, but I think sometimes people lament it a little too much. If we need a different building there 50 years later, and we built it to last 200 years, then a lot of material and effort was wasted. There's often a lot of good that comes from knocking a building down and using the limited space for something more useful.

> and plenty of non-steel-reinforced concrete things will last just as long as the Roman stuff

Not as long as you would think. Non-reinforced concrete only lasts a few generations, whereas there are Roman concrete roads still in (mild, rural) use today.

We actually know why too. Recent science shows that Roman concrete used a slightly different formula that took much longer to set -- weeks or maybe months rather than days. They didn't know how to make fast-setting concrete like we have today. But the length of time also made the structure stronger. We could build that way, if we wanted. But we don't.

Indeed. One need only look at a few DIY sidewalk repair jobs to see what happens to unreinforced concrete in relatively short order. This article doesn't mention what the usable cure time is, but the magic of Roman cement is that it continues to get harder over centuries.[1]


Pour it thicker and it lasts one hell of a lot longer. Cheaping out on the volume is a huge part of paths breaking up.

We do for niche uses. Runways, bunkers, etc can have even 2 year curing times to make "hardened concrete", which is up to 7x stronger than the same formulation allowed to dry out instead of keeping it wet for extended curing.

Recent research on Roman concrete, particularly in constructions exposed to seawater: https://phys.org/news/2017-07-ancient-concrete-romans.html

I think you've hit the nail on the head there. Back in Roman times, there were about ~300m people in the known world. That's lots of space to settle into, with a view that you and your descendants will be there for a very long time. They built stuff to _last_, because as far as they were concerned, the Roman Empire was unbeatable, and their dynasties would go on forever.

These days, we're so crammed in where ever there are usable resources, that the moment we die, or move on, someone claims the space and adapts it to their needs. Space is at such a premium that it's illogical to lock it out as one particular usage for centuries.

This is true in cities perhaps, but there are many lonely places still.

The building (& concrete) is in the cities, not the lonely places.

A little tongue in cheek: but isn't that classic survivorship bias?

I believe you're exactly right. The Romans built much more than we can find today. Obviously most of it didn't make it through the last 2,000 years.

Except the scale, scope, and quality Roman construction techniques was unparalleled for most regions of the former Roman empire.

You've got to compare the right things.

Average Romans were probably slaves and, not sure, but probably lived in shanties that definitely don't exist.

The mosaics and stuff that survives today is likely the home of an elite, or some important Government building. So the right comparison would be to, say, Empire State Building.

Of course the luxury homes were for an elite, but forget about the "average" Roman being a slave, by definition a Roman was NOT a slave (and a slave by definition not a Roman), actually the Romans were the first to "invent" the figure of the "liberto" (freedman in English):


that - once freed - became a citizen (with some very marginal restrictions).

I think you're being a little too pedantic. When I said Roman, I meant a person living in the city of Ancient Rome. I deliberately avoided the use of the term citizen.

Sorry, if I seemed so, but one of the essential and novel parts of the political organization of Ancient Rome was the "dignity" of citizenship, that was given (with different degrees) to almost everyone, including conquered people:


Using a US analogy I think the right one would be a Plantation owners house.

When I visited Ravenna, I saw some amazing Roman-era mosaics, including an uncensored Christ undergoing baptism. The detail was absolutely spectacular.

Just a few blocks away was a medieval church built hundreds of years later. The mosaics there looked so amateurish that they looked like they were done by children.

Japan has somewhat of an answer to this: every 20 years they tear down the Ise Grand Shrine and build it up again. This allows them to retain specialized construction techniques across generations.


Bury your bathroom floor in 10' of dry dirt, and it will last almost forever.

They didn't use grout in their mosaics, which breaks down over time. Also, most bathrooms today are built on a wood subfloor which would not survive millenia.

According to various rome tours i recently did:

Those tiles aren't surface level like ours are, each spot in the mosaic is more like a rod, and it goes down a couple inches.

Not true. There may be some, but most mosaics use about 7-10mm thick stone tile. I have seen a lot of them... They last because they are covered, and the better preserved are often in dry climates. Archeological sites tend to cover them back up with a layer of gravel to protect them.

No, the pieces a mostly cubic. I dug heaps out the ground near Swindon. A big pipeline was going in and a ruined villa was near it. After a month of digging we were told to grab anything we wanted as it would be trashed in the morning. I got a few mosaic squares, a nail and a cow tooth.

To be fair, rare are the roman buildings that survived in good condition.

There are some beautiful counter examples, like for example the Rome Pantheon, but this building, being converted as a church, as been correctly maintained most of the time up to now.

Long standing (and sometimes beautiful) structures are still up because of proper maintenance, they can endure some kind of neglect for a few decades, but not a lot more. Maintenance is the key. (an even bigger example that comes to my mind is Hagia Sophia, which, in spit of being in a seismic area and being quite tall, is still standing today after ~1500 years).

As for the ruins, given the proper conditions, even your shitty bathroom can be preserved. Maybe not yours specifically, but one of the millions others like yours. Keep in mind that the Roman Empire spanned across most of southern Europe, the middle east and North Africa, that multiplies the "proper conditions" opportunities.

According to the article, you just need to burn your home down.


You use your bathroom daily (I hope!), those mosaics were protected by a think layer of dirt. So I guess the trick is to stop washing your bathroom! And of course as others mention there's a heavy survivor bias at play.

> nothing from the 20 + century will survive

Several nuclear waste containment structures are planned with that kind of lifetime. They have to be.

Their survivorship, however, is mostly designed to come from mother nature, not from craftsmanship.

This might be a good thing, even beyond cost considerations. Nowadays, if a building doesn't fall on its own, good luck tearing it down to make space for something more useful. Getting buildings registered as "historic" has become a favorite (and highly successful) tactic of the anti-development crowd.

Don't be so pessimistic! Our prisons will probably survive.

The oldest timber-frame that I have seen was in France at the Hotel-Dieu in Tonnerre, Burgundy. With 90m meters long, it's a sight: https://hoteldieudetonnerre.jimdo.com/

Such discoveries (yes, of similar or greater quality) are made so frequently in the southern parts of the Balkans / Italy that they are almost skipped in the news. Yet, when it happens in France it makes the NYT and the event is 'exceptional'.

The NYTimes didn't call them exceptional, the French Culture Ministry called them an "exceptional discovery", as did an archeologist working on the excavation.

If you read the article what makes this "exceptional" is the fact that the fires which destroyed the place actually had a preserving effect:

'The fires essentially froze in place much of the neighborhood’s architecture, including even the artifacts left behind by residents fleeing the blazes, “transforming the sector into a veritable ‘little Pompeii’ of Vienne,” according to Archeodunum.'

So no its not just any old Roman find.

A culture minister seeing a marketing opportunity for tourism likely had their office issue a press release and as stated in the article invited journalists to come to tour the site this week.

Similarly the archeologist from Archeodunum likely put out their own press release as it's good for business.

Perhaps those parts of the Balkans/Italy you mention should have their respective cultural minister to do a better job marketing their finds.

This is very likely a "lost in translation" or "false friend" moment. The French "exceptionnel" means: one of a kind, typically due to extenuating cricrumstances. (When your local bakery is closed because the baker broke his leg, the note on the window will say "fermeture exceptionnel"..

The Culture Ministery's comments are therefore quite accurate for this case, and not so much pomp.

It means the same thing in English:


I wish I could go and help at an excavation. Anyone know if there's volunteer programs?

Yeah it's called being a grad student pursuing masters in archaeology.


Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

relevance seems unclear.

Not the OP, but it's from Ozymandias, by Percy Shelley.

It's a poem inspired by some archeological discoveries in Egypt, whose main message is that no matter how vast or powerful an empire is, all that will remain---over time---are ruins, if at all.

Not entirely irrelevant; although maybe not quite in line with what this board usually discusses.

i get where it's from - i guess to me the theme is more about hubris. in the sense it was quoted here, it could apply to basically any artifact one encounters.

Perhaps the more, um, hip version speaks to you? “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” That includes you, me, emperors and empires.

i imagine that many romans could never picture an proper end to the empire (perhaps just as many modern citizens presume their own national perpetuity), but this artifact doesn't seem to embody any particular sentiment of hubris.

referencing ozymandias with respect to any old artifact seems to miss the point of the poem. imho, at least.

in a thousand years, will someone quote ozymandias whilst sifting through the ruins of a forgotten toronto housing subdivision? would it be apropos?

The Roman Empire is glorified, with some justification, as one of the greatest empires that ever existed and the source (with classic Greece) of western civilization. In a way that Toronto or Canada never will be.

Qualitative differences, sometimes matter.

Also, from what I've read, Romans were complaining that catastrophe was about to happen all the time.

I take your point – I guess not, no.

I don't get how this excavation is exceptional, compared to sites like Veleia or Barcelona with similarly buried buildings or really well preserved sites like Pompeii.

> probably the most exceptional find from the Roman era in years

Pompeii was discovered more than 200 years ago.

It's news. The clue is in the word. It is new (to us, now)

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