May 23, 2019

Roman Concrete Got Stronger with Time

“The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder can be charmingly self-deprecating. He attempted, in the 1st century A.D., to curate all ancient knowledge in his Natural History, yet he described its 37 volumes to his close friend’s son, Titus, the Emperor of Rome, as having “such inferior importance.” To Pliny, they did “not admit of the display of genius,” nor “of anything particularly pleasant in the narration, or agreeable to the reader.” But he reminded Titus of his basic challenge—that it was, “indeed, no easy task to give novelty to what is old, and authority to what is new.”

He might be pleased, then, to see an ancient technology that he himself admired taking on a modern relevance and novelty. Who, Pliny wondered, could help but be surprised at the way the Roman harbor infrastructure, made from a mix of lime and volcanic ash, overcomes entropy, “forming a barrier against the waves of the sea, becoming changed into stone the moment of its immersion, and increasing in hardness from day to day—more particularly when mixed with the cement of Cumae,” an ancient city in Naples?

The geologist and geophysicist Marie Jackson, of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, shares Pliny’s admiration for these still-standing structures, and has scoured ancient Roman texts in hopes of uncovering the recipe that makes them so durable. The goal would be to revive Roman concrete, and their building techniques, for the modern age—but, alas, her efforts were to no avail.”

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