Scientists Map Rome's Underground Mazes to Spot Dangers

Monday, 02 Dec 2013 09:26 PM

By Amy Woods

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Roman geologists are hard at work to ensure the city that sits atop a network of passageways, tunnels, and quarries doesn't fall again.

Because Rome is now a bustling metropolis with modern structures that complement ancient ones, a collapse of the surface area could be catastrophic.

Forty-four street collapses were recorded in 2011, reported Monday. In 2012, that number jumped to 77. To date, Roman streets have buckled more than 80 times.

A strategic mapping of the underground mazes is under way by scientists from the Center for Speleoarchaeological Research and George Mason University. They are looking for high-risk areas, as well as areas that already have fallen and have been haphazardly repaired.

"The most common way is to take some big plastic bags and fill them with cement and stick them in the holes," George Mason University geoscientist Giuseppina Kysar Mattietti told LiveScience.

City officials want those shaky areas to be fixed by sealing them off and filling the voids with mortar, Mattietti said.

"What the municipality wants to do is to basically have a map of the risk so, at that point, they can on their side decide what kind of intervention needs to be done," she said.

Mattietti and the other scientists have employed 3-D scanning and laser technology to find unstable points above ground before descending below and surveying the labyrinths.

"There might be cracks, so they will be showing as veins almost, or openings, so we map the openings and map any kind of detachment," Mattietti said, noting that most of the quarries are in the southeast quadrant.

The quarries comprise volcanic rock and were instrumental in ancient Roman architecture. Back then, care was taken by miners to make the tunnels only as wide as was needed, preserving the integrity of the land above.

Future generations of quarries widened the tunnels, and more modern generations used them for such things as bomb shelters and mushroom farms.

Mattietti said few people today realize the extent of the quarries and the hazards they pose.

"Since they weren't serving any use, people tend to forget what can be a problem," she said.

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