I’ll tell you a secret … about cement

I wonder what Roman engineers would say if they could see their buildings, roads, aqueducts, wharves and breakwaters still standing today. Maybe something like, “Dang, I knew that concrete was good!” But in Latin, of course.

England 2012 York Wall-Micklegate
Micklegate – part of the York Wall in York, England (2012)

About 2,000 years ago, Romans invented concrete using powdered lime, water, aggregate stone and volcanic ash. Across Europe, their structures remain as a testament to its hardness and durability. In this modern age, we often assume that the ancients have nothing to teach us. Not true of Roman concrete. Turns out it is better than Portland cement, the standard for the past two centuries. In 2013, an international team of researchers discovered the secret sauce to Roman mortar. A certain mixture, a certain kind of chemical reaction and a certain kind of tamping into wooden forms, produces a set harder than stone.

Not only that, the process may be more sustainable than modern-day methods. Who knew that making tons of Portland cement produces 7 percent of annual carbon monoxide emissions in the world? Not me. Read more on History.com.

I’ll be pondering the wisdom and inventiveness of the ancients this September as I trek around Rome admiring many glorious edifices clad in the arches, curves and domes much beloved by that civilization. My study abroad group will also visit Roman baths in an English city aptly named … Bath. It’s fun to begin the adventure learning about the insides of the outsides!

England 2012 York Wall-crop
Part of the medieval wall of York, England, built on top of a Roman wall (2012)

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