Archaeologists Map Roman Catacombs with Lasers


A monk dusts down the remains of his dead comrades in the catacombs of a Capuchin monastery in Rome. (Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Roughly 24 miles (38 kilometers) of subway tracks worm their way beneath the city of Rome. Depending on where you live (say, London or New York City), this may sound like a relatively puny public transportation system,* but there's a whole separate system of tunnels underneath the ancient city: the Roman catacombs.

There are more than 40 different catacombs beneath the Italian capital, and they cover an impressive 105 miles (170 kilometers) of the Roman underworld. Of those areas, very few are open to the public due to safety concerns. And up until recently, our knowledge of these bone-littered depths was limited to hand-drawn maps.

According to BBC News, however, Rome's hoary dead have finally succumbed to the sort of systematic techno-mapping that the rest of us have. And no, it's not Google -- not yet, anyway. A team of 10 Austrian and Italian archaeologists, architects and computer scientists just finished a three-year program to create a 3-D map of the 9-mile (15-kilometer) Saint Domitilla catacomb system.

They accomplished this through the use of laser scanners on tripods, which they moved around from location to location to take 360-degree measurements of the surrounding caves. And we're not just talking measurements or some Tron-worthy schematics. The scanners even captured color and texture -- wall paintings dating back thousands of years.

The real victory here is that we now have an amazing, digital replication of an archaeological treasure. That being said, the first person to transform this data into a "Left 4 Dead" level wins.

* Check out some cool line maps of some of the world's subway systems to give you an idea of the scale. Sadly, Rome's isn't included, but it's still pretty nifty. Tiptoe through the skulls at HowStuffWorks.com: How Archaeology Works How Lasers Work How Subways Work


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.