Spanish tech used in Switzerland to prove Roman shaft was a fridge

The archaeological site of Augusta Raurica outside Basel, Switzerland, has been excavated continuously for decades. It is the oldest known Roman colony on the Rhine but was never overbuilt after it was permanently disabled by earthquakes and barbarian raids in the 3rd century. Because of this, the site’s remains are extensive and in an excellent state of preservation. Today Augusta Raurica is by far the best preserved Roman city north of the Alps.

In 2013, a dig unearthed a number of stone-walled shafts. Archaeologists suspected they may have been used for cold storage. Romans would pack the space with snow and ice in the winter and add straw for insulation. Supplies stashed in the shaft could then be kept cool even when the sun was hot.

Peter-Andrew Schwarz from the University of Basel has experimented twice trying to get the refrigerator effect to work. The first time the team packed the shaft with snow, shoveling it all in in one fell swoop. This method did not work. The temperature inside the structure never even reached freezing during the winter.

The second attempt packed snow and ice into the shaft gradually, fitting ice blocks into gaps. This half-worked. The pit got cold and stayed cold until June.

Now, however, researchers plan to use methods developed by the so-called ‘nevaters’ or ice-makers on the Spanish island of Majorca. This will see Schwarz and his team placing 20–30-centimetre-thick layers of snow into the shaft. These individual layers will then be compacted down with a straw cover placed on top of each one.

“With this method, people in Majorca could keep food cool in summer before the arrival of electric fridges,” Schwarz told regional daily Basler Zeitung in 2017.

The experiment is taking place even as you read and the site is open to the public, as is its wont. Visitors will have the chance to see the pits while archaeologists work to figure out if they were used for refrigeration. The tests end on Friday.

3 thoughts on “Spanish tech used in Switzerland to prove Roman shaft was a fridge

  1. Not much different than railways filling well insulated ice houses with large blocks of ice and covering them with sawdust. Ice stayed intact during the summer and was used to cool passenger cars by sliding the blocks into holding tanks under the cars. When mobile, air was forced over the ice and cooled the interior.As it melted it was replaced at intermittent points along the route.

  2. There is a basic climatic issue that may skew the results. A deep enough hole in the ground, such as a cave, will maintain the average temperature of the area year around. There is a slight seasonal variation but it is the average annual temperature plus or minus a bit. So, if the temperature of Mammoth Cave is 54* F. that is the average annual temperature for that part of KY.

    So, the suitability of a shaft for food preservation in Roman times may be different than what it is now due to climatic changes.

    Also, it is necessary to keep a shaft covered to keep the cold air ponded in the shaft.

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