The A417 resurfacing work has been going on for 2,000 years

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Archaeologists have unearthed 2,000 years of resurfacing work in the most detailed study of a highway conducted in Britain.

Archaeologists have unearthed 2,000 years of resurfacing work in the most detailed study of a highway conducted in Britain.

Excavations along the A417/A419 from Gloucester to Swindon suggest that thousands of miles of trunk road have been resurfaced up to20 times since the Romansembarked on Britain's road-building programme in the middle of the first century.

At the best-preserved point, seven miles east of Gloucester, cross-sectional digs have revealed well-preserved wheel ruts and evidence of 17 resurfacings of the road.

In a 600-page report researchers from the Oxford Archaeological Unit describe six road-use phases.

An early Roman phase, spanning the second half of the first century, in which there was good maintenance or little heavy, wheeled traffic.

A main Roman phase, lasting until AD400, during which continual heavy traffic led to eight resurfacings. Traffic would have come from the port of Gloucester carrying fish, French pottery, French and Spanish wine and olive oil, and Spanish fish sauce.

An early medieval phase - about AD400 to 1100 - in which the volume of traffic declined, leaving fewer ruts.

A medieval and early modem phase, lasting until 1800, in which increasingly frequent repairs were carried out.Substantial ruts are preserved from this period, when two-wheeled carts would have carried French wine imported via Gloucester, iron bars and millstones from the Forest of Dean, and barrels of pickled herring, dry cod and olive oil.

A 19th-century phase in which traffic, including stage coaches, became much heavier and caused huge ruts, which again have been preserved.

A 20th-century phase in which surfaces were strong enough to prevent ruts developing despite heavy use.

Archaeologists have studied seven cross-sectional excavations over four years, ahead of scheduled widening of the road, which is known today as Ermin Street and is thought to have been a vital Roman route from London to Wales. Bob Williams, assistant director of the Oxford Archaeology Unit, said: "This study has revealed how road excavations can shed important new light on Britain's economic history."

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