Honors College Lecture Explores Ancient Builders' Lessons for Today

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
Courtesy of Kevin Hall

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy.

The retractable awnings, luxury seats and high-end concession stands found in today’s sports arenas may seem like feats of modern engineering, but similar comforts were enjoyed by Roman sports fans visiting the Colosseum throughout antiquity.  

“Many of the features that you see in the in modern-day sports arenas were at the Colosseum,” notes Kevin Hall, a university professor of civil engineering and associate dean for academics in the College of Engineering. “It had numbered gates that matched your ticket. They had a concourse and concessions. From what we understand, one of the guilds that made sails also fashioned a cloth you could pull over the arena’s more elite classes for shade.” 

Hall will explore the surprises and enduring lessons found throughout the built environment of past millennia in his public lecture, “Engineering Antiquity,” at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, in Gearhart Hall Auditorium (GEAR 26). All on campus and in the community are invited to the lecture.

The lecture will preview his Spring 2024 Honors College Signature Seminar, Engineering Antiquity. Please fill out this online interest form before attending the public lecture.

CHANGING TIMES, CONSTANT NEEDS 

While technological advances have shifted the scale and scope of civil engineering’s demands today, the basic needs of a society from its built environment — clean water, sanitation and transportation — have changed very little. For instance, Hall explains that many features of our highways today extend back to the Roman Empire.

“What you see in the built environment today is absolutely a reflection of what you could see in Roman engineering.” He notes that elements like paved roads suitable for all-weather use and cutting back vegetation to prevent ambushes remain enduring engineering feats. “Certainly, there's some legacy of the Roman road in our modern interstate system.”  

Additionally, Hall’s course will examine features of ancient construction that remain awe-inspiring today and continue to spur on engineering research.   

“In my mind, as a civil engineer, one of the miracles of Roman engineering is concrete,” he reports. Hall points to incredible structures like the Pantheon, the second-century former temple that remained the world’s largest freestanding unreinforced concrete dome for over 1,300 years.  

“It's breathtaking, not just from an engineering standpoint, but from an artistic standpoint,” Hall observes. “It's mind-boggling that they could [build] something like that. And sometimes, I still wonder if we really understand.” 

He points out that recent research is still working to better understand the chemistry behind Roman concrete — how the particular combination of volcanic ash, soil and seawater reacted to make for longstanding structures still with us today.

“It’s really exciting that we're finally starting to figure out exactly how they did it,” Hall says.

PUTTING CONSTRUCTION INTO CONTEXT 

Beyond diving into the technical aspects of ancient engineering, Hall’s lecture also aims to show audiences the need to understand the mindset from which building projects emerged. In addition to recognizing “how” these structures were constructed, it is imperative to find out “why” they were built, too.

“You cannot really understand the whys of engineering unless you understand the history behind it,” Hall adds. He notes that while it may be easy to judge past buildings and techniques from a modern viewpoint, it is only by putting engineering into its cultural context that one can truly learn from the results. 

“How did it affect that culture of that time?” Hall asks. “Can we learn lessons from that period when we pursue a technology today?”

With its focus on the technology of past civilizations within their unique cultural contexts, Hall has found the course draws students from across the disciplines in previous years.

“In my first offering of this seminar, there were 16 students and only four of which were engineers,” he recalls. “We had anthropology and history majors, and their presence added a richness to the discussion.”  

To Hall, this mixing of majors and perspectives offered real value to past engineering students in the course.

“I could see light bulbs going off over their heads,” he details. “[The engineering majors] were very much there for the technology, but there's so much more to this story than just the technology.”

ABOUT KEVIN HALL  

Kevin Hall, University Professor of civil engineering, joined the U of A faculty in 1993 and currently serves as the associate dean for Aacademics in the College of Engineering. He teaches courses related to the design and construction of roads, professional ethics and skills development, the history of civil engineering technologies and passionately promotes the fusion of engineering and the humanities. Hall is a member and past president of the University of Arkansas Teaching Academy and has received Arkansas Alumni Association Distinguished Faculty Achievement Awards for research, teaching and service. To date, he has led four study abroad tours to Italy, exploring both ancient Roman and Rrenaissance-era engineering feats and accomplishments. 

SIGNATURE SEMINARS EXPLORE DIVERSE TOPICS   

Engineering Antiquity is one of three Honors College Signature Seminars scheduled for spring 2024. Other topics to be explored include The Science, Politics and Culture of Dinosaurs — taught by Celina Suarez, an associate professor of geosciences — and Ozarks Culture — taught by Virginia Siegel, professor of practice and state folklorist of Arkansas; Joshua Youngblood, instruction and outreach unit head for the Special Collections Division in the University of Arkansas Libraries; and Jared Phillips, a teaching associate professor in the Department of History.  

Deans of each college may nominate professors to participate in this program, and those selected to teach will become Dean’s Fellows in the Honors College. 

Honors students must apply to participate, and those selected will be designated Dean’s Signature Scholars. The course application is posted online on the Signature Seminars web page. The deadline to apply is Sunday, Oct. 29.

About the Honors College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and brings together high-achieving undergraduate students and the university’s top professors to share transformative learning experiences. Each year the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman fellowships that provide $80,000 over four years, and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad grants. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth classes, and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students’ academic interests, with interdisciplinary collaborations encouraged. All Honors College graduates have engaged in mentored research.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.

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