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Motorway interchange in the NetherlandsMotorway interchange in the Netherlands A road is a paved route or passageway built to allow vehicles to travel more easily across the ground. Roads can be single-track or have a number of carriageways (lanes or roadways) for vehicles to travel along. In ancient times, roads were built as trade routes, allowing merchants to travel between the towns and cities, in, for example, the Roman or Persian empires. Because road-building was expensive, the number and quality of roads were a reflection of an empire’s wealth and power. In many parts of Europe, there are Roman roads still in use today, although they have all been resurfaced many times.

Granite road setts—still used for roads todayGranite road setts—still used for roads today

Early road-building

The first roads were little more than dirt tracks. During the Stone Age, people used pack animals such as horses or donkeys to drag heavy loads on sleds. For this, it was necessary improve the tracks’ surfaces, called paving or pavements, by making them flatter and wider so the animals could walk along them safely. By around 2000 BC, vehicles with wheels had been invented, so a new type of road was needed, with “pitched” (even) surfaces for wheels to run over smoothly. Some roads were paved with cobblestones: large rounded pebbles gathered from river beds. The stone-cutting tools invented during the Bronze Age enabled workers to cut stone more easily, so roads paved with stone, often granite slabs known as setts, became more common.

The world’s oldest paved road is thought to have been laid in Egypt between 2600 and 2200 BC. It was probably used to transport stone for the building of the pyramids.

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