Ancient engineering offers lesson for modern road construction

Christine Fiori is an expert on the Inca Road, but she isn’t an archaeologist or historian. She is the associate director of Virginia Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction, where she has taught courses since 2007.

She also is active in the construction industry, consulting internationally for projects. While modern construction is the focus of her everyday world and the foundation of her professional experience, what sets Fiori apart from her peers is her research into ancient engineering.

   

Christine Fiori Christine Fiori spent years hiking the Inca Road, often covering five to 10 miles each day at high altitudes with equipment packed on donkeys and llamas.

Fiori, with support from the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., led the first detailed engineering study on the Inca Road. She spent four years studying sections of the 700-year-old passage with an international team of researchers and students.

The Inca Road runs from Quito, Ecuador, to Santiago, Chile, traversing rainforests, deserts, and mountains as it climbs from sea level to an altitude of 14,000 feet. Simple in appearance, the road was engineered to stand the test of time. It still serves as a critical connection for small villages throughout the region.

Fiori’s work offers a new understanding of how ancient engineers worked with the environment to effectively build lasting structures. The research seeks to understand the construction the Inca used, and the lessons can inform modern construction practices.

For example, modern road construction often relies on modifying the landscape by blasting through rock, which can result in landslides. Because the Inca relied on working within their environment, following the contours of the land and controlling the water flow around it, their road still stands today.

In November 2013, Fiori was a featured speaker at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Symposium on Inca Engineering, where she discussed how civil engineers can apply ancient engineering concepts. She then flew to Peru, where she provided expert commentary for the Discovery Channel’s show “Strip the City,” which is expected to air in March 2014.

Brian Kleiner, director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and the Ralph H. Bogle Jr. Professor in Industrial and Systems Engineering, said Fiori's research brings both national and international visibility to the school. 

"Her recent telecast from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., was seen by followers around the world," Kleiner said. "On a business trip myself, I watched the telecast in New York with an emeritus faculty who had traveled to Peru, and we were both duly impressed. I am admittedly proud that Dr. Fiori has made her home at Virginia Tech."

   

The 700-year-old Inca Road continues to provide a critical link between villages in South America. The 700-year-old Inca Road continues to provide a critical link between villages in South America.

Fiori’s knowledge of the road is hard won. She spent years hiking the Inca Road, often covering five to 10 miles each day at high altitudes with equipment packed on donkeys and llamas. During the trips, she took measurements, set up satellite communications, and often slept on the ground. 

While she credits many of her achievements with "being in the right place at the right time," her knowledge of building techniques and her drive to examine the engineering behind something a little out of the ordinary helped propel the project forward.

The work is spurring more formal research and publication on the road. When Fiori started her research, little published information existed on the Inca Road. She now encourages researchers in South America toward further work and publication on Incan engineering and to create opportunities for college students to get involved.

To aid in the preservation and recognition of the road, she is also working with the American Society of Civil Engineers to have the Inca Road named an engineering heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

One of the key researchers involved with Fiori’s research is Clifford J. Schexnayder, a professor emeritus from Arizona State University and Fiori’s mentor, with whom she co-authored the textbook, "Construction Management Fundamentals." Fiori and Schexnayder are designing an exhibit on the Inca Road for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Katie Gehrt at 540-231-2108.

Explore the Inca Road

    A rocky trail leads across the mountains with a hiker walking along in the distance.

The landscape is impressive along the Inca Road, which stretches from Quito, Ecuador, to Santiago, Chile. See pictures from the research team's travels in this photo gallery.

Fiori and her colleagues spent four years researching sections of the 700-year-old passage. See footage of the work in this video.

Team experiences local accommodations

    A long range view showing a village in the far distance, the road in the middle ground and horses grazing in the foreground.

While traveling the Inca Road, the research team often would spend the night in a village schoolhouse, eating a meal prepared by villagers and sleeping on the floor.

Potatoes are one of the staples of the Peruvian diet, and villagers often served them with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In fact, an estimated 99 percent of the potatoes worldwide have their origins in the Andes.

Some of the travelers also dined on another local dish, cuy, which is guinea pig.

Time for teaching

Christine Fiori is an active faculty member in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction. 

She serves as an advisor for the Constructors Consortium, a co-advisor to the Bridges to Prosperity, a faculty Fellow with the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, coaches teams from the school in regional and national competitions, and regularly leads service learning projects to developing countries.

About the Myers-Lawson School of Construction

The Myers-Lawson School of Construction is a joint venture of the College of Engineering and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies focused on interdisciplinary outreach, research, and education. 

The school is named for A. Ross Myers and John R. Lawson, II, alumni and longtime friends who are CEOs of major construction companies.

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