A multi-proxy Approach for the Determination of White Marbles in the Roman East

In Roman antiquity marble was considered to be a valuable building material and an expression of power. Wealth manifested itself in public building projects as well as in the private sphere through the use of differently colored marbles of various origin. In order to keep up with the enormous demand of the building industry for primarily white marble new quarries had to be opened up in the entire empire. Some of the quarries expanded their export radius while the majority supplied their regional markets.

However, depending on the quality and technological characteristics, white marble was only used selectively: Thasos and Aphrodisias were popular for sculpture, inscriptions reveal that the origin of sarcophagi was Proconnesos and Dokimeion. Ephesos and Herakleia again had large deposits that were quarried far beyond their own needs.

Very little is known about the trade networks of white marble because the systematic determination of origin of well-dated objects is lacking. This is the starting point for the current project that will focus on sampling and analyzing artifacts from specifically selected sites. For this study material was illustratively selected from areas, such as Cyprus, Cilicia, and Israel because they do not have their own marble production and were dependent on imports as well as the marble-rich regions, such as Thrace, Asia Minor, and the eastern Alps. The study of two trade metropoleis in the east, Ephesos and Corinth, serve in order to establish the existence of marble trade and the transfer of technology and crafts.

In the last several decades a number of methods were developed in order to analyze the origin of white marble. The most important include the analysis of stable isotopes (O and C), EPR, the analyses of trace elements as well as the recently intensified application of the analysis of micro-inclusions in marbles. Taken alone, none of these methods have provided satisfactory results. For the purpose of this project a combination of these methods was selected with an increase of the number of the studied trace elements in order to improve the analytical basis for the determination of origin of the white marbles.

The stated aim is to determine the scope of the production but also the distribution radius of local marble industries and their workshops based on the exact analysis of origin of the marbles. Furthermore, based on these natural scientific investigations and in combination with stylistic characteristics of architecture and sculpture it is possible to examine whether workshops or artists moved in the eastern Mediterranean and whether they worked with the marbles that they were familiar with from home.

The quarries in the vicinity of Ephesos

According to the current results, the white marbles that were quarried in the area around Ephesos can be assigned to the two main groups Ephesos I and Ephesos II both associated with different quarries. Furthermore, there are quarries that cannot be linked to either of these two main groups. This includes a small quarry with light gray, very coarse-grained marble on Abu Hayat, which was specialized in the production of sarcophagi and has been verified in the ancient city of Ephesos.

A special marble with a striking structure (white with black markings) was quarried in a separate quarry about 20 km northeast of Ephesos. This variety of Ephesian marble referred to as »Greco Scritto« was apparently traded in the entire Roman Empire and has been identified in Rome, Sirmium, and Selinunte among other places.

In order to also verify the fingerprints of the Ephesian quarries in Ephesos, intensive sampling of architecture, sculpture, sarcophagi, and smaller objects was conducted in the past years. The results of the analysis are still in progress but it can be expected that they will lead to far-reaching insights on the use of marbles with specific properties, on building programs but also on the importance of the Ephesian quarries for the economic power of the city.

The villa of Armira and the marble quarries of Thrace

The Roman villa of Armira by Ivailovgrad (Bulgaria) impresses with its generous architecture and unique mosaic decor. Built in the late 1st century CE, the complex underwent numerous renovations until it was fully destroyed and abandoned in the late 4th century CE. In the early 2nd century the large peristyle courtyard of the villa was decorated with an exquisite marble furnishing consisting of a columned peristyle with a hermae barrier as well as a wall revetment subdivided by pilasters and panels with incised decoration originally highlighted in color. Soon after the publication, a debate ensued about the artistic classification and origin of the marble furnishings. Details of the craftsmanship led to the assumption that the capitals and sculptures came from Aphrodisias or that at least craftsmen from the Asia Minor stone mason center had worked in Armira. Conversely, it was also suggested, that the marble furnishings were connected with the commercial activities of the house owner which appeared to be supported by the quarries in the immediate vicinity of Armira.

Following the sampling field trip, for the first time evidence was provided that the marbles used in Armira are of local origin. The survey campaign in 2019 is intended to provide more precise identifications with the surrounding quarries.

The marble quarries in the Eastern Alps

High-quality marble quarries are also located in Carinthia, Styria, and Slovenia and were already exploited in antiquity. Two shiploads of marble blocks are of particular interest and were recovered from the bed of the River Drava and sampled in a field season in 2018. In addition to analyzing their origin, the Pörtschach marbles will be precisely investigated in order to study their use in ancient objects. Furthermore, the scientific analysis of ancient sculpture and architecture from the cities and villas of the Roman province Noricum will support further study of the supply with local marbles and the question of imports.