Less Waste During Production of Marble Slabs in Ancient Roman Imperial Period Than Today

Hall of the ancient Roman villa in Ephesus with its restored marble slabs, which have now been examined in more detail. Credit: © Sinan Ilhan

Analysis of wall decoration dating to the second century A.D. provides new insights into marble extraction and processing.

When it comes to ancient Roman imperial architecture, most people usually have a mental image of white marble statues, columns, or slabs. While it is true that many buildings and squares at that time were decorated with marble, it was frequently not white but colored marble that was employed, such as the green-veined Cipollino Verde, which was extracted on the Greek island of Euboea. Because marble was very expensive, it was often placed in thin slabs as a cladding over other, cheaper stones.

“To date, however, no actual remains of marble workshops from the Roman imperial era have been found, so little is known about marble processing during this period,” said Professor Cees Passchier of the Institute of Geosciences at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

Together with other researchers based in Mainz, Turkey, and Canada, he has now finished analyzing the marble cladding of a second century A.D. Roman villa. As the researchers detail in the online edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, they utilized special software normally used for the 3D modeling of geological structures. They discovered that the material loss during marble slab production at the time was likely lower than it is today.

One of the analyzed pairs of marble slabs, arranged in typical book-matched fashion. Credit: © Cees W. Passchier

The researchers examined, photographed, and measured 54 restored slabs of Cipollino Verde, each measuring around 1.3 square meters, which had been used to decorate the walls of a villa in ancient Ephesus on the west coast of Turkey. In view of the saw marks on one of the slabs, they were able to infer that these slabs had been cut in a water-powered sawmill, in effect using what we today know as hydraulic metal saws.

Using reconstructions based on the slab patterns, the research team was also able to conclude that a total of 40 slabs had been sawn from a single marble block weighing three to four tons. They had been subsequently mounted on the walls in the order in which they were produced and arranged in book-matched pairs side by side, producing a symmetrical pattern.

Finally, with the help of the software, the researchers created a three-dimensional model of the marble block, which in turn enabled them to draw conclusions about the material wastage during the production of the slabs.

“The slabs are about 16 millimeters thick and the gaps between them, caused by sawing and subsequent polishing, are about 8 millimeters wide. This material loss attributable to production equates to around one-third and is therefore less than the rates now commonly associated with many forms of modern marble production,” Passchier pointed out. “We can therefore conclude that marble extraction during the imperial period was remarkably efficient.”

The researchers also found that although 42 slabs had been sawn from one original marble block, two had not been fixed to the walls of the hall. “The arrangement of the slabs on the villa walls suggests these slabs were most likely broken, possibly during polishing or their subsequent transportation,” added Passchier. “This would mean that the amount lost due to breakage would be 5 percent, which would also be an astonishingly low figure.”

This small loss leads Passchier to assume that the entire marble block had been transported to Ephesus and that the slabs were then cut and polished there.

Reference: “Analysis of Cipollino Verde marble wall decoration in Ephesos, Turkey, using geological reconstruction” by Cees W. Passchier, Sebastian Wex, Sinan Ilhan, Eric de Kemp, Gül Sürmelihindi and Talip Güngör, 24 April 2021, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102992

ArchaeologyHistoryJohannes Gutenberg University MainzPopular
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  • Kathleen E King

    Fascinating. And useful. I appreciate a reminder that we today in our “modern” technologically advanced world are perhaps not quite as “superior” as we like to think. This is true in agriculture as well — and learning the effects of that may prove really painful in the near future. Perhaps our pride will indeed goeth before that precipitous fall, but in the meantime, thank you for the article and the really impressive photos of those marble slabs and their reconstructions.

  • Ry

    I wonder if instead those two slabs were used elsewhere and not actually broken at all.

  • Marg Trethewey

    To Kathleen E King’s comments that modern agricultural practices being ultimately proven to be more destructive than those of our ancestors: I must sadly agree that you are correct. For example, the modern method of spraying liquid manure onto fields instead of adding back animal waste with straw bedding matter to rebuild soil structure along with healthy bacterial content is further weakening the irreplaceable resource of productive farmland. Real estate developers are allowed, even enabled to destroy farmlands that we need now and will continue to need in future to produce the food crops we will continue to rely on. As further destruction by increased salination of soil in the American Southwest is already demonstrating, chemical fertilizers have done great harm in the name of efficiency. As both financial and ecological costs of transportation mount and the availability and safety of our food stocks are further threatened, we are only beginning to understand that these combined errors of our ways must be reversed if we are to have a future as a species. Urban sprawl is promoted by those lobbying all layers of government from municipal to national. The wealthy are addicted to their ego-flattering large residential developments, gated communities, manorial estates and country clubs. They continue to demand taxpayer subsidized road and highway networks for their Rolls Royces, Mercedes, Escalades and BMWs and the Teslas they order from Elon Musk. They already have lobbying access to the legislative bodies that shortsightedly condemn our already threatened agricultural land to development. The old adage that “money talks” should perhaps to be rewritten as “money screams and throws tantrums to get its own way” while grabbing more than its share of the commons. Overpopulation and resulting exploitation and abuse of Earth as “Planet A” cannot be solved by costly exploration of the moon and Mars as “Planet B”. The human race is facing extinction if we don’t face facts immediately as any later is already too late.

  • philip waters

    Marg Trethewey… Though of little consolation, that was perfectly put. Regards the Romans and waste. It’s hardly surprising that they were as efficiant as possible given the difficulty in extraction and transport. Current excessive waste production is in large part due to the ease with which new material can be brought into the equation. The impetus for efficiency is overwhelmed by the economic drive for short term efficacy.

  • Ashley

    It’s too bad that the author didn’t bother to tell us the modern figures for slab thickness, sawing/polishing waste, and breakage. We don’t know what to compare to!