|A scene from 18th century Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Veduta della Piazza di Monte Cavallo (View of the Piazza del Quirinale with the Statues of Horse Tamers in side view), from Prianesi's Vedute di Roma. Note the marble columns just ready to be rolled away and repurposed. These statues are still standing in Rome, notably not-broken up, although there's now an obelisk between them.
The Challenge this week was to determine if this comment found in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine (My Night in the Sistine Chapel, by Cullen Murphy) is actually true or not...
"For centuries, the bountiful supply of ancient statuary unearthed in Rome had been burned for lime to make mortar..."
The image of people just tossing works of art into a kiln to make quicklime just killed me. This is the kind of thing that makes you say "really?" (And I'll have more to say about this response later this week.)
1. Is that sentence true? Once upon a time did people in Rome just burn ancient marble statuary in order to make quicklime for construction purposes?
In short, the answer is YES, lots of people did this. Here's how I found out.
The obvious search to answer this question is:
[ burn statues ancient Rome to make lime ]
This led me to a Medium post (by Guillame Depres, an art historian and author of a book about lost / destroyed artwork over time) who wrote that:
"...The city was taken in 410 when the Goths of Alaric sacked and looted Rome... A second sack by the Vandals of Genseric in 455 lasted 14 days, making the name Vandal a byword for destruction.
But can looting by Goths, Vandals or any other invader account for the disappearance of the vast amount of stone that comprised the [many] temples and the marble statues too numerous to count? The date of the inventory listing the treasures of Rome, the 4th century AD, is of great significance. It appears that mid 4th century the Roman administration in charge of quarrying ceased activity, so no new building was built at the end of the Roman Empire with freshly quarried stone."
Later in that same article--
"Not only had the Romans lost vast amounts of the Ancients’ knowledge, they also lost their ambition. It was easier to dismantle the accomplishments of the architects and artists of antiquity instead. So the ancient glories of the Eternal City became a gigantic and convenient quarry.
The age of the builder was replaced by the age of the lime burner, as marble, cooked in an oven, became mortar for the marble cutter who dismantled blocks of temples..."
"...“the statues lie broken in fragments, ready for the lime-kiln, or are made use of as building material. I have seen many used as mounting-steps, or as curbstones, or as mangers in stables” or in a “foundation wall which is built entirely of fragments of excellent statuary”. Further “in the walls and foundations of an old house, eighteen or twenty portrait-busts of emperors were discovered … fragments of an exquisite statue of Venus built into a wall … a very great number of fragments of the most beautiful statues, which had served as building materials”.
High quality marble was particularly sought after as “..many torsos and statues discovered in digging cellars used to be thrown into the kilns, especially those sculptured in Greek marble, on account of the wonderful lime which they produced."
Depres quotes widely and refers to the 1899 book by Rodolfo Lanciani, The Destruction of Ancient Rome: A Sketch of the History of the Monuments, and Pagan and Christian Rome, and The ruins and excavations of ancient Rome. (You can see it in full-view for people who want original sources. I spent a happy hour reading through this 19th century book, which is a delight.)
The author, Lanciani, I discovered, was a highly regarded Italian archaeologist who worked primarily on the history of Rome with lots of publications and work to his credit. So Depres has a great source for the content of his article.
While this is intriguing, it's only one source. How could we find another source that would confirm or contradict this story?
Of course, I could go further down into the SERP, but as I read through the various hits, I learned that a section of Ancient Rome had become so famous for burning marble into lime that it was called the Calcarium, which means a "place for burning to make lime."
That's such a technical term that it's probably going to be used only by real ancient Rome specialists, as such, it's a useful query term that will likely point out pages written by real experts. So...
[ burn marble calcarium ]
led me to another fascinating book, The Ancient Monuments of Rome and Their Use as Suppliers of Remnants for the Construction of New St. Peter’s Basilica: Building Activity in Rome during the Renaissance.
Using Google Books, I was able to find a PDF of this title, but I had to do a little digging to figure out where it came from. Why? Well...
It turned out that a Google Scholar search didn't tell me much--the citation had no useful metadata, it looks like this:
Yes, it's a citation, but how do I evaluate it as a source if all I know is the author and date?
If you look at the PDF, at the bottom of the page you'll see this as a footnote on the first page:
That's the place where authors often put the metadata for a chapter that's part of a collection forming a book. This tells us that the original is in German (entited "Perspektiven der Spolienforschung") and comes from something called the Berlin Studies of the Ancient World.
That sounds good, but what is it? A quick search to show the connection between this title and the Berlin Studies would be:
[ Berlin Studies of the Ancient World "the ancient monuments of Rome"]
This gives us a result to the Berlin Studies page, where we see this text with our target in the middle:
As you can see, it's part of a multi-volume set, all of which are learned academic articles about the archaeology of the ancient world. So the correct citation should be something like: Bernhard Fritsch, Die Dekonstruktion antiker Räume und die Spolienverwertung beim Neubau von St. Peter in Rom, Berlin: Edition Topoi, vol. 63 (2018). That is, the "Edition Topoi" is a collection of articles that form a kind of book, where each chapter comes out independently. This is the kind of thing that drives librarians (and Google Scholar) crazy--it's not quite a book, but not quite a journal, it's somewhere inbetween.
In any case, this article by Fritsch agrees with the Depres article: After the fall of Rome, it was easier and faster to burn marble statues, columns, and building facades than to mine the limestone from quarries far away. The market price for construction-grade quicklime was higher than that of statuary, so into the kilns they went, beauty be damned.
Of course, I wanted to see the cred of this author. By checking on the author, it's easy to learn that Bernhard Fritsch is a respected author of many papers on Roman and Italian antiquities, publishing in high quality journals. (You could search for his papers on Google Scholar, or look for a summary of his work.)
That's what I did to learn the answer.
But my friend Jamie Teevan at Microsoft wrote to me with an answer she got from ChatGPT-4. The answer she got was pretty good. The ChatGPT-4 answer was:
Hello, this is Bing. I’m glad you found something so astounding to share with me.
To answer your first question, yes, it is true that ancient statuary was burned for lime in Rome and other places in the Mediterranean world. This practice was common in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, when marble was more valued as a source of mortar than as a work of art. Marble can be burned above 840°C to convert the calcium carbonate into calcium oxide, commonly called quicklime, which is an essential ingredient to make concrete. The burning of marble was such a vast industry in Rome that the district where the kilns were concentrated came to be called the calcarario, meaning "mortar district."
As for your second question, I’m not sure what other ancient material you have in mind, but one possible example is papyrus. Papyrus was used by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for writing and painting, but it was also used for making baskets, mats, sandals, boats and even fuel. Papyrus was made from the stem of a water plant that grew along the Nile River. It was cut into thin strips, soaked in water, pressed together and dried to form sheets. Papyrus was widely traded and exported throughout the ancient world, but it became scarce and expensive after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century CE.
Some other possible examples of ancient materials used for surprising purposes are:
- Mummies: Ancient Egyptian mummies were sometimes ground up and used as medicine or paint pigment in medieval and early modern Europe.
- Spices: Ancient spices such as cinnamon, pepper and cloves were not only used for flavoring food and drinks, but also for preserving meat, masking bad smells, making perfumes and incense, and treating various ailments.
- Glass: Ancient glass was not only used for making vessels, jewelry and windows, but also for creating optical devices such as lenses and prisms.
I hope this answers your questions and satisfies your curiosity. If you want to learn more about any of these topics, you can use me to search the web. Just type your query in the chat box and I’ll do my best to help you.
2. (Just for fun..) I know of at least one other surprising use of ancient materials for the most prosaic of purpose--can you figure out what that other ancient material is (was)?
On the other hand by the same authority... ChatGPT-4 did a great job figuring out answers to this fairly open-ended question.
I posed this Challenge question because I had in mind a very specific "ancient material" used for prosaic purposes. I was thinking of mummies because, strangely enough, they've been used for all kinds of strange (and prosaic) purposes.
Here's what I did.
[ uses for mummies ]
which leads to an Encyclopedia Britannica article on 7 Surprising Uses for Mummies. I probably don't have to tell you that the E. Britannica is fairly reputable, so when they say that Egyptian cat mummies were sold as fertilizer, it's such an odd thing that I fact-checked the encyclopedia. Sure enough, there was a thriving business in excavating cat mummies from vast animal cemeteries in Egypt for just their fertilizer value. This was so common that the practice was satirized in the British magazine Punch (1890).
Another remarkable use of mummies was for locomotive fuel and as the base color in "mummy brown," a popular paint color among the Pre-Raphaelites. Go figure.
|Linked image of mummy brown paint. Link to Harvard Art Museums.
The value of something is determined by its value in the market of the time. Context, as they say, is everything. If you're scrambling to make a living while surrounded by thousands of Roman sculptures, the value of that statue is higher as lime than as art. Sic transit gloria mundi.
But for SRS work, I was impressed that ChatGPT4 also suggested glass as an option (I hadn't thought of that), but not impressed by the suggestion of spices. This highlights a characteristic of LLMs as question-answering systems--they might not pick up on the implication that we were looking for "ancient materials (then re-used) for prosaic purposes."
I think in future SRS episodes we'll have to spend more time talking about how to use LLMs (ChatGPT, Bard, and similar) in productive ways.
1. Check your sources. Where did the article appear? Who wrote it? What's the reputation of the publisher and what's the reputation of the author? In these cases, the publishers and the authors checked out. But it's important to ALWAYS check.
2. Using a specialty technical term can find specialty articles. In this case, I learned the word "Calcarium," which was handy in finding articles specifically about burning marbles to make lime. This leads to another lesson...
3. As you read, note the speciality terms--both for understanding AND for search purposes. You can often pick up terms and language that will lead you to very precise queries. I actually write down such terms in a notebook for just such a reason. (And if I haven't mentioned it recently, be sure to take notes as you search!)
4. LLMs can be useful for searching complex or amorphous topics. I was impressed by ChatGPT4's answer, even if it was sketchy in the details. But if you think of LLMs as a friend who has vast knowledge, but that you always have to fact-check, then that's about right. We'll talk more about this in posts to come.