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Rodolfo Lanciani 13 April 2007

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology,Making of the Archaeological Record , add a comment

Rodolfo Lanciani was one of the great 19th century excavators in Rome. His Forma Urbis Romae is one of the great achievements of the topographical tradition and still extremely useful today.

A worn copy of “The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome”. Photo: TMK, March 2006.

Some of the most fascinating accounts in Lanciani’s books are his first-hand descriptions of the excavations in Rome in the 19th century. Many of his observations are quite useful when working with the fragmentation of sculpture. For example, he tells us that “the five or six hundred heads discovered in my time were all, except a dozen or two, without noses” (1901: 46). He also commented that most statues found in Rome during his work were carefully hidden rather than disapprovingly disposed of. I enjoy finding such observations on context and deposition by 19th century archaeologists, even if they’re often rather more anecdotal than one could wish for.

Lanciani, R. 1901. The Destruction of Ancient Rome. New York: Arno Press.

A Hercules Divided 4 September 2006

Posted by Troels in : Ethics,Making of the Archaeological Record , 2 comments

The purchase of illicit antiquities by North American museums has received a lot of media attention recently, and deservingly so. An internal report by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles concluded that 350 ancient artefacts were purchased from dealers currently suspected of looting. This includes a third of the ‘masterpieces’ that form the core of the museum’s collections.

I’m not aware of similar reviews of other such collections, but the situtation is in many cases probably not radically different. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts followed an extremely aggressive acquisition policy right up to recently. A well-known and somewhat symbolic case is this statue of Hercules, that almost certainly was looted from Perge. One half was taken out of the country and entered the antiquities market. It ended up in Boston, jointly owned by the MFA and notorious collectors Shelby White and Leon Levy. The other half is in the Antalya Museum. Unsurprisingly, the MFA makes no mention of the fact that the statue’s lower half is in Turkey, whereas the Antalya Museum, of course, does everything possible to make visitors aware of the missing half and its whereabouts.

Upper half of statue of Hercules from Perge, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: TMK, January 2006.

Here’s the lower half, now in the Antalya Museum:

Lower half of statue of Hercules from Perge, Antalya Museum. Photo: TMK, May 2006.

Breaking the Forma Aedificii Gatesensis 21 July 2006

Posted by Troels in : Making of the Archaeological Record,Thesis Rant , 2 comments

To state that almost all extant Roman sculpture is fragmented in one way or another is fairly banal. To answer why, when and how it was broken is anything but. Differentiating between the many different ways that fragmentation of sculpture occurs has been one of the main challenges of my thesis work. There are several ways to approach this problem, and one of them is to closely interpret the archaeological context of sculptural finds. A much more expensive approach involves what we could call ‘experimental archaeology’. This involves reconstructing sculptures using the right materials, and then breaking them by different methods of destruction. Preferably, one should also try to understand the impact different surfaces make on the fragmentation of the sculptures.

One of the few, if not only, academic experiments to understand how marble breaks was done as part of Stanford’s Forma Urbis project. The paper “Carving and breaking the Forma Aedificii Gatesensis” by Marc Levoy presents their project, and has some small videos of the destruction. Another paper, “Analyzing the fragments of the Forma Aedificii Gatesensis” by Natasha Gelfand, presents an interpretation of the marble slab’s fragmentation and how this contributes to the understanding of the Forma Urbis. All very interesting. Don’t try this in your local arts museum though!

Roman Nose Job 18 November 2005

Posted by Troels in : Making of the Archaeological Record , add a comment

I have previously written a few things on here about Roman sculptor’s workshops and ancient repairs of statuary. As I was going through my photo files tonight, I came across this portrait of Septimius Severus with drillings for a ‘nose job’. This one is a modern repair though. Unlike the Prado, Madrid’s National Museum has decided to remove the modern noses of their portraits. They are likely to have a nice collection of them stacked away somewhere in their depots.

Madrid Septimius Severus
Septimius Severus in the Museo Arquelógico Nacional, Madrid. Photo: TMK, June 2005.

Also check my Stoa gallery for more photos from the museums in Madrid. I have also uploaded photos from Velia and Pompeii.

The Afterlife of Roman Sculpture # 3: Spolia 5 September 2005

Posted by Troels in : Late Antiquity,Making of the Archaeological Record , 2 comments

The term spolia is commonly used to refer to parts of monuments that have been re-used in later buildings. This kind of recycling was practised extensively in both the late antique and medieval periods, and has been the topic of a wide range of studies, including a recent doctoral dissertation by Maria Fabricius Hansen at the University of Aarhus, who deals primarily with the many cathedrals and churches in Rome that bear witness to the tradition of spolia, but they were used in many other parts of the Mediterranean, especially in areas where there was a tradition for monumental architecture. Often architectural elements, such as column drums (see photo), were recycled, because they had very little religious significance and were conveniently at hand.

Roman column drums reused as foundation blocks in the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth de Vaison-la-Romaine, France. Photo: TMK, September 2002.

A different use of spolia is exemplified by the Arch of Constantine. This monumental arch in the centre of Rome was adorned with reused sculpture from the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius as well as a few contemporary pieces. This kind of reuse has often been interpreted as a kind of literary quotation. In this case Constantine probably wanted to legimitize his rule by making connections to earlier emperors from Rome’s “golden age”.


On Fragmentation Theory and Some Recent Works on Iconoclasm 15 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Making of the Archaeological Record,Thesis Rant , add a comment

Two interesting works on iconoclasm appeared in 2003. One was a book-length study on The Archaeology of Religious Hatred by Eberhard Sauer, now in Edinburgh. The other was a short article in Britannia entitled ‘Iconoclasm in Roman Britain?’ by Ben Croxford, a PhD student at Cambridge.


Reading Sauer’s book when it came out was actually what drove me towards iconoclasm as a thesis topic. The book was a logical follow-up to his earlier work, The End of Paganism in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, and covered some interesting ground. He did a very good job of interpreting some archaeological cases of iconoclasm as well as including a few of the contemporary literary sources. Dating the destruction is a central concern to a study of this kind, and one that Sauer handles very well. The book’s main problem, however, is that Sauer’s survey approach is much too loose a framework for a contextual study. As I have said before, it is not a problem to find broken sculpture here and there, and then claim that it was broken by Christians. In fact, iconoclasm has often been cited as one of the main reasons why so much sculpture is lost to us today. In this way iconoclasm becomes a very convenient, loosely-defined ‘black hole’ (to borrow a phrase from Finley) in the archaeological record. So while Sauer must be applauded for writing an inspiring book, I do not believe that his approach is the way forward for the further study of ‘religious hatred’.

Ben Croxford has recently reviewed Sauer’s book, and I agree with his critique on several points, especially these (p. 142):

[Sauer] selects sites from across the Roman Empire perhaps without any real justification or deep consideration of the unique situation in each area. This is indicative of the main flaw that I would highlight about this work; it seems to be riddled with monolithic constructions, be they the phenomena of religious hatred or the identities of the image-breakers across the empire.

These are key issues when dealing with iconoclasm: Who were the image-breakers? In what contexts does iconoclasm occur? What role did religious violence play in late Roman/early Christian society? What is the larger picture? etc. To answer these questions it is needed to locate the agents and motives behind the actions that are anything but ‘monolithic’. It is here that the literary evidence comes in quite handy, although Croxford is right to point out that the accounts of early Christian authors should not be taken at face value. However, the quantity and variety of texts makes it impossible to dispose the reality of iconoclasm altogether.


The Afterlife of Roman Sculpture # 2: Treasure Hunters 11 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Making of the Archaeological Record , add a comment

Touring the museums of Turkey, the number of Roman sarcophagi on view cannot help but amaze. Of couse the great demand for them from collectors have led to widespread plundering, but even many of those in Turkish museums have been in the hands of treasure hunters. This is clear from the many sarcophagi with large holes in them, like this one in Konya:

A sarcophagus in the Konya Archaeological Museum. Photo: TMK, August 2003.

These holes were used for plundering the contents of sarcophagi, and are common sights in Turkish museums. The phenomenon can be compared to the practice in the Near East of digging holes around Roman milestones, since according to tradition they mark the location of a treasure!

The Afterlife of Roman Sculpture #1: The Lime Kiln 6 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Making of the Archaeological Record , 5 comments

The first post in a continuing series on the fate of ancient sculpture.

One of the reasons why so much ancient sculpture is lost to us today is the widespread medieval practice of burning marble into lime. This was done in kilns, that have been archaeologically documented on a number of sites. Here’s an example from Velia in southern Italy:

Lime-kiln in the ‘Augusteum’, Velia. The exact function of this monument has not been established, officially it’s known as ‘Complesso Romano dell’Insula II’. Personally, I interpret its function as related to the imperial cult, due to architectural comparisons with the Eumachia building in Pompeii, and the find of a series of imperial portraits. Photo: TMK, May 2005.

One of the best documented lime kilns has been found at the site of Crypta Balbi in Rome. This kiln was particularly large, and must have worked on a massive scale (even giving its name to the district of the city ‘Calcarario’ in the medieval period). The site is now an excellent museum, in fact it’s one of the few ‘proper’ archaeological museums in Rome. It’s also one of the few sites that have prioritized all periods, and not just the Augustan or imperial phases, as is so often the case. The (preliminary) publication has some excellent illustrations too, including this one of the operation of the lime kiln:

Crypta Balbi
An illustration of the lime kiln at Crypta Balbi. From Manacorda 2001, p. 52.

Luckily, not all sculpture suffered this cruel fate, as is apparent from any visit to a museum in Rome or elsewhere. A lot of (fragmented) sculpture in fact comes from kiln sites, since the marble pieces would be broken into smaller pieces to fit in the kiln. This procedure is illustrated here by the person in the background, who is having a go at the marble column. Such fragments and marble ‘chips’, who for some reason did not make it into the fire, are clear evidence of kiln activity.