The Afterlife of Roman Sculpture #1: The Lime Kiln

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.

G. Greco. 2002. Velia. La visita alla cittá. Pozzuoli.
D. Manacorda. 2001. Crypta Balbi: Archeologia e storia di un paesaggio urbano. Milan.

Join the conversation


  1. As a Cement Process Engineer inBrazil I am writing down
    a lecture (in portuguese, of course) concernig the cement history and correlated cement raw materials.

    Meanwhile, searching through Internet I got files concerning
    some pictures (Lime Kiln in Augusteum, Velia and Lime Kin
    in Crypta Balbi),which I have a great interest to include
    in my lecture.

    Therefore I will be very glad if You can help me giving any
    direction in what is necessary to do in order to get your
    permit to use the above mentioned pictures.

    Hopping to hear from you soon

    Yours Faithfully

    Ricardo Telles

  2. Dear Ricardo,

    Not that i am interested in cement, but I would just like to know if you are that very very old friend I many years found in Brazil.

    If yes please send me a few words about your where about.



  3. I am a sculptor and I’m looking to find out who was responsible for the destruction of ancient Greek sculpture. Also important to me is when this happened. Was it all done by Christians in the dark Ages, or did the Romans start the practice earlier?

  4. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (1998) describes the splits in the sculptural world because of the political chaos after the death of Alexander. The increasing poverty of Athens meant many sculptors moved abroad – to Alexandria, Rhodes and Asian cities. There, the wealthy, not the mason, dictated the style of the sculpture – battles, cults, “grotesques” which probably were later considered middlebrow artistic rubbish. Later on, the Romans developed a taste for classical Greek sculpture looting the country for statues and encouraging Greek sculptors to work in Rome.

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