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:
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.