The Wonders of Roman Concrete

Many folks have already mentioned this item at about the concrete used in Trajan’s Market … here’s the incipit:

Sandy ash produced by a volcano that erupted 456,000 years ago might have helped a huge ancient Roman complex survive intact for nearly 2,000 years despite three earthquakes, according to research presented last week in Rome.

X-ray analysis of a wall sample from the Trajan’s Market ruins in Rome showed that the mortars used by ancient Romans contained stratlingite, a mineral known to strengthen modern cements.

“It is the first time that stratlingite is recognized in ancient mortars,” Lucrezia Ungaro, the Trajan Forum archaeological chief, told Discovery News. “This is amazing, and shows the technical expertise of Roman builders.”

Including a semicircular set of halls arranged on three levels, the “Market” complex is traditionally attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, a Syrian architect who worked primarily for the Emperor Trajan. A gifted and innovative designer, Apollodorus is credited with most of the Imperial buildings, including the Forum of Trajan and Trajan’s column.

Dating to 113 A.D., the enormous complex is no longer believed to be the world’s first shopping mall, but rather a sort of “multi-functional center” with administrative buildings for Trajan, who ruled from 98 to 117 A.D.

Amazingly, the huge complex survived three devastating earthquakes — in 443 A.D., 1349 and 1703.

“Although the presence of the high-quality stratlinglite cements does not ensure protection from concrete cracking and failure from earthquake ground shaking, it shows the very well bonded nature of the wall concrete,” Marie Jackson, of Northern Arizona University’s department of history, told Discovery News.

Jackson co-authored the research with Barry Scheetz, professor of materials, civil and nuclear engineering at Pennsylvania State University, and volcanologist Fabrizio Marra of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

For those of you collecting such things, in the past we’ve noted items on Roman ‘hydraulic’ concrete and how Roman concrete was ‘greener’ than that which is generally in use today. We should also mention, which has a pile of articles on the subject.

Consular Reconstruction in Ephesus

Today’s Zaman has an interesting item:

One of the biggest ancient cities of the Mediterranean, Efes (Ephesus), is now undergoing important restoration. The marble hall of the palace-like house in which the city’s Roman consul lived in A.D. 275 has begun to be restored, putting back together 350-square-meter walls that are now broken into 120,000 pieces.

The deputy supervisor of the ongoing excavations in Efes, Sabine Ladstatter, said this method was used in Italy once before, but with such a large-scale assembly will be the first in history. Excavations have been ongoing in this city for 138 years. The hillside houses where the richest people lived are seen as the most exciting sites for excavation and restoration.

Considered to be the most important of the hillside houses, the palatial house of Gaius Flavius Furius Aptus, the city consul, is drawing attention as a focus of excavation and restoration projects. Its magnificent 178-square-meter salon, whose walls were clothed with marble, is witnessing a major restoration. The plan is to begin with the restoration of the salon’s walls.

The walls had sunk deep into the soil over time due to numerous earthquakes. The pieces of the walls have been found through the extensive excavations, which have been going on for years. Presently the there are about 120,000 pieces that are going to be used for the restoration, funded by Borusan Holding. Ladstatter said they believe those pieces constitute 90 percent of the walls. She added that they are going to use laser screening to find the proper piece to put into the proper place in the wall. “What we are going to do here now is an effort to complete a puzzle composed of 120,000 pieces,” Ladstatter summarized. The restoration is expected to cost $300,000.

I’ve been trying to figure out whether this is the so-called ‘Hillside House’ which was opened to the public some five years ago (I think it is). It was identified as belonging to a Furius Aptus, but he was apparently identified as a priest of Dionysus (not that he couldn’t also be consul, of course).

“King’s Grave” from Izmir

Another tantalizingly vague one from Hurriyet:

A king’s grave was uncovered during construction in İzmir’s Kemalpaşa district. The area has been taken under protection and İzmir Museum Directorship officers have started an inspection of the grave and its contents.

The king’s grave was found in a 211-square-meter area owned by Behçet Aktaş in Kemalpaşa’s Atatürk neighborhood. It was discovered when a construction digger struck a rock that was part of the grave during excavation work for a newly-planned building.

The landlord of the building next to the excavated area, İlker Yıldız, said they saw an empty space inside the rock, which contained ancient pieces. “After we saw the pieces we understood that the area being dug contained historic pieces and we called the gendarmerie. They stood on guard for a day until the İzmir Museum Directorship’s officers and experts arrived,” Yıldız said. He also said they collected the unearthed pieces but that the grave was still there because part of the land containing the grave was under a building and if they were to dig more the building could collapse.

The area is now protected with wires and the uncovered pieces are being cleaned and will be studied to discover the king’s identity.

It would have been nice if there was at least a hint at the date, no?

Sardonic Smile Origins

Homer is usually cited as the origin of the phrase, ‘sardonic smile’, specifically, from Odyssey 20.302 (or thereabouts):

So saying, he hurled with strong hand the hoof of an ox, taking it up from the basket where it lay. But Odysseus avoided it with a quick turn of his head, and in his heart he smiled a right grim and bitter smile; and the ox’s hoof struck the well-built wall.

Now Sardianian scientists are claiming to have discovered the plant whence was derived a drug which induced such a smile:

Sardinian scientists believe they’ve traced the roots of the ‘death-defying’ sardonic grin to a plant commonly found on the Italian island.

Greek poet Homer first used the word, an adaptation of the ancient word for Sardininan, to describe a defiant smile or laugh in the face of death.

He was believed to have coined it because of the belief that the Punic people who settled Sardinia gave condemned men a potion that made them smile before dying.

The association with Sardinia has often been disputed, but Cagliari University botanists think they’ve settled the case – and the plant in question could have beneficial properties too.

The plant, tubular water-dropwart (oenanthe fistulosa), is common in Sardinia, where it is popularly known as ‘water celery’.

”Our discovery supports what many cultural anthropologists have said about death rituals among the ancient Sardinians,” said Cagliari University Botany Department chief Mauro Ballero.

”The Punics were convinced that death was the start of new life, to be greeted with a smile,” he said.

Ballero’s team, whose work appears in the latest edition of the US Journal of Natural Products, have established that a toxic substance in the dropwart plant does, in fact, cause facial muscles to contract and produce a grimace or rictus.

The discovery could have a brighter side, he said, leading to drugs that might help certain conditions where parts of the face are paralysed.

”The good news is that the molecule in this plant may be retooled by pharmaceutical companies to have the opposite effect,” he said.

… I’ve always wondered whether the smile one sees on depictions of the Medusa are considered such a grin …

Exaentus of Agrigentum

Every so often something shows up in a scan which you never, ever expect to see … in this case, the New York Times has a review of a book called Playbooks and Checkbooks: An Introduction to the Economics of Modern Sports which includes:

The ancient Greeks even pioneered a form of the ticker-tape parade when, in 412 B.C., the Olympic running champion Exaentus of Agrigentum was driven through the streets in a chariot followed by 300 prominent citizens. Clearly, the Greeks were able practitioners of the phenomenon we now know as hype.

Actually, it was even more impressive than that. From the Perseus translation of Diodorus Siculus (13.82):

And in the Olympiad previous to the one we are discussing, namely, the Ninety-second, when Exaenetus of Acragas won the “stadion,” he was conducted into the city in a chariot and in the procession there were, not to speak of the other things, three hundred chariots each drawn by two white horses, all the chariots belonging to citizens of Acragas.

The passage comes from a long section commenting on the wealth of Acragas (modern-day Agrigento) at the time (412 B.C.). The stadion, incidentally, was (give or take) the ancient equivalent of the 200 metres. Clearly, they’re still talking about the parade …

Envisioning the Colosseum

As long as I’m in my photo file, here’s something else I meant to post from my trip to Rome — We’ve all seen your standard touristy photo of the Colosseum, to wit:


… and we are usually told that all those little arches originally had statuary in them. So, presumably, it looked something like this store front from near the Spanish Steps:


… or so it seemed to me on a very hot day when the kids were insisting on seeing what McDonalds tasted like in Italy …


I’ve got to do some photoshopping this weekend and I just remembered something I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of years now. Many of the folks reading rogueclassicism have likely been sitting in a classroom and had their teacher tell them that — even now — SPQR is written all over Rome. Usually appended to that claim is that it’s even written on the drain covers. Rarely, however, is the claim ever actually demonstrated, so as a (Re)public service, here’s a photo of a drain cover from Rome which I took a couple of years ago:


… and just to provide another example, here’s a lamppost (admittedly on the Via  dei Fori Imperiali):


… and fulfilling the scholastic rule of three (and connecting to a post at Eternally Cool), one of Rome’s many, many water taps:



Submerged Mycenean Site

A fair bit of coverage for this one … presumably there will be more after the dig commences. Here’s the incipit of the coverage via PhysOrg:

The oldest submerged town in the world is about to give up its secrets — with the help of equipment that could revolutionise underwater archaeology.

The ancient town of Pavlopetri lies in three to four metres of water just off the coast of southern Laconia in Greece. The ruins date from at least 2800 BC through to intact buildings, courtyards, streets, chamber tombs and some thirty-seven cist graves which are thought to belong to the Mycenaean period (c.1680-1180 BC). This Bronze Age phase of Greece provides the historical setting for much Ancient Greek literature and myth, including Homer’s Age of Heroes.

Underwater archaeologist Dr Jon Henderson, from The University of Nottingham, will be the first archaeologist to have official access to the site in 40 years. Despite its potential international importance no work has been carried out at the site since it was first mapped in 1968 and Dr Henderson has had to get special permission from the Greek government to examine the submerged town.

Although Mycenaean power was largely based on their control of the sea, little is known about the workings of the harbour towns of the period as archaeology to date has focused on the better known inland palaces and citadels. Pavlopetri was presumably once a thriving harbour town where the inhabitants conducted local and long distance trade throughout the Mediterranean — its sandy and well-protected bay would have been ideal for beaching Bronze Age ships. As such the site offers major new insights into the workings of Mycenaean society.

The aim of Dr Henderson’s project is to discover the history and development of Pavlopetri, find out when it was occupied, what it was used for and through a systematic study of the geomorphology of the area establish why the town disappeared under the sea.

Dr Henderson, from the Underwater Archaeology Research Centre (UARC) in the Department of Archaeology, said: “This site is of rare international archaeological importance. It is imperative that the fragile remains of this town are accurately recorded and preserved before they are lost forever. A fundamental aim of the project is to raise awareness of the importance of the site and ensure that it is ethically managed and presented to the public in a way which is sustainable and of benefit to both the development of tourism and the local community.”

The submerged buildings, courtyards, streets, tombs and graves, lie just off a sandy stretch of beach close to an area popular with holiday makers and campers. Under threat from tourism and industry the remains are being damaged by boats dragging their anchors, inquisitive snorkelers on the hunt for souvenirs and the growth of marine organisms which are also taking their toll degrading the fragile 3,500 year old walls.

The survey, in collaboration with Mr Elias Spondylis of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, will be carried out using equipment originally developed for the military and offshore oilfield market but looks set to transform underwater archaeological survey and recording.

It should be noted that there was a competing (?) project to investigate this site mentioned last year involving a group from Florida State. I’m not quite sure how that group relates to this one …

cf. … from March, 2008:

… the Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project webpage hasn’t been updated for a couple of years …

Alexander Statue from Alexandria?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to lend any credence to claims of artifacts from the period of our purview being found in Egypt. After all that Cleopatra business of a few weeks ago (about which I might blog some more items that I’ve been sitting on), we get this item from the Egyptian State Information Service:

The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Zahi Hawwas said 9/5/2009 that a Greek archeological mission under Calliope Papacosta discovered a rare statue made of white marble in Alexandria.

The 80 cm long, 23 cm wide statue has been discovered eight meters deep under the earth surface, Hawwas said.

A ribbon around the head of the statue proves that it belongs to an important person for such ribbon was used only be rulers, Hawwas added.

The facial features of the statue are much similar to that of Alexander the Great especially the nose and hair style, he said.

… so that’s the automatic spin Dr Hawass puts on it. Here’s how the story of the find was spun in the Greek Press (ANA):

The director of the Hellenic Research Institute of the Alexandrian Civilization (HRIAC) this week described a marble statue unearthed on May 4 during excavations in Shalalat Gardens of Alexandria, referring to a “a very important Hellenistic statue, very rare in terms of craftsmanship and beauty, and one that depicts a great figure of Hellenic history.”

The 80cm-tall statue was found in very good condition and retains numerous characteristics reminiscent of statues depicting Alexander the Great.

HRIAC director Kalliopi Limneou-Papakosta, an archaeologist, underlined that the statue will have to be studied further in order to draw safer conclusions as regards the identity of the figure it depicts.

The specific statue is regarded as the most important discovery made in Alexandria in recent times, and will soon be on display at the city’s archaeological museum.

The SIS version, for what it’s worth, was accompanied by this tiny photo:

Egyptian State Information Service photo

Egyptian State Information Service photo

Looks more like an athlete than an Alexander to me, but it really isn’t that great of a photo. What’s worth noting, however — perhaps as a warning — is that the area where this was found (i.e. Shalalat Gardens) is the place where some folks — most recently Andrew Chugg (video here … takes a while to download) — would place the tomb of Alexander.

Roman Mass Production?

An item/press release in Earthtimes claims:

German scientists disclosed Friday new evidence that the ancient Romans used mass-production methods to make metalwares at lesser cost, just like modern factories do. A close study of a 28-centimetre-tall bronze figure of the god Mercury made in the 2nd century AD showed it was hollow – an indication of cost cutting – and that its legs were made separately, indicating some kind of assembly line to exploit economies of scale.

Technical University of Munich scientists at the FRM-II research nuclear reactor in Garching near Munich blasted the statue with neutrons to reveal metal joins that are invisible to X-rays. Physicist Martin Mühlbauer said the neutron tomography study was done on a statue lent by Munich’s Archaeological Museum. The scientists then realized the figure had been chiselled open after casting to remove the inner mould, a crumb of which was still left inside. The opening had then been covered with bronze sheeting and the join smoothed over and made invisible. Museum chief Rupert Gebhard said, “It does suggest mass production. Having it hollow saved copper, and the fitted-on legs were stronger than if the statue had been cast in once piece.”The statue was found on a dig at Obernburg in Germany’s Main valley.

Interesting claim, but I’m not sure whether what is presented in this article on its own can really be construed as evidence of ‘mass production’ — in the absence of similar pieces to compare it to, how can one discern whether the ‘stages of production’ inferred above aren’t just the normal methods for a ‘one of’ piece? For what it’s worth, the whole idea of mass production in the Roman world is a subject of debate, as seen in this abstract for a paper at the 2007 Oxford Roman Economy Project:

Ben Russell (LMH) Mass-production in the Roman world: the evidence from stone objects

The purpose of this paper is to explore what an examination of stone objects can reveal, if anything, about ‘mass-production’ in the Roman world. By ‘mass-production’, I mean the production on a large scale of the same type of artefact using similar methods, frequently, but not always, involving the division of labour – often resulting in the mechanization of parts of the process – and the standardization of products. Amphorae, tablewares, bricks, nails and other metal objects, including coins, were all ‘mass-produced’ in the Roman world but do not allow the same fine-grained mode of analysis of the stages of their production that stone objects provide.
Stone and stone artefacts are the most permanent material vestiges of the Roman world. As traceable indicators of the distribution systems through which they were moved, traded, and redistributed as commodities, they offer an insight the mechanisms of the ancient economy, but as objects, they can act also as documents which, as Peter Rockwell has observed, describe their own manufacture.
Studies of the ‘marble trade’ in the Roman world, particularly the 1st to 3rd centuries AD, are somewhat divided on the issue of ‘mass-production’. While standardization is frequently remarked upon in the production of architectural elements – objects that were required to fit together into a larger composition, often alongside pieces from other production centres – and sarcophagi, much less emphasis has been placed on this factor in the replication of known statue types. In particular, the question of whether stone objects, notably sarcophagi and statuary, were produced primarily to stock or to order has provoked disagreement. Debate has become polarised, therefore, between those who believe in an industrial model in which centralized mass-production dominated, and ‘pro-active’ production for stock was the norm, and those who argue for small-scale, de-centralized production, where sculptors responded to the individual demands of their clientele.
This paper will argue that neither reconstruction accurately reflects reality. As John Ward-Perkins astutely noted, ‘a great deal of misunderstanding would be avoided if scholars would cease trying to squeeze into a single mould what must often have been a very wide diversity of individual practices.’