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.’