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"Stone-working across the ancient Mediterranean. Building techniques, artisans and cultural identities: a view from North Africa"

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New light on historic architecture

A closer look at established theories on how building techniques spread is poised to update our understanding of ancient architecture and promote the conservation of heritage buildings.

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Millennia ago, ancient civilisations such as the Greek, Phoenician and Roman ones practiced sophisticated stone construction techniques and influenced each other, often with the input of indigenous people. In North Africa's Maghreb region, this phenomenon manifests itself in one specific building technique today dubbed Opus Africanum. The EU-funded project SWORM investigated how these construction techniques spread around the Mediterranean basin. Historians today hypothesise that the technique originated in Palestine and Syria, making its way to Phoenician colonies such as Carthage, and remaining in use up to Roman times.To test this theory, the project worked on tracing the spread of the technique and to conduct an in-depth study of its use in ancient Morocco. It employed different geological, archaeological, anthropological and scientific methods to document local and imported building traditions, defining also architectural links between the Maghreb and the rest of the Mediterranean basin.Through these studies, the project team identified three distinct stone-working techniques, revealing a much more complex pattern of dissemination than previously thought. For example, one of these techniques may have developed independently in different places and time frames, putting in question the proposed Phoenician link. Further study also revealed that in building the Capitolium of Sala in modern-day Rabat, Opus Africanum was used not only for structural reasons but to keep costs down as well.Such a detailed analysis has revealed a more accurate tradition of Hellenistic, Punic, African and Roman building techniques, demonstrating that various cultures in the region jointly conceived a unique architectural style. Improved understanding of building materials and construction of the ancient world will bring forth novel ideas in academia and the history of architecture, in addition to reinforcing the protection of cultural heritage.


Opus Africanum, building techniques, architecture, stone-working, construction, history

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