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Content archived on 2024-05-29

The Graeco-Roman marble artefacts from Syria; their archaeometric identification, archaeological and artistic background

Final Activity Report Summary - MARMOR (The Graeco-Roman Marble Artefacts from Syria. Their Archaeometric Identification, Archaeological and Artistic Background)

The question on marble artefacts’ import to Syria during Graeco-Roman times has, until fairly recently, almost never been raised and its meaning within a wider cultural context has been neglected. Marble monuments occur in numerous sites over the whole country. They are preserved in various Syrian museums, either on permanent display or in deposits and directly in archaeological sites. They are discovered in very important, strongly Hellenised cities of Graeco-Roman Syria such as Laodicea or Apamea. Others come from sites where the native Semitic element was predominant; this is for example the case of Shahba (Philippopolis), Arados or Palmyra.

It should be underlined that there were no marble sources either in Syria or in the rest of the Near East. The only locally available materials were greyish or white limestone, in some cases very fine and strongly recrystallised, sometimes confused with marble. Another stone that was locally extracted was basalt, typical for the south of Syria. Hence, marble and most other coloured stones had to be imported.

The MARMOR research project clearly proved that, contrary to the general opinion within the scientific world, marble was widely diffused in Syria to contrast the traditional sculptural and architectural materials of the region. Its symbolic and prestigious values were clear.

The multi approach investigation on marble artefacts from the Graeco-Roman period discovered in modern day Syria endeavoured to reveal patterns of cultural interactions, transmissions and exchanges in the easternmost area of the Graeco-Roman world. The important research question was to provide clear evidence for marble trade patterns in this area. During this interdisciplinary research project it was possible to investigate around 200 marble monuments from Syria. In order to accomplish the aims of this project the research followed two directions.

In terms of the implemented archaeometric approach, the most vanguard archaeometric methods were applied and the quarry sources of 200 marble artefacts were identified. The first method that was used was a petrographic study. For this purpose, small marble flakes were taken from hidden or already damaged areas of the artefacts. About 200 thin sections were thus prepared and then submitted to careful petrographic investigation. In a next step, stable isotopic ratios of carbon and oxygen were determined by mass spectrometry. Other recent and innovative technologies, such as cathodoluminescence and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), were also used to obtain the most certain and reliable results. These analyses pointed to a variety of quarry sources being used during the Graeco-Roman period in Syria including Paros and mount Pentelikon in Greece and Prokonnesos and Dokimeion in Turkey.

Moreover, in terms of the art-historical approach which was also implemented, it became possible to define Classical archetypes and establish the chronology of marble artefacts through iconographic and stylistic investigations. The monuments ranged in scale from colossal to miniature and represented the following typologies according to their function and appearance:

1. free-standing statuary and figurative groups depicting deities or mythological figures.
2. private and official portraiture.
3. relief.
4. sarcophagi and urns.
5. architectural elements.

Regarding sculpture, it was concluded that marble artefacts were imported into Syria already since the 5th century BC. Anthropomorphic sarcophagi that were exported from Paros island reached prosperous Phoenician cities of the Syro-Palestinian coast during this period. The ‘monopoly’ of Paros island since the archaic period for the export of marble artefacts to the western and eastern Mediterranean apparently continued in the Hellenistic Age.

It was evident, based on this research project, that when the Roman Empire developed a vast system of marble trade with its administrative system of distribution and extraction import into Syria increased, especially from the Hadrianic period onwards. At this time not only marble from Paros continued to be widely used, but also marbles from the expensive workshops of Athens and Dokimeion were introduced to Syria.