Even the ancient Romans needed instructions to build their great monuments piece by piece according to a new archaeological study, just like modern humans do when we build furniture from a box such as that manufactured by IKEA.
One of the first things one notices when closely observing some Roman columns and other works is that they are built in pieces. But each piece is not cut to be an exact copy like we have the technology to do today. Blocks during Roman times had to be cut by hand by many different quarry workers, which meant each block would be a little different. So a section of blocks cut by one worker would not fit with blocks cut by a different worker.
To differentiate between those different workers, masons’ marks were employed to let builders know which pieces go together, and just like pieces of furniture, the workers even included instruction markings letting builders know the order of construction.
During an excavation in Antiochia Hippos, a Roman city near the Sea of Galilee in Israel, Arleta Kowalewska and Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa’s Institute of Archaeology connected the dots and figured out that the Romans used this ancient instruction manual.
— Michael Eisenberg (@mayzenb) June 27, 2019
Through the study of the marks, which is published by the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, they were able to date the construction of the monuments.
“Following the research at Hippos and around the region, we realized for the first time that the marks from the quarries can be dated to the massive construction of Herod the Great, and then, tend to disappear,” Eisenberg told Haaretz.
“They appear again only within the great Pax Romana and boom of construction in the Roman East. The cities in our region needed a large-scale quarrying effort to fulfill the need for building blocks and architectural elements for the public and for monumental construction.”
“Now, archaeologists who lack datable material can use the marks to narrow down the date of a single architectural fragment and even a structure, using — with caution — the suggested dating frame,” Eisenberg said.
Of course, these marks would remain unseen had the monuments remained intact. But by looking at the disconnected pieces carefully using technology or a simple flashlight, the team were able to discern the markings, which not only served as a step by step instruction guide but also gave credit to the workers who cut the stones. Basically, each worker signed their work, forever immortalizing themselves in connection with a monument, building or road.
“The piece marked ‘IIIIA’ went above ‘IIIA,’ and so on,” Eisenberg said.
And carving out each individual piece took great skill and a lot of time, according to Kowalewska.
“Building stones start in the quarry,” she explained.
Upon cutting each stone, they had to then cut the perfect angles so that each piece would fit as tight as possible.
“Then they had to carve usable architectural elements out of it by hand,” she continued.
The pieces would then be marked and loaded for shipment to their final destination where they would be assembled precisely as the stone cutters intended.
The markings can even tell archaeologists where the stones came from and who made them.
“Marks on King Herod’s palaces and tomb are in Hebrew, indicating involvement of local stonemasons, although the buildings themselves have many Roman features,” Kowalewska said. “We managed to identify 20 different types. It is entirely possible that the quarriers couldn’t read or write, but they did know how to make their marks.”
In fact, the masons’ marks allowed the team to actually rebuild some of the pieces, which is how they made their discovery.
“The penny only dropped after we had already rebuilt some of the heavy basalt drums comprising the Roman basilica’s columns,” Eisenberg explained. “Each column had been as much as 9 meters [nearly 30 feet] tall, and was made of a pedestal, base, shaft and, finally, the capital, all made of locally quarried basalt.”
Up to now, how the Romans built their structures largely remained shrouded in mystery. But finding the marks unlocked a whole quarry full of answers and new questions.
Archaeologists can now pinpoint when a structure was built and by whom, and they can also rebuild structures using the existing instruction marks if they learn how to read them all.
“Maybe one day we will be able to reconstruct it as it really was, based on the masons’ marks,” Eisenberg concluded.
If anything, this new revelation means we have even more in common with the Romans. We already know that some of our modern wines are the same as the wine produced by the Romans and drank by Roman emperors because of grape DNA.
Now we know that they also had to follow instructions to build their empire. It just goes to show that we should always follow the instructions if we want to build something nice. Of course, that assumes all the pieces are included in the package.
See archaeologists at the site in the video shot by a drone below:
Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube