Dr. Michael Eisenberg identifies masons' marks on a partially reconstructed column of the Roman Basilica at Hippos A. Kowalewska

Israeli Archaeologists Discover How Ancient Romans Pulled Off Their Monumental Architecture

Ikea didn’t invent the DIY diagram: Ancient stonecutters wanted credit for their efforts just like any artist, signed their work — and also marked the stone blocks with building instructions

We have long known that some of the builders in antiquity had extraordinary skills, but still don’t know how certain monumental construction projects were achieved. Now at least, though, one mystery has been put to bed: How the ancient Romans achieved efficiency in their massive construction projects, whether building roads or edifices from scratch. 

Their stonemasons carved or painted small, all-but-imperceptible instructions onto the stones themselves, explain Arleta Kowalewska and Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa’s Institute of Archaeology, in the journal Tel Aviv.

Much of their work was done in Antiochia Hippos, as the Romans called the city, set upon a hill overlooking the east of the Sea of Galilee.

“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 tells 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.”

Thus, Eisenberg and Kowalewska have shown that in this hilltop town, the practice of carving or painting masons’ marks began in the late first century and ended in the late second century. There are other places where it began earlier and ended later.

“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 adds.

Dr. Michael Eisenberg

Another block in the wall

Construction in Hippos (Sussita in Aramaic) and other towns throughout ancient Israel, Jordan and Syria and beyond was not done by laying identical, industrially manufactured bricks like we do now. Then, stone blocks had to be carved out of the bedrock individually. In Hippos, that bedrock was basalt.

And it wasn’t that one set of numbskulls whipped by overseers knocked blocks out of bedrock, then another set transported them (with or without quadrupeds), then a third set mindlessly erected walls out of identically shaped stone (ashlar) blocks. Creating stone blocks and building with them was skilled work.

Evidently, report Kowalewska and Eisenberg, the stonecutters of yore craved acknowledgement. Who doesn’t?

They also aspired to ensure that the builders would put the blocks and pieces exactly where they were supposed to go during construction. Both purposes were achieved with masons’ marks.

Some 2,000 years later, give or take a few centuries, the marks — tiny and often concealed to begin with — are barely discernible. Finding them takes eagle eyes, technology, a flashlight and an idea of where to start looking.

In fact, the marks had gone largely unremarked until Eisenberg and the team began to partially reconstruct a Roman basilica at Antiochia Hippos.

“The penny only dropped after we had already rebuilt some of the heavy basalt drums comprising the Roman basilica’s columns,” Eisenberg says. “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.”

Dr. Michael Eisenberg
Dr. Michael Eisenberg

The rub was, the drums of the columns all shared the same diameter but differed in height. So, the order of the drums had to have been planned back at the quarry: Each was marked to show where it should be placed within the column. “The piece marked ‘IIIIA’ went above ‘IIIA,’ and so on,” Eisenberg explains.

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