The excavations
of Ostia Antica

Quarried marbles from the Isola Sacra and the Fossa Traiana

Here, some 400 artifacts from the most important quarry pits of the Roman Empire are collected. They have been found starting from the end of the fifties of the last century in the Fossa Traiana, today's Fiumicino canal, and along its left bank. In fact, along the bank of the canal, close to the magnificent Roman port of Trajan built by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, one of the largest deposits of quarried marbles imported from the most distant provinces of the empire was found. This deposit certainly was - together with the much larger one on the Aventine Hill in Rome - a nearly inexhaustible resource of valuable material to be used to decorate the most representative monuments of the Imperial Rome.

Since the first Imperial period, colored marbles were intended to represent the greatness of Rome and its emperors who liked to show off their power and grandeur, emphasizing the subjugation of imperial provinces to Rome: in fact, stones quarried in the conquered territories were used not only for architectural purposes but also as decorative coating for walls and floors in the most prestigious buildings, such as the Imperial Fora and temples, as for example the Pantheon. Even if quarries were often in inaccessible, inhospitable and distant places – sometimes even hundreds of kilometers from the coast - heavy and precious artifacts were imported in large quantities very quickly, using strong wagons pulled by draft animals for ground transportation and lapidary vessels for sea transport.

The exhibited blocks are divided and arranged into groups according to their different qualities: there are the famous Lucullan marble from the Greek island of Teos and the brecciated Phrygian marble (or pavonazzetto) quarried in Asia Minor (today's Turkey), the variegated Peach-blossom marble, and the veined chloritic marble - more commonly known as Cipollino marble or onion-stone - from Eubea in Greece, the polychrome brecciated marble from Skyros, and the famous marble from the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea - also known as Portasanta marble -, the renowned Parian marble, that is the statuary marble par excellence, quarried in deep galleries at Marathi on the island of Paros, in the Cyclades, and the giallo antico marble (marmor Numidicum) from the ancient Numidia, as well as the precious alabastro cotognino or Egyptian alabaster (lapis alabastrites), as well as the rare serpentina moschinata (= veined/spotted [like moss] serpent) from Egypt's Eastern Desert.

Blocks intended for the production of coating plates, which are mainly those in multicolored varieties, were generally shaped in the form of a staircase and were cut using the so-called pendulum saws or multi-blade stone cutting machine driven by hydraulic force that were capable of separating different plates from the same block. White marble blocks, such as those of white statuary marble from the island of Paros, to be used as high-quality sculptural material, were left rough and were not further squared, not to lose volume needed to obtain the sculptural works. On the contrary, column shafts, as well as capitals and bases, were imported when they were already semi-finished, in order to be completed only once they had reached the construction site, to avoid possible damage to surfaces. The second reason why they were semi-finished before leaving the quarry was to lighten their weight in order to further facilitate their transport.

On almost all the artifacts, inscriptions and quarry marks are still clearly visible confirming that the control exercised by the imperial administration on the exploitation of the marble was extremely rigid and detailed. Inscriptions often bear not only the names of the consuls, useful to understand in which year those artifacts were made, but also the names of the workers who quarried marble, as well as an indication of origin from the wider marble district, and the number of production of the block. Frequently, on those blocks there were lead seals showing the image of the emperor, to attest unequivocally to the fact that those blocks were property of the emperor, to be used for architectural projects or extremely fine sculptures, strongly connected to the imperial family.