The Recycling of Building Materials in Late Antiquity: Practice and Ideology 3/9/13

The Recycling of Building Materials in Late Antiquity:
Practice and Ideology

Saturday 9th March, 10.00-4.00 pm
The Birley Room, D203,
Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK


10.00 am Coffee
I: 10.30-11.15
Managing Spolia: Legislation and Economy
Legislation and Architectural Reuse in the Roman Empire (100 BC – AD 500)
By Yuri Marano,
In his Institutes, a handbook on law written at the times of the emperor Hadrian 
(A.D. 117-138), the jurist Gaius lists the sources of Roman law and the many 
ways in which legislation might arise in the Roman world: “The laws of the Roman 
people are based upon acts, plebeian statutes, resolutions of the Senate, imperial 
enactments, edicts of those having the right to issue them, and answers given by 
jurists” (Gaius, Inst. 1.2). In fact the number and complexities of the legal texts 
from the Roman world far surpass anything we have from other ancient societies, 
and this huge body of evidence allows chance to investigate how Roman jurists 
wished to regulate public and private construction activity. In particular, this paper 
aims at exploring how Roman authorities coped with salvage and reuse of 
buildings materials, focussing on the economic and organizational aspects of this 
practice. Proceeding chronologically and exploiting legal texts, literary and 
epigraphic sources and archaeology as complimentary evidence, it will 
demonstrate how recycling has been an important feature of Roman building 
industry through the Republican and Imperial periods as a source of cheap building
 materials and a solution to problems related to the recycling and disposal of urban 
waste. At the same time, reuse will be considered as a crucial aspect of the 
general Imperial policy of exercising control over civic finances and patrimony.

Exploring the Economics of Demolition, Salvage and Re-Use in the Roman 
By Simon J. Barker, Independent Scholar,
To-date only the striking manifestations of recycling have received 
detailed attention - the re-use of large-scale architectural elements 
and reliefs, termed spolia, on the Arch of Constantine and other later 
Roman monuments, and the impact on architecture during Late Antiquity 
and the Middle Ages. Current and past debates on recycling had almost 
exclusively focused on the symbolic motivations behind the use of 
spolia. However, a primary definition of recycling purely in symbolic 
terms is no longer helpful.
It is the aim of this paper to provide an economic analysis of recycling 
through a determination of the costs and man-power required, according 
to formulae provided by 19th-century handbooks, for demolishing stone 
and marble structures, and an estimation of the quantities of material 
generated. The cost of demolition and careful recovery of materials will 
then be examined in relation to the man-power requirements for the 
production of the equivalent new material in order to provide a relative 
cost and potential savings for second-hand material.
Overall this paper will attempt to place re-use not into its 
art-historical context but rather into its economic context. It will 
demonstrate that recycling required technical proficiency and point to a 
process unrelated to decline, skill deficiency, economic hardship, or 
purely symbolic motivations. Throughout the Roman period, materials were 
re-used because they were more economical than new ones and because 
these second-hand pieces produced the desired results – even in ‘pure’ 
spolia monuments, such as the Arch of Constantine.

II: 11.30-12.15

Reuse of Roman fabric at Wearmouth and Jarrow: patronage, economics, 
technology, ideology?
By Sarah Semple, Durham University,
This paper explores the recent results from a re-assessment of the 
standing fabric of the pre-Conquest churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow. 
Considered ‘one monastery in two places’, these fragmentary, yet 
surviving structures testify to the architectural traditions of the 
early Northumbrian church. A new survey of the standing fabric combined 
with petrological examination of the stonework provides novel insights 
into the sourcing and construction of each and the varied use of 
recycled Roman stonework and architectural features at each location. 
The findings are set briefly into a wider context for the recycling and 
reuse of Roman sites and stonework in Anglo-Saxon England.

Casual, Functional and Iconic? The Roman past in Anglo-Saxon Lastingham 
… and elsewhere
Professor David Stocker, University of Leeds,
This paper briefly reviews the debate surrounding the re-use of Roman 
stonework in England; asking whether the proposed subdivision of re-use 
behaviour into ‘casual’, ‘functional’ and ‘iconic’ is still useful, and 
to suggest ways in which the topic can be developed. A second part 
reviews recent work at Lastingham (North Yorkshire) where, it is argued, 
recently identified Roman spolia may have been re-used with ‘iconic’ 
intent to mark the conversion of this landscape to Christianity.


III: 1.30-2.15

North Africa
Re-use processes in late antique North Africa: urbanism and economics.
By PD Dr. Stefan Altekamp, Institut fuer Archaeologie, Berlin,
Re-use and conversion as symptoms of urban transformation become highly 
conspicuous in late antiquity and contribute considerably to a new urban 
landscape. Traditional research conceived this changed situation chiefly 
as mere reduction, as a systemic breakdown of the classical scheme and 
not as a qualitatively new reality. Accordingly, excavation strategies 
were geared to remove testimonies of ‘decadence’ while searching for 
classical strata. The paper considers research strategies for 
alternative readings of highly biased excavation documents and 
restricted evidence.

Marbles and Spolia in Libya: Urban and Rural Churches
By Anna Leone, Durham University,
The paper considers comparatively the evidence of spolia and marble 
decoration from urban and rural churches in Late Antique Tripolitania 
and Cyrenaica. By comparing and contrasting the different contexts, the 
paper aims at identify economic issues and religious traditions.
Patronage and its impact on building forms and monumentality will be 
also considered.


IV: 2.30-3.15

Greece and Cyprus
Spolia in Cyprus in Late Antiquity
By Panayotis Panayides, PhD candidate, Durham University,
The identification of spolia in Early Christian basilicas in Cyprus 
highlights the involvement of the Church in the process but also brings 
up questions on its role in the practice of spoliation and allows 
further discussions on any possible meanings of this practice. By 
drawing focus on the architecture of two early Christian basilicas in 
Cyprus, this paper discusses that the issue of re-use was primarily 
motivated by economic forces and that the church builders valued the 
materials on the basis of their usefulness, rather than by considering 
any ideological implications arising from such re-use.

The Parastaseis: Views and Interpretations of Ancient Monuments
By Professor Helen Saradi-Mendelovici, University of Peloponnese, 
The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai is an account of monuments, 
especially statues, of Constantinople, written probably in the 8th c. 
Placed in the tradition of the Patria (accounts of local history, 
topography and legends). The Parastaseis records various superstitious 
beliefs regarding statues with a medieval literary style. Through the 
monuments the Parastaseis projects Constantinople as a Greek city, 
detached from the Roman tradition, and as a Christian city with numerous 
churches which Christianized its pagan past. The reference to iconoclast 
emperors in negative terms and the emphasis on the power of statues 
suggest that the text can be understood in the context of the 
iconoclastic controversy.

Closing Discussion
Discussant: Professor Richard Morris , University of Huddersfield, UK
Dr Matthew D Eddy
Durham University, Department of Philosophy, 50/51 Old Elvet, Durham, 
DH1 3HN, United Kingdom.  


One thought on “The Recycling of Building Materials in Late Antiquity: Practice and Ideology 3/9/13

  1. Very interesting seminary. I am part the spanish collective Basurama, which has studied the presence of recycled materials in muslim master pieces of architecture, as the Cordoba Cathedral-Mosquee or the cathedral of Seville. Architecture in Al Andalus period is a master class about eficient management and creative use of construction materials. Any question please contact us.

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