While visiting Tunisia, Roman Africa Proconsularis, I was looking at a range of sites and monuments including all the usual, you know, temples, tombs, triumphal arches, baths, all that jazz. But on one particular day I visitied a slightly different sort of site; the marble quarry site at Chemtou – Roman Simitthu or Simithas.
The Roman town was situated on the site of the earlier Numidian town, and was famous for its coloured marbles. I enjoy visiting this kind of site. There are the usual kinds of structures associated with Roman urbans areas; villas, a theatre, baths, aqueducts etc, but the particular nature and importance of this town as a primary source for such a valuable and coveted commodity, marble, sets it apart from many other sites.
A whole range of coloured marbles can be found at the site, from white, through a range of yellows including the highly-prized gold marble, red, green and black.
But I have been asked, with some incredulity, and on more than one occasion, what is really the point of looking at a quarry? Isn’t it just a hole in the ground? Well yes and no. Obviously with a quarry site, what has been taken away is of interest, but the marks, residue and waste left behind constitute a record of the process of extraction.
I’m interested in process. Visitors to sites like Hadrian’s Pantheon in Rome see this:
Magnificent structures, decorated with beautifully polished coloured marbles (the technique shown here on the floor is called opus sectile). Great marble columns support the domed ceilings of the niches. Visitors to the Pantheon see the end result of all the organization, planning and toil, but do they ask how these materials actually got there? I do. In fact, if anything, I’m more interested in the dirt, in the methods, in the infrastructure that allowed Roman Emperors to create such visible and lasting displays of their power and will.
The marbles used in the building of the Pantheon actually started out here, at Chemtou.
A close look at a quarry face reveals tool marks
and slots cut for use when splitting the rock,
Here’s how it’s done
We can see similar slots cut to use for lifting blocks of marble out, using a ‘lewis’ type of lifting device (there’s a discussion here of the methods of lifting and moving stone at Baalbeck in Lebanon).
And we can see different quarry approaches; quarrying downwards and removing material from above; and undercutting the rockface and removing sections from below and behind.
The site has been subject to post-Roman quarrying, and nearby sites are still being quarried today (not this specific site, as it is preserved as an ancient monument). So there are some indications which may be post-Roman, such as this section, which looks like a large slab has been cut by mechanical means.
As usual, my visit was far too brief to see everything. A couple of hours on site just about allowed for a visit to the excellent site museum. Here’s a fantastic (reconstructed) crane from the museum. Pulleys!
And to see the fantastic (and fantastically rare in its survival) turbine mill (dated to the late-third – early fourth century),
and a few sections of the quarry face.
Other features that were visible, but which I didn’t get to get a really good look at were some amazing unfinished columns, abandoned in the process of their being extracted from the quarry faces.
What I didn’t get to see (and I’m gnashing my teeth over this) was the forced labour camp that housed the people actually doing the quarrying. This is the stark reality of this industry. The magnificent temples, tombs and palaces start with human misery as forced labourers (prisoners? slaves?) spent their lives hacking the marble blocks out of the rock face. However bad ancient slavery/servitude may have been generally, this was very nearly as bad as it got (really as bad as it got was to be condemned to the mines).
Anyway, I’ve decided that this site really needs at least a full day for a proper look around, so I’m already planning my return visit, later in the year.