Just How Did The Ancient Greeks And Romans Cut Marble?

Illustration for article titled Just How Did The Ancient Greeks And Romans Cut Marble?

Watching marble being extracted from a modern quarry is an impressive sight, one that requires a tricky combination of skill, coordination, and advanced machinery to achieve. But, without the aid of bulldozers and power tools, how did the ancient miners manage it?

The question popped up again and again, after observing the oddly-mesmerizing process by which a modern marvel cutters work.


And a number of techniques and tricks that their ancient-counterparts had used came up:


In addition to the way Mekugl describes it, saws were also used, iirc from my architectural history classes. Unlike wood, the marble is cut slowly and with a constant feed of oil (I thought I read somewhere that Romans used olive oil for this, but I cannot confirm) or water to wash away the grit and to prevent overheating/stress on the blade. Slabs were then sanded and finished to specification, depending on need.


I think that marble was split with wooden wedges that are inserted along a shallow cut then soaked with water so that they evenly expand-fracturing the marble into large sheets. That's how the romans did it anyway, I think these days a similar effect is created pneumatically.

Easing the cutting process with water was, indeed, one technique that ancient miners used to quarry stones. Another technique, though, was to use the natural cleaves in the stone as a starting point and then apply pressure. Manolis Korres, the director of the Acropolis Restoration Project explained it to NOVA like so:

The quarrymen exploit natural fissures to extract the massive block. Along the fissures, they fit iron wedges sandwiched between iron splints. Pounding on these wedges with iron-headed mallets as well as pushing on levers inserted elsewhere eventually releases the block.


But, once the hard work of cutting the marble was done, the work was far from over. If the marble was meant to be kept as part of a large slab for building purposes, transport could be just as tricky as the original cut. Korres put together an interactive that traces the path of a single block of marble from quarry to its perch on the Parthenon that you can use to follow along with the process, a single still from which you can see above. You can check out the whole thing right here.
Image: Korres, NOVA/PBS

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I had to figure out a way to remove a bunch of rock from a specimen with out damaging the fossil footprint. We were in the process of moving to a new building with a weight restriction on the floor and the block was going to probably be too heavy. The footprint, while large (tyranosaurid), was quite fragile so power tools were out of the question. In trying to figure something out I looked into a lot of ancient techniques. What I ended up using was a modification on a Chinese bow saw

but instead of coiling bronze wire between the bow I coiled it around an iron shaft so that it was a one man operation... I don't remember why but I think I called it a Phoenician saw for some reason (a google search turns up nothing useful). Anyways to make a long story shortish: the key to ancient rock cutting it time. As long as you have an abrasive harder then what you are cutting you are going to succeed eventually. Though I didn't actually succeed myself because before I could really start cutting we found really small turtle tracks associated with the theropod track and ended up needing to keep the whole block(it was one of those things where the theropod track was so imposing that you just didn't notice the smaller prints... but once you saw one...).