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From Quarry to Temple

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Science  17 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6134, pp. 805
DOI: 10.1126/science.340.6134.805

Two thousand years after the Kizilburun shipwreck, excavating archaeologists have figured out exactly where it came from, where it was headed, and why.

Missing link.

A shipwreck's marble cargo reveals the construction of a Roman-era temple.

CREDIT: ©INA/PHOTO BY DON FREY

Sometime between 100 B.C.E and 25 B.C.E., a wooden ship carrying almost 60 tonnes of stone foundered in Aegean waters just off the coast of Turkey. It went down bearing its entire cargo, including eight massive drum-shaped blocks of white marble. Those blocks fit together to form part of a tapering column that likely stood more than 11 meters tall, plus a square uppermost piece: a Doric column.

Two thousand years after the ship went down, archaeologists excavating what is now called the Kizilburun shipwreck have figured out exactly where the marble blocks came from and where they were heading, illuminating the marble trade in the Roman province of Asia Minor. The work shows how underwater archaeology can add a new dimension and precise information to a period researchers thought they knew well (see main story, p. 802). "In the 1st century B.C.E., the Mediterranean was the highway by which everyone in the region was linked," says nautical archaeologist Deborah Carlson at Texas A&M University in College Station, who led the analysis. "This means shipwrecks connect sites on land in ways that archaeologists didn't see before."

Carlson and classical archaeologist William Aylward of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. first set out to learn where the marble came from. As reported in a 2010 study in the American Journal of Archaeology, the team sent out samples of the marble for stable isotope analysis and other tests. The marble's values of the isotopes δ13C and δ18O and its spectroscopic details led them to Marmara Island, known as Proconnesos in Roman times, in the Sea of Marmara, the inland sea connecting the Aegean and Black seas. This island was the site of an important marble quarry when Asia Minor became a Roman province around 130 B.C.E.

But where was the marble heading? The blocks' size and style suggest that the column was intended for a major public building, most likely a temple. Carlson and Aylward drew up a list of all the Doric-style monumental buildings under construction in the 1st century B.C.E. on coastlines south of the wreck site, the probable direction of travel away from the quarry. Then they searched for sites with a finished lower-column diameter of about 1.73 meters. They concluded that the marble was headed for the Temple of Apollo at Claros, where people in Roman times flocked to seek advice from oracles, just 50 kilometers from the wreck. That finding is "utterly convincing," says architectural historian Lothar Haselberger of the University of Pennsylvania.

The data show that the quarry workers on Proconnesos were in close contact with the temple builders some 500 kilometers or more away, shaping the marble to the builders' exact specifications. The findings also show that the builders received columns in pieces in small shipments, hinting at a lengthy construction process. This information, says Carlson, "is the missing link that tells us a lot about this process."

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