Light and manganese to discover the source of submerged Roman marble

Related Articles

Related Articles

The Roman Emperors used to spend their summers in the city of Baia, near Naples. With the passage of time, however, the majority of their luxury villas became immersed under water.

Italian and Spanish researchers have now applied microscopic and geochemical techniques to confirm that the marble used to cover these ancient Roman buildings came from Carrara and other marble quarries in Turkey and Greece – valuable information for archaeologists and historians.

The area which is now the Underwater Archaeological Park of Baia, just outside of Naples (Italy), was an important Roman bath city between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD where emperors such as Augustus and Nero owned leisure villas. Over the centuries, however, part of this ancient city became submerged five metres below sea level as a result of the subsidence coastal area.


Scientists take the plunge underwater to analyze one of the most valuable elements from the affluent Roman villas: white marble. Credit :  Michela Ricca et al.
Scientists take the plunge underwater to analyze one of the most valuable elements from the affluent Roman villas: white marble. Credit :
Michela Ricca et al.

Scientists from the University of Calabria (Italy), in collaboration with the Spanish researcher Mónica Alvarez de Buergo, took the plunge underwater to analyse one of the most valuable elements from those affluent Roman villas: white marble. The objective was to determine the origin of this material which was used in the production of floor slabs which can still be observed by divers in this area.

“Fifty samples measuring a few centimetres long were taken from different surfaces of the area known as Villa con ingresso a protiro (with an ‘entryway’) to be analysed in the laboratory”, explains Alvarez de Buergo, a researcher at the Geosciences Institute, a joint centre of the Spanish Scientific Research Council (CSIC) and the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM).

The scientist explains that various techniques were applied: “First, thin layers of the collected marble were observed using a petrographic microscope. Then, the mineral composition of the marble was studied using X-ray diffraction and the manganese content was determined (with Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry). Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) was then carried out and various isotopes were analysed”.

In order to compare the samples, the team selected some of the most well-known and widely-used white marble from the Roman period in the Mediterranean basin. Specifically, they selected eight varieties from the best marble quarries in Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Differences owing to the crystal, the manganese and the isotopes

The data reveal that the parameters that have contributed the most to identifying the material and its origin have been the petrographic microscopy -more specifically, varying crystal sizes depending on the source of the marble-, the manganese content (whose content can vary between 0.84 parts per million and 1093.8 parts per million) and the difference in oxygen and carbon isotopes.

The results, which are published by the journal ‘Applied Surface Science‘, demonstrate that these variables have made it possible to confirm that the marble analysed came from different quarries: Carrara in Italy; Proconnesos, Docimium and Aphrodisias in Turkey; and Thassos, Paros and Pentelicon in Greece. The origins of just five of the fifty samples could not be confirmed.

“The variety and quality of the marble identified highlight the importance held by this area in the past seeing as it yielded the best ornamental marble of that time period”, points out Alvarez de Buergo, “and this helps to determine the trade routes that were used at that point in time during the Roman Empire”.

“When working with built cultural heritage, it is important to know where the marble originated so that its deterioration compared to reference materials can be determined. That way, we can test whether treatments need to be applied, as well as identify which materials to use in the event that the original material needs to be replaced”, indicates the researcher, who emphasises the importance of scientific techniques in finding out more about our past.


Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic


The Modhera Sun Temple

The Sun Temple is an ancient Hindu temple complex located on a latitude of 23.6° (near Tropic of Cancer) on the banks of the Pushpavati river at Modhera in Gujarat, India.

Scientists Hunt For Lost WW2 Bunkers Designed to Hold Off Invasion

New research published by scientists from Keele, Staffordshire and London South Bank Universities, has unveiled extraordinary new insights into a forgotten band of secret fighters created to slow down potential invaders during World War Two.

Sea Ice Triggered the Little Ice Age

A new study finds a trigger for the Little Ice Age that cooled Europe from the 1300s through mid-1800s, and supports surprising model results suggesting that under the right conditions sudden climate changes can occur spontaneously, without external forcing.

The Two Fanjingshan Temples

Fanjingshan Temple is actually two temples, located on the “Red Clouds Golden Summit or Golden Peak” on Fanjingshan Mountain (also known as Mount Fanjing), the highest point of the Wuling Mountains in southwestern China.

Venus’ Ancient Layered, Folded Rocks Point to Volcanic Origin

An international team of researchers has found that some of the oldest terrain on Venus, known as tesserae, have layering that seems consistent with volcanic activity. The finding could provide insights into the enigmatic planet's geological history.

Undersea Earthquakes Shake up Climate Science

Despite climate change being most obvious to people as unseasonably warm winter days or melting glaciers, as much as 95 percent of the extra heat trapped on Earth by greenhouse gases is held in the world's oceans.

Raids and Bloody Rituals Among Ancient Steppe Nomads

Ancient historiographers described steppe nomads as violent people dedicated to warfare and plundering.

Ancient Human Footprints in Saudi Arabia Give Glimpse of Arabian Ecology 120000 Years Ago

Situated between Africa and Eurasia, the Arabian Peninsula is an important yet understudied region for understanding human evolution across the continents.

Popular stories

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.