Materials across the empire

An update from Isabel Morris and Becca Napolitano.

This summer, we found ourselves working in both the heart and the provinces of the Roman Empire. For the month of June, Isabel and I, both members of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, worked on conservation and archaeological sites in Italy and Romania as part our research for a new CDH collaboration, the Heritage Structures Lab.

One main goal of the Heritage Structures Lab is to better understand the people of the past, what they knew, and how they interacted with the environment around them by creating a program which allows for users to reconstruct and interact with historic structures in a virtual reality setting. As cool as that sounds (well to us at least) we're not quite there yet and still in the stages of gathering historic materials.

Near the heart of the empire, Becca was collecting a store of local stones and building materials for the purposes of testing and documentation while working on a conservation site.

Becca writes:

The main site of my work was a 12 th century church and surrounding neighborhood which had been remodeled and repurposed since the middle-ages. An interesting aspect of these buildings however was that the materials used to build them came from the neighboring Roman ruin of Carsulae. You can always tell that a stone has been repurposed when you see a cleanly cut voussoir of an arch being used as the side of a window.

During conservation, I was really able to interact with the stones, as I removed the old mortar and replaced it with a new more compatible one. An interesting thing about historic structures conservation is that A LOT of it has been done wrong—in some cases the historic structures are more hindered than helped by modern intervention. This was unfortunately the case with the neighborhood we were working to save. In the 70’s it was thought that Portland Cement was the best thing since sliced bread and so they put it EVERYWHERE. Everywhere unfortunately also includes in the mortar joints of historic structures and as it turns out, Portland Cement causes severe damage to historic structures. During my time conserving the building I was able to collect building stones, mortar, and timber samples in order to develop a more accurate picture of the materials from this area. An additional part of my conservation work consisted of evening lectures where I learned a great deal about the variance of material properties across the empire which will be a tremendous help for our project.

Becca in San Gimini.

The group working on preservation of materials in a medieval church.

Meanwhile, in Roman Dacia, Isabel collected samples of local stones and building materials.

Isabel writes:

Most commonly, provincial constructions in Dacia use travertine, andesite and limestone. These are the stones that you see in the pictures below, as well as in the hills and mountains all around Transylvania. Fancier stones like marble were most often used only for decoration and export. There are still a huge number of quarries and marble cutting factories around the country. The Romans also had a ready supply of timber and brick in the province, as well as lime for the mortar of these impressive constructions. These far flung provincial materials collected in Transylvania will be an important addition to the materials database since they represent the huge geographical footprint of the Roman Empire. Additionally, the similarities between the two sites we visited are nearly as important as the differences. In Dacia, mediaeval buildings repurpose Roman stones just like in Italy, the Roman principles of surveying and ‘urban planning’ are alive and well, and great building campaigns were undertaken for significant visits of the emperors. I also collected information about provincial building practices and Dacian influence on the physical constructions of the province. Since Dacia was a very important province (full of gold and other resources, hard to conquer and thus an important piece of Roman propaganda, and an important strategic holding), modern Romanians are very proud of both their Roman and Dacian heritage.

Above: Isabel in Romania, pictured with the walls of Iulia Alba (right) and at a local marble cutting factory in Rapoltu-Mare.

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