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Imperial purple porphyry: the archaeology of the emperors’ building stone (Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne Lecture)

Professor Valerie Maxfield, Exeter University

Date/Time: 30th November 2011

Porphyry, a fine, gem-like, purple stone, was quarried in the remote Red Sea Mountains in Egypt's Eastern Desert. Throughout the Roman period it was an imperial monopoly, used exclusively for the emperors' building projects – it was used, for example, in the interior of Trajan’s Basilica, Hadrian’s Pantheon and the Temple of Venus and Rome, all at the heart of the imperial capital, and was exploited also for carved stonework, notably the statues of Trajan’s Dacian captives now in Florence and Paris, massive late imperial sarcophagi now in Rome and Istanbul and the Tetrarchs now built into the facade of St Mark’s in Venice. The later Roman emperors were even described as Porphyrogeniti ‘born to the purple’ on account of the use of porphyry on the walls and the ceiling of the imperial birthing chamber at the imperial palace at Constantinople. The quarries from which this important stone came have lain virtually undisturbed since the early fifth century AD. Their remoteness, their difficulty of access and the resulting logistical problems involved in their exploitation, have meant that they have never since been reactivated, while the hyper-arid climate of the desert zone has resulted in the remarkable preservation of organic materials and written documents. This lecture looks firstly at the archaeology of the exploitation of porphyry, the quarries themselves and their infrastructure – the fort which housed the soldiers who supervised the complex, the settlements of the quarry workers, the problems of water-supply, the logistical support system which facilitated the transportation of the quarry products down to the Nile. Secondly, consideration is given to the uses of the stone itself both in the Roman Imperial age and subsequently, for porphyry retained its importance long after the quarries themselves ceased to be worked and the stone has been extensively recycled down to our own day.