Wednesday, May 31, 2023

SearchResearch Challenge (5/31/23): Did they really burn ancient Roman statues?

 Can that be true? 

A scene from 18th century Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Veduta della Piazza di Monte Cavallo (View of the Piazza del Quirinale with the Statues of Horse Tamers in side view), from Prianesi's Vedute di Roma. Note the marble columns just ready to be rolled away and repurposed.  These statues are still standing in Rome, notably not-broken up, although there's now an obelisk between them.  

Sometimes you read something so astounding that you have to wonder, "can that possibly be true?

I have to admit that this happens to me on a daily basis, and not always about current events.  

Earlier in the week I read this off the cuff comment in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine (My Night in the Sistine Chapel, by Cullen Murphy) 

"For centuries, the bountiful supply of ancient statuary unearthed in Rome had been burned for lime to make mortar..."  

The author makes the point that for centuries, ancient Roman statues were more valuable as a source of raw marble than as beautiful works of art.  (Key insight: marble can be burned above 840°C to convert the calcium carbonate into calcium oxide, commonly called quicklime, is an essential ingredient to make concrete).  

That threw me.  The image of folks just tossing works of art into the kiln to make quicklime just killed me.  It's the kind of thing that makes you say "really?" 

I did a little SRS and found the answer.  Fascinating journey that I thought you might enjoy.  

1. Is that sentence true?  Once upon a time did people in Rome just burn ancient marble statuary in order to make quicklime for construction purposes?  

2. (Just for fun..)  I know of at least one other surprising use of ancient materials for the most prosaic of purpose--can you figure out what that other ancient material is (was)?  

As always, let us know your thought process.  HOW did you figure out your answer?  Let us know so we can learn to be better investigators of the mysterious and puzzling!  

Keep searching! 


  1. Welcome back, Dr. Russell!

    I have been searching with not good results. Today, tried [Roman statues burned for materials]

    Ancient Rome recycled into building materials.

    The Pantheon of Rome, surviving wonder of Antiquity

    Destroying temples and statues as lime was such an industry that a district of Rome was even named 'Lime-pit'.

    Now I will try with [rome "Lime-pit"] Not sure to use it because it's redundant. However, I think something could come to get more about the Challenge

    1. Still reading to find more info. About Q2, I am thinking about manure. I'm almost sure that is not what you mean. However, it has many uses. For example in construction

    2. As Bard is already in Mexico, I asked.

      Here the answer:

      Yes, ancient Romans did burn statues. There were a few reasons for this.

      * **To reuse the marble.** Marble is a very valuable material, and it can be reused by burning it in a kiln to create lime. Lime is a key ingredient in mortar, which is used to bind bricks and stones together. In the Middle Ages, when the Roman Empire had fallen and there was no longer a centralized government to protect cultural artifacts, many statues were burned for their marble.

      * **To destroy religious symbols.** The Roman Empire was a polytheistic society, and there were many different gods and goddesses worshipped by different people. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, many of the statues of pagan gods and goddesses were destroyed. This was done in an effort to suppress paganism and promote Christianity.

      * **To express political or religious dissent.** During times of political or religious upheaval, statues were sometimes burned as a way to express dissent. For example, during the Roman Republic, when there was a power struggle between the Senate and the Roman people, statues of the Roman emperors were sometimes burned. This was done as a way to show that the people did not support the emperor.

      The burning of statues was a common practice in ancient Rome, and it had a significant impact on the preservation of Roman art. Today, we only have a fraction of the statues that were once created in the Roman Empire. This is because many of the statues were destroyed by fire, either intentionally or accidentally.