Marble from the Isle of Paros in Ancient Greece: A tour of the ancient quarries

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Dr Robert Sturm (Austria)

This is the second of four articles on the quarries of the ancient world and later, and, in particular, the marble that was quarried there and the artwork that was made from it. The first was Mining in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Some introductory words

In general, marble represents a coarse-grained metamorphic rock primarily consisting of the minerals calcite (CaCO3) and dolomite ((Ca,Mg) (CO3)2). The word ‘marble’ may be derived from the Greek term ‘marmaros’ (μάρμαρος), which means ‘shiny stone’. The earliest use of the rock dates back to the fourth millenium BC, when it was considered, for the first time, as appropriate material for the construction of buildings and the production of rather primitive sculptures.

In the Classical era starting at the beginning of the fifth century BC, its use was subject to a remarkable increase, which, among other things, entailed the prevailance of this shiny material in ancient Greek architecture and sculptural art. At that time, marble was simply termed ‘white stone’ or ‘Pentelic, Hymettus or Parian stone’, thereby indicating its preferential origin from the quarries of Naxos, Paros and Mount Pentelicus. Although these mines attained extraordinary eminence in antiquity, marble was also exploited from the quarries of Eleusis, Tripoli, Argos, Selinus, Syracuse, Skyros and other places.

Marble from Paros – a very particular stone

Each marble originating from a local quarry is characterised by very specific features. Stone material from Mount Pentelicus is distinguished by its white colour and fine-grained texture, rather high transparency and a minimal amount of iron impurities. On the other hand, Parian marble is also white, but shows a coarse-grained texture. The main advantage of Parian marble consists of its excellent purity and easy workability, which means that it is carved without great effort. In the Classical era, the stone was also known as ‘lychnite’, due to its extraction from deep underground galleries that were lit by lamps, the Greek word for which is ‘lychnoi’ (λύχνοι). The marble of Naxos is rather similar to that of Paros, but does not have such an excellent quality. However, in later times, it was increasingly used both in sculpture and architecture.

Concentrating on the marble of the Isle of Paros, it must be emphasised that this material was highly prized in ancient Greece and mainly served as raw material for buildings, temples and all kinds of sculptures. Some of these extraordinary pieces of art will be discussed in more detail below. The original quarries of Parian marble were explointed from the sixth century BC onwards and can still be accessed on the north side of the island and on the slopes of its central peak.

Most ancient marble quarries used in Classical times are situated between the villages of Paroikia and Agios Minas. They can also be found in the valley extending to the harbour of Naoussa, in the north of the island. An important centre of marble exploitation was the northern flank of Mount Marpesso, a massif in the middle of Paros, not far from the village of Marathi. While in the Classical era and most parts of the Hellenistic era, marble production was under the control of the Greeks, in the first century BC, it came under Roman influence. The rock was of such high eminence that even Pliny mentioned it in his famous ‘Naturalis historia’.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the marble quarries of Paros were shut down and fell into oblivion for hundreds of years. However, in the Middle Ages, the rock material was preferentially used for local buildings. In the thirteenth century, for instance, the Castle of Paros was exclusively constructed using Parian marble. In the second half of the nineteenth century, mining activity on the island was increasingly subsidized with foreign capital, so that it attained an almost industrial scale of production.

The raw material was transported on a railway line to the harbour of Paroikia, where it was shipped to the Greek mainland, Germany, Austria and numerous Oriental places. Nowadays, some quarries are still in operation, providing precious raw material for all kinds of use in architecture and art (Fig. 1). The village of Paroikia accommodates a small archaeological museum founded in 1960, where numerous excavation finds are displayed. These exhibits (among others) include relics of ancient marble works.

Fig. 1. Modern marble quarry on the island of Paros, where mining of the rock takes place with the help of innovative techniques. (Photo by Islandology.)

Legendary examples of Parian marble sculptures

As already mentioned, Parian marble was highly esteemed due to its crystal texture, giving rise to a remarkable transparency. This resulted in it being used for the roofs of large temples, because it guaranteed a certain amount of natural internal light. Among most important ancient buildings constructed with Parian marble were the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, as well as several temples in Delos, Olympia and Athens. Also, the roof tiles of the Parthenon were made of this special material.

In sculptural art, Parian marble also represented a very frequently used working material. Among the most famous figures made from this stone are the Medici Venus, exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Aphrodite of Melos, housed in the Louvre in Paris. The Medici Venus represents a lifesize Hellenistic sculpture depicting the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. According to archaeological research, it is a copy of an original bronze figure, which followed the tradition of the Aphrodite of Knidos and was made by the well-known sculptor, Praxiteles. The goddess is depicted in a transitory pose, as if surprised in the act of emerging from the sea, to which the dolphin at her left foot alludes (Fig. 2; left). It is assumed, however, that the marble copy is from the late Hellenistic phase of the first century BC and probably represented work ordered by a Roman patrician.

The half-naked Aphrodite of Melos is also a great work of art, and today thousands of visitors to the Louvre crowd around this statue, lost in admiration. Here, the Greek goddess is depicted with her left leg lifted and strongly projecting, whereas her right foot is brought back to stabilise and balance the uneven weight distribution. Her body is characterised by a slight torsion and a pronounced outer thrust of the right hip. The drapery is securely held around her hips by the wealth of horizontal and diagonal fold patterns. Aphrodite has long hair, which is parted in the middle and caught up in a ribbon, and her face is softly modelled and of exceptional beauty. It is assumed that the figure was made in the late second or early first century BC.

Other famous sculptures made with Parian marble include Hermes with the Infant Dionysos and the Winged Nike of Samothrace (Fig. 3). The former was discovered in 1877 in the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia. Today, it is exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. According to the Greek traveller, Pausanias, the statue may be attributed to Praxiteles, an attribution, however, which has produced a fierce controversy among art historians. Hermes is depicted as a naked young man, with his legs posing in a classical contrapost position and his body developing a significant chiasm. In his left arm, he holds the young Dionysos, whereas the preserved part of his right arm is streched forward. The face and torso of the god are striking for their highly polished, glowing surface, while the back shows the marks of the rasp and chisel. Based on its general constitution, the figure may be assigned to the fourth century BC.

The Winged Nike of Samothrace was discovered in 1863 and is conventionally thought to have been made for the celebration of a naval victory. Since 1884, it has been exhibited at the Louvre and is considered to be one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world. It belongs to a small number of major Hellenistic sculptures that have survived in the original, rather than in the form of Roman copies.

Despite its extensive damage and incompleteness, the Nike shows a mastery of form and movement – the goddess poses in contrapost, with her wings spread out and her drapery waving in the wind. The loss of her head is surely regrettable in a sense, but is held by many to increase the statue’s depiction of the supernatural. According to archaeological research, the Winged Nike of Samothrace was made at the beginning of the second century BC and therefore belongs to the main phase of the Hellenistic era.

Some concluding remarks

This article has tried to demonstrate that architecture and, most of all, art of ancient Greece were based on first-class working materials, among which the marble from the Isle of Paros is extremely important. This stone was already highly prized in antiquity and still finds a great market today. Many modern buildings on the Greek islands and mainland are still made from Parian marble and, therefore, follow an architectural tradition going back 2,500.

The articles in this series comprise:
Carrara marble from the Apian Alps: Another famous ancient workable stone
Mining in Ancient Greece and Rome
Marble from the Isle of Paros in Ancient Greece – a tour of the ancient quarries
Roman quarries in Austria and Germany – a short sight-seeing tour

Further reading

Price, M.T.: Decorative stone, the complete source book. Thames & Hudson, London, 2007.

Sturm, R.: Cameos from ancient Greece and Rome: small but precious treasures. Deposits Magazine, 34, 44-46 (2013).

Sturm, R.: Tauern gold: the history of gold mining in the Central Alps. Deposits Magazine, 37, 39-40 (2014).

Sturm, R.: Mining in ancient Greece and Rome. Deposits Magazine, 41, 43-45 (2015).

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