Spolia in the Garden
This summer I got a chance to hang out a bit with Jon Frey at the site of Isthmia. For the past several years, he’s been working on understanding the use of spolia — that is bits and pieces of older monuments — that were built into the Hexamilion wall in Late Antiquity. His interests derive from his excellent dissertation on the topic: Speaking through spolia : the language of architectural reuse in the fortifications of late Roman Greece. In Late Antiquity, the use of spolia became a regular practice in monumental architecture. Scholars from the “bad old days” understood this Late Antique practice as evidence for the decline in skills among Late Antique craftsmen and the weakness of the Late Roman economy. For this earlier generation of scholars, the use of spolia reflected the decline of ancient culture. Now most scholar recognize the use of spolia as an intentional choice on the part of Late Antique architects, and the combination of old blocks, columns, and even inscriptions gave Late Antique buildings the desired variatio (variation) that was central to the aesthetic of the day. Scholars who study spolia have used it to explore issues of Late Antique and Byzantine attitudes toward earlier buildings and how they sought to incorporate, appropriate and even commemorate these earlier structures in their own monumental environment.
As I mentioned in my brief note on the Kourion basilica on Cyprus, the desire for spolia among Late Antique and Byzantine builders presumably influenced the archaeological processes at play during the abandonment of Late Antique and earlier buildings. At Kourion, for example, a there is evidence for a group of workers who systematically dismantled parts of the episcopal precinct in preparation for the transfer of parts of that building to another site. Similar systematic quarrying of site appears elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. The energy exerted to obtain high quality spolia does not appear to have been much less intensive than the initial quarrying of stones.
In my own community, Grand Forks, North Dakota, recent construction projects have uncovered the remains of earlier buildings destroyed a decade ago in a catastrophic flood. The scatter of bricks, concrete, pipes, and even everyday objects form a halo around a new home. Eventually, I would guess, these fragments of the past will be removed or turned under a well manicured lawn.
As my wife and I begin to do some rather significant restoration work on our own 100 year old house, we’ve had opportunities to produce spolia of our own. Being archaeologically inclined we could not simply discard these fragments of earlier construction! I was admiring my wife’s herb garden the other day and noticed that she had lined the space with bricks that had been quarried from a wall in our house. These bricks had surrounded a hole in an interior wall of our house through which the chimney for a coal or wood stove passed. Judging by the color and fabric of the bricks, they were probably made from Red River clays — most likely at the local Red River Valley Brick Company. They are soft, buff to red in color and tend to have a fair amount of lime in them. Similar bricks can be seen in our now crumbling foundations.