Why study Spolia?


When we study the past, we search for patterns, for influence, and hence for meaning – no more so than when we study spolia.Throughout the Middle Ages, and indeed to our own day, we have contemporary accounts which express enthusiasm for the prestigious materials of antiquity (especially marble, which could carry “power”[1], columns, and squared building-blocks, some of large dimensions) – an enthusiasm for the heroic age, and the older the better (perhaps), similar to Pausanias’ attitude to his material[2]. Columns were attractive to the Middle Ages for a host of reasons. Not only were they almost a trademark of classical architecture, but they were easy to get at and easy to transport, because they could be rolled like logs. Usually of marble, they were (when monolithic) long and strong, and beautiful as well, because highly polished.


Not, of course, that reuse of spolia is restricted to Greek or Roman materials, or indeed to the Middle Ages. There are plentiful examples of pre-mediaeval use; at Rome, the 3rd century BC Temple of Apollo Sosias used 5th century BC spolia to make a coherent monument with reference to the older antique. Nor is it unusual in Greece to find megalithic spolia in Christian churches, presumably with some meaning to be attached to the reuse[3]; and it has been argued that the history of monument construction and reuse in Messenia (SW Greece) specifically refers back to the Heroic Age[4]. In at least one 12th-century French account of abbey building[5], the spolia may be antique, but taken from a ruined church – a mirror of what the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks did with earlier structures in Turkey. Cassiodorus[6] is enthusiastic about the qualities of spolia: Sine usu jacere non decet, quod potest ad decorem crescere civitatis: quia non est sapientiae profutura contemnere. Et ideo illustris magnificentia  tua  marmorum  quadratos  qui  passim diruti negliguntur, quibus hoc opus videtur injunctum, in fabricam murorum faciat deputari; ut redeat in decorem publicum prisca constructio, et ornent aliquid saxa jacentia post ruinas...


Spolia allow us to trace the afterlife of classical art and architecture (or, in different contexts, of Phoenician, or cyclopean architecture; or mediaeval architecture in Britain after the Dissolution of the Monasteries). Their very use generally reflects diminished population levels, whilst the quantity employed underlines the large scale of many classical cities. Sometimes there is an aesthetic component in reuse, so that classical gloria survives, as if reuse were a thermometer of a continuing classical tradition. But without documentary evidence, or abundant comparanda, there are manifold problems. Does display mean pride in one’s own or an adopted past? Or can use be equated simply with nonchalance?


Different aesthetic horizons from the Middle Ages mean that it is difficult for us to appreciate purposes of reuse, or contemporary impact: some of the great Byzantine basilicas of non-metropolitan Turkey (such as that at Xanthos) may well seem crude to us – but did they to contemporaries? Thus even when later travellers declare the high quality of walls which we know are decorated with column shafts (as at Aleppo[7]), they annoyingly refuse to mention anything beyond appropriate decoration, or an equivalent phrase. Even in the West, documentary evidence of finding spolia is scarce[8]. Indeed, just because a monument exists, does not mean it was appreciated: for example, we know that many Crusaders saw Baalbec; but it seems to have made no impression. In 1100, Bohemond and Baldwin went up the Jordan Valley to the Litani Valley, but we have no accounts from them; whilst Fulcher of Chartres confused Baalbec with Palmyra [9]. Even Ibn Battuta stayed only overnight, mentions that it is a beautiful old city, but says no more - although one Arab author classifies the ruins, along with the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Lake of Tiberias and the Dead Sea as one of the marvels of Syria.[10] One reason for disjuncture between our horizons and earlier ones is that the re-creation of the antique in the Middle Ages usually ignores antique monumentality, as Hansen[11] states to be the case in the Renaissance before 1470: antique architecture only appeared as discrete decorative elements, typically elements of the columnar orders such as bases and capitals, disconnected from their monumental raison d’etre, the building as such. A parallel point he makes is the lack of interest in ruins – the skeleton of structure, as it were, on which the clothing can be placed. So, dealing with spolia, perhaps we should not be too exigent in expecting our rebuilds to look Roman to our eyes.


Spolia can help us study the aftermath of the classical world, because spoliation may protect antiquities, and help them to survive (for example, the great walls at Olympia or Pergamum). Sometimes reuse involves the complete dismantling of standing, intact antique structures (Pergamum, Korykos); but usually charting an afterlife is complicated by earthquakes, and stages of ruination and depopulation. Use of spolia offers us insights into the history of fortification and of religious buildings (large civic examples might once have existed, but none have survived from our period and area); into transportation: fewer antiquities survive the nearer they were to the sea; and into the mechanics of building, underlining the immense effort required to construct late antique spolia fortifications. All these features are easier to study in Turkey and North Africa, where we can infer what the monumental antique and spolia landscape of the western Middle Ages might have been like.


Although the term spolia includes anything reused from earlier buildings or artworks, and not necessarily from classical antiquity, for our purposes it is columns, granite, marble reliefs and veneers, and large building blocks which constitute the majority of the material covetted by the Middle Ages, East and West, Christian and Muslim alike, as we see throughout in the Patrologia Latina, where there are plentiful examples of what Sodini calls an un engouement extraordinaire pour les marbres, appréciés pour leurs couleurs et leurs veines from the earlier Byzantine centuries[12]. The Middle Ages are expansive on the features they especially prized in such spolia - often features they would have found difficult or impossible to reproduce conveniently themselves. One is that they are polished, and therefore gleam[13]; this same obsession is common, of course, in the West as well[14]. Another is that they are square, and therefore a decided help in good building construction[15]; the walls of Antioch were admired in part for this very reason[16]. Mortarless joints and iron- or lead-cramped joints are also an admired feature[17], and people marvelled as late as the 19th century that the fit between the blocks could be so tight[18]. Pulling down an antique fortress allowed the Muslims to study earlier construction techniques, and a letter of 1179/80 provided one of several admiring descriptions of earlier techniques. It comes from Nour el-Din's and Salah el'Din's Livre des deux Jardins[19], describing in a letter from El Fadhel to Baghdad in 1179/80 the destruction of the fortress of Beit al-Ahzan: La largeur de la muraille dépassait dix coudees: elle était construite en pierres de taille énormes dont chaque cube avait sept coudées, plus ou moins; le nombre de ces pierres de taille excedait vingt mille … Entre les deux murs s'étendait une ligne de blocs massifs.  The very use of cut stone - spolia blocks - is thought worth recording, as is confirmed by El-Bekri's description of the amphitheatre at Sousse, of which little now survives: Ce vaste édifice, de construction antique, est posé sur des vôutes très larges et très hautes ... Souca est entièrement bâtie en pierres de taille - and he seems to consider pierre de taille as a kind of stone, to which he gives a technical name[20].


To the practical and aesthetic reasons for using spolia, we may add the interest of later generations in linking with their own past, or of invaders in constructing a local identity. This idea has been much supported for spolia in  the West, as in Todisco's account[21] of the antique lions, inscriptions  and funerary reliefs at Melfi, where la rivitalizzazione di antichi blocchi inscritti  ...   si  giustifica  infatti nell'interesse, ricco di implicazioni ideologiche, da parte dei Normanni per il retroterra culturale  delle  regioni  conquistate, e quindi di quelle romane dell'Italia  meridionale.


Spolia are sometimes so prized that their discovery is hailed as a miracle, as in the description of the uncovering of marble blocks when the building of Modena was held up for want of materials. This can be paralleled in the building of a church to the Mother of God in Jerusalem[22]: the site ... made it impossible for those who were preparing the foundations to bring columns from outside ...  God revealed a natural supply of stone perfectly suited to this purpose in the near by hills, one which had either lain there in concealment previously, or was created at that moment ... So the church is supported on all sides by a great number of huge columns from that place, which in colour resemble flames of fire, some standing below and some above and others in the stoas which surround the whole church except on the side facing the east.  Two of these columns stand before the door of the church, exceptionally large and probably second to no columns in the whole world. The colour might indicate a breccia, or a variety of giallo antico.


Such a high value placed on spolia explains its role as booty, for use in the most prestigious buildings. Thus for Saladin's repairs to the Al-Aksa mosque in Jerusalem in 1187: on fit venir du marbre dont on ne pourrait trouver le pareil, de cubes (de verre) dorés ... la façon byzantine, et autres objets nécéssaires, le tout amassé depuis longues années ... The Franks living in Jerusalem were some of them bought out by the Muslims, and the Franks abandonnèrent de nombreux objets qu'il leur fut impossible de vendre, tels que lits, coffres, tonneaux, etc. Ils laissèrent aussi une grande quantité de marbre qui n'avait pas son pareil, et qui consistait en colonnes, en tablettes, en petits cubes (pour former des mosaïques)…[23] Thus could the Moslems imitate Rome, said by Ibn Al-Faqih Al-Hamadani to contain 24,000 churches, les plafonds, les murs, les pierres d'angle, les colonnes et les fenêtres sont des monolithes de marbre blanc[24]. Muslims were perfectly happy to reuse Crusader spolia, often with just a light chiselling out of human features: they chose the most exquisite pieces for the Haram al Sharif. The Dikka in the Al-Aqsa mosque is almost completely made out of Crusader spolia, whilst in the north transept of the Holy Sepulchre, the spolia include 8thC Abbasid Corinthian capitals, and 11thC Byzantine material. Clearly, their watchword was quality, not necessarily origin[25]. Again, Muslim admiration for marble perhaps begins very early: it is related that Mahomet was buried in a wooden coffin with a marble roof over it, and an inscription in marble[26]; whilst the Ka’ba was very rich in marble[27].


Notwithstanding the foregoing comments, many questions remain. Is reuse primarily practical before it is decorative or identity-giving[28]? Assessing intention is contentious and difficult. How would we tell? Is the movement always from practicality to decoration - from fortification to Palazzo Pitti, as it were - or is usage diverse? Does spoliation have universal constants? Is there any use of column shafts for decoration or strengthening west of Turkey and Greece? If we consider what might have been fashionable, are there any connections between the use of column shafts in the east, and of marble disks in Rome and ceramic bacini in (for example) Pisa, where there were probably once well over 2,000? If so, can we determine date-limits for such fashions? Again, does reuse of spolia signal a continuous classical tradition ? Not in Turkey, but there are separate Byzantine, Seljuk, and Armenian revivals. And what did the mediaeval spoliators learn from late antique spoliation? Does imitation operate here, as with imitation of original classical structures, as for example in bossed decoration?


What should we understand from cases which seem to reveal no selective concern for earlier remains, such as at Kanytelleis, or the lack of interest in archaic statues on Delos, although probably only half-buried? Several of the kouroi in Delos Museum are degraded from the waist upwards, suggesting long exposure of their upper portions; others are degraded all over – and hence presumably ignored by the marble-hunters who came for columns. From such evidence, can we posit an aesthetic stance which demonstrates decided preserences via a lack of interest in archaic styles? Delos, conveniently on trade routes, was probably being robbed during the Middle Ages, and was being systematically plundered by the 17th century, and on a large scale.[29] Travellers kept a weather-eye open for likely materials[30], even if the French Ambassador to Turkey visited the island in  1700, and could still examine les ruines incompréhensibles non seulement du temple d'Apollon, mais de l'isle entière … ce sont des montagnes de pierre et de marbre[31]. Kenelm Digby scavenged there for the British King, and Thomas Roe as agent for Arundel and Buckingham. Thus Chishull counts six granite columns erect, and notes that there were eleven standing when Spon  and Wheler were there in 1675-6). He also notes pieces of the sacred lions facing the lake, but a local hunter assured him that a few years previously there were five whole ones.[32] Stuart and Revett complain of continuing depradation in the following century, especially for new funeral monuments, but also for lintels and window cills; so that, in a few years, it may be as naked as when it first made its appearance above the surface of the sea [33]. From the point of view of the ideology of reuse, such cases are interesting.


At Kanytelleis, on a ridge overlooking the south-facing coast of Turkey, not far from Korykos, and apparently never a city[34], a Byzantine sanctuary was built with five churches - large and very imposing basilicas and monasteries, and all apparently constructed without recourse to spolia – and this in spite of the enormous quantities available in the immediate vicinity. Indeed, the Hellenistic watchtower, a splendid construction of bossed masonry at the southern entrance to the city, survives, probably because it was still useful; but outside the city’s northern limits are some fine tomb terraces of much earlier date including, to the west, a temple tomb with barrel vault, and another with Doric columns. These announce the beginning of a still extant street of tombs, which is echoed on the city’s southern approach. So were the necropoleis (and watchtower) preserved as a testimony to the city’s august origins? Something similar occurs not many kilometres to the east, at Elaiussa Sebaste, a much larger classical settlement, where several of the many churches do indeed use spolia, but where, although the temples seen in the early 19th century have now gone[35], the enormous necropoleis seem similarly intact. In both cases, of course, the visitor to the city would have been impressed by the approach; and at Elaiussa, the traveller passing along the coast, or even out to sea, would have seen the terraced necropoleis displayed along the ridge. To our modern minds, non-use would imply a much greater respect for the monuments than parcelling them into pieces and re-using them as spolia; but we have no evidence that, in Turkey, leaving ancient monuments intact meant anything beyond indifference, or a superabundance of targets for spolia.


Applying all these questions to a study of survivals in Turkey and round the Mediterranean to North Africa, five salient factors emerge:


1.       Most reuse of spolia is opportunistic, being played against a background of declining population, frequent danger, and an aggressive stripping of the past to accommodate the present;

2.       So ruthless was such stripping to become that we can recognise the same developing “marble starvation” in the East that we find in the West – that is, a dearth of matching materials, and a make-and-mend mentality;

3.       Marble, presumably robbed from ancient monuments, is prized (certainly by the 12th century) by Christian and Moslem alike, and collected over time - hoarded, in fact;

4.       However we must always be aware of differing aesthetic horizons. Although we have insufficient evidence to determine clear civic attitudes to spolia, such encroaching “marble starvation” is in itself a pointer toward aesthetic appreciation of the past, at least for the beauty of the materials, if not their matching regularity;

5.       We have much stronger evidence of aesthetic reuse of the past by the military, and for the defence of cities, where such work is frequently modelled on a consistent vision of the past which embraces spolia for practical as well as aesthetic purposes.




[1] P. CHUVIN, A chronicle of the last pagans,  Harvard 1990, p.76ff: despoliation of the Marneion in Gaza, after a decree in 398, and against much local opposition;

[2] K.W. ARAFAT, Pausanias’ attitude to antiquities, in Annual of the British School at Athens, 87 (1992), 387-409;

[3] G. HADJIMINAGLOU, Le grand appareil dans les églises des IXe - XIIe siècles de la Grèce du Sud, in Bull. Corr. Hellénique, 118 (1994), 161-97; cf. plates 1-3, fig. 16 for reuse from prehistoric megalithic blocks to sculptured bas-reliefs and capitals;

[4] N. SPENCER, Heroic time: monuments and the past in Messenia, Southwest Greece, in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 14.3 (1995), pp. 277-292;

[5] V. MORTET, Recueil de textes relatifs à l’histoire de l’architecture en France au Moyen Age, 2 vols, Paris 1911 (XI-XIIe siecles ) and 1929 (XIIe-XIIIe siecles), I.391, rebuilding of the Abbey at Ardres, near Boulogne, c.1172 by the Abbot Peter;

[6] Epistola VII (Migne PL 69, 1865, pp. 547-8);

[7] J. AEGIDIUS VAN EGMONT ( and J. HEYMAN), Travels through part of Europe, Asia Minor, the islands of the archipelago, Syria, 2 vols, London 1759, II, p. 336;

[8] But see MORTET, Recueil de textes, cit., I.172 re. using antiquities for S. Pierre d’Oudenbourg, near Bruges, in 1081, they gathered nigris et durissimis lapidibus and In partibus vero aquilonis fundamentum quadris ac magnis lapidibus, ferro et plumbo firmitur infixis, antiqua fundaverat manus;

[9] J. FOLDA, The art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land 1098-1187, Cambridge 1995, p.36;

[10] H. MASSE, editor, Ibn Al-Faqih Al-Hamadani, Abrégé du Livre des Pays, Damascus 1973, p.143;

[11] M. F. HANSEN, Representing the past: the concept and study of antique architecture in 15th century Italy, in Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, XXIII (1996), pp. 83-116: cf. p.85, pp.104ff;

[12] J.-P. SODINI, Le commerce des marbres à l'époque protobyzantine, in G. DAGRON ed., Hommes et richesses dans l'Empire byzantin, I, IV-VII siècle, Paris 1989, 163-186. Quarries at Proconnesus, Phrygia and Thasos still working in this period; p.167 for quote;

[13] e.g. PATROLOGIA LATINA, Hieronymus Sridonensis, Epistolae, vol XXII, 10, on decorating a church: marmora nitent, auro splendent laquearia, gemmis altare distinguitur;

[14] cf.Archbishop ALFANUS of Salerno on the splendour of the mosaics at Montecassino: His alabastra nitere lapis porphyreus viridisque facit; his Proconissa pavita simul sic sibi marmora conveniunt ut labor hic mare sit vitreum;

[15] e.g. PL BEDE, De templo Salamonis, vol XCI: Unde bene de lapidibus hujusmodi grandibus pretiosis et quadratis subditur…(O744D)

[16] ACADEMIE DES INSCRIPTIONS, Recueil des historiens des croisades, historiens occidentaux, vol IV (1879), Baldrici Episcopi Dolensis Historia Jerosolimitana, IV, 51F, anno 1098, 84A, Antioch's wall is magnis et quadris lapidibus compactus et compaginatus est;

[17] For HILDEBERTUS CENOMANENSIS, PL vol 171, 747A, Sermons, the Temple in Jerusalem is de lapidibus quadratis, politis, clavis et caemento conjunctis, ubi nex securis, nec malleus audita…; LEO MARSICANUS, PL vol 173, Chronicle of Cassino, writes of making a doorway de quadratis ac sectis lapidibus; R. DOZY & M.J. DE GOEJE, Description de l'Afrique et de l'Espagne par Edrisi, reprint ed. F. Sezgin in series Islamic Geography 4, Frankfurt-am-Main 1992, pp.358-8 for Arabic references to the use of lead in jointing stone blocks;

[18] C. FELLOWS, A journal written during an excursion in Asia Minor, London 1839: in the walls of Nicaea, the joints are generally too close to admit the blade of a knife between them;

[19] ACADEMIE DES INSCRIPTIONS, Croisades, cit., p. 206;

[20] EL-BEKRI, Description de l'Afrique Septentrionale, trans M. G. de Slane, Algiers 1913, p.75; Abou-Obeid El-Bekir, a Spaniard, finished his MS in 1068;

[21] L. TODISCO, L'antico nel campanile normanno di Melfi, in Mélanges de  l'Ecole  Française  de  Rome.   Moyen-âge,  temps modernes, 99 (1987), 1, pp. 123-58; quote from p.149;

[22] PROCOPIUS, Buildings, V.vi.16ff;

[23] ACADEMIE DES INSCRIPTIONS, Croisades, cit., Extrait du Kamel-Altevarykh, III.705-6; for another example of Muslims getting marble as booty, cf. III.720, when they took Ladakiyah in 1188/9;

[24] MASSE, editor, Abrégé du Livre des Pays, cit., p.179;

[25] FOLDA, The art of the Crusaders, p.596 note 187, p.442-3, and figures 10.15a-d;

[26] Chronicorum Turcorum, Frankfurt 1578, I, fol 62v: “De Mahometis Sepulchro”;

[27] cf. the 12th century Voyages d’Ibn Jobair, M. GAUDEFROY-DEMOMBYNES, editor, V, Paris 1951, pp.107ff;

[28] L. MARINO, in  M. REY-DELQUE, editor,  Le Crociate: L’Oriente e l’Occidente da Urbano II a San Luigi 1096-1270,  exhib cat, Rome, Palazzo Venezia, 1997,  pp. 259-62: L’uso dei materiali di reimpiego e di elementi lapidei en boutisse nella fabbrica dei castelli crociati;

[29] J. RANDOLPH, The present state of the islands of the archipelago, sea of Constantinople, and gulf of Smyrna, Oxford 1687, p. 20: The Ruins are carryed away by all ships who come to anchor here, so as part are in England, France, Holland, but most at Venice;

[30] J. SANDYS, Sandys Travails etc, London 1652. p.9: The ruins of Apollo’s temple are here yet to be seen, affording fair pillars of marble to such as will fetch them, and other stones of price, both in their nature and for their workmanship;

[31] Paris, Archives Nationales, K1318-19, Relation du Voyage de M. de Ferriol, ambassadeur extraordinaire du Roy à la Porte Ottomane, 7 February 1700, pp.14-15;

[32] E. CHISHULL, Travels in Turkey and back to England, London 1747 – but relating travels fron 1698 to 1702, p.61 for Tournefort on Delos (there in 1701-2);

[33] Stuart and Revett were on Delos in March 1753, and their account was published in 1794, in Antiquities of Athens III, p. 57. Their editor, Willey Reveley, notes that The antiquities, described in this chapter, are said to have been taken away by a Russian fleet, in the last war against the Turks (loc.cit). This process halted only when the French began digging there, in 1873;

[34] S. HILL, The Byzantine Churches of Cilicia and Isauria, Aldershot 1996, 179ff;

[35] F. BEAUFORT, Karamania, or a brief description of the south coast of Asia-Minor and of the remains of antiquity, with plans, views etc collected during a survey of that coast, under the orders of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, in the years 1811 and 1812. MS in Kew, Public Record Office [hereafter PRO], ADM7/847;