Presenting and Interpreting the Processes of Stone Carving: The Art of making in Antiquity

This post was written by Pari White, a PhD Student in Archaeology in Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Dr Will Wootton (Department of Classics, Kings College, London) is the Principal Investigator of a two-year Leverhulme funded project on stone carvers and carving in the Roman world, which began in July 2011 as a collaboration between the Departments of Classics and Digital Humanities at Kings College London. As part of the winter programme for the ‘Rome in Bloomsbury’ seminar series organised by Jen Baird from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, on 14 February, Will gave a talk on the compilation of their database, which will include some 2500 previously unpublished photographs from the private collection of Peter Rockwell of Roman period sculptures that are mainly located in Rome, Italy and Aphrodisias, Turkey. Peter Rockwell has worked as a sculptor in Rome since the 1960s and is also a renowned expert in stone carving. Part of the research conducted by Will Wootton and Ben Russell includes a series of interviews with Peter Rockwell about these objects in terms of tool usage, methods of carving and other research questions which will be recorded on audio and film and transcribed. The database will eventually be made available on the web and is aimed at a wide audience both as an educational and research tool.

The main focus for this research is the relationship between tools and tool marks, the order in which the tool marks were made, the physical processes of carving and the relationship between the object and their makers. Most studies have treated tools separately and have not shown how they may have been used in the course of a single piece of work. The sculptor’s craft is one part of a larger picture and the project aims to encompass the various stages of cutting and carving starting from the raw block of stone through to the finished object. The choice of materials, quarrying, transportation, the patrons and the craftsmen involved etc. will also be taken into consideration.  Although there is a perception that ‘traditional’ sculptors’ tools have continued in use, unchanged since the Roman period, the team is being careful to avoid making assumptions about ancient versus modern tools and techniques. Surviving tool marks are visible on Roman period worked stone to varying extents and include marks from quarrying, roughing out, rough shaping, further shaping and finishing processes e.g. detailing, outlining and smoothing the stone. Examples range from a female bust made of Proconnesian marble from the Sile shipwreck (second-fourth century A.D.), that was roughed out with a point chisel and would have been completed by a craftsmen at destination, to the rasp marks of a finishing tool similar to a file which appear as a criss-cross pattern across the skin of a bull in the upper frieze of the Arch of Trajan, Benevento. Other evidence for the sculptor’s craft comes in the form of a grave plaque of the sculptor Eutropius from Urbino, which depicts the sculptor and an apprenctice at work using a bow drill, and amusingly an apprentice’s piece from a sculptor’s workshop in Aphrodisias (third-forth or fifth century A.D.), which depicts two left feet.

Arch of Trajan at Benevento with criss-cross patterns visible

Arch of Trajan at Benevento with criss-cross patterns visible

Clearly this is an exciting project that brings together art history, archaeology and the working practice of modern-day stone carvers to learn more about stoneworking in the Roman period. In 2011 the ‘Art of Making’ team organised a number of events including a stone carving workshop, which gave people the chance to try their hands at the craft with guidance from an expert. Another workshop will be held at Kings on the 22 June 2012. See the following link for further information on the project and forthcoming events:


One thought on “Presenting and Interpreting the Processes of Stone Carving: The Art of making in Antiquity

  1. Pingback: Art of Making at ‘Rome in Bloomsbury’, February 2012 | Art of Making

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