Mining Greece: Ancient quarries in Thassos

MINING GREECE – ANCIENT QUARRIES IN THASSOS - 001The archeologist and engineer Tony Kozelj explains how the ancient marble quarries increased the reputation of the lush green island in the northeastern part of the Aegean Sea and “dressed” the greatest monuments of antiquity. 

Tony Kozelj was from Dalmatia and first came to Greece in 1969 and loved it at first sight. He visited Thasos in 1980 searching for the gold mines mentioned by Herodotus and when the university where he worked refused to give him unpaid leave he settled permanently on the island, continuing his research. Today, having reached the age of 67 years, he has every reason to be proud that together with the French archaeologist Arthur Miller first discovered the ancient gold mines of Thasos mentioned by Herodotus in many books and is one of the few archaeologists that researched and studied systematically the history of ancient marble quarries in the beautiful and verdant island of Thasos in northern Greece.

Following the Amphipolis excavation in Cast Hill his scientific work was highlighted more than he was accustomed to in recent years as an archaeologist and architectural engineer of the French School at Athens. A valuable partner and fellow traveler is his 40-year research journey is the wife of his life Manuela Wurch – Kozelj who is also architectural engineer working in Thasos on behalf of the French School of Athens.

Meeting them was a unique experience. When they were asked to talk to us they accepted to do so only under one informal condition, to restore the historical reality of the origin of the marble from which the tomb of Amphipolis was built.

In the small and minimal neoclassical building that houses the offices of the French Archaeological School of Athens, next to the ruins of the ancient Odeon, the office of Tony Kozelj is surrounded by hundreds of books, maps, books, topographical drawings, handwritten notes and photos.

We received a very warm welcome. He speaks Greek fluently and he began with his characteristic penetrating gaze to present the unique history of the famous white marble quarries that made the island famous.

The intervention of Manuela Wurch – Kozelj was decisive for the conversation and was related to the informal condition on the restoration of the historical truth. “I hear for so long that the white marble of Thasos was quarried in Alykes” noted and continued, “those who support that have drawn conclusions based on lack of knowledge.

However much they search for white marble in Alykes they will never find it. The quarry in Alykes located on the southeastern side of the island produced gray marble which was used mostly by the Byzantines who did not like the white marble.  The quarries in Saliara – Vathi, cape Fanari and Agia Varvara located on the northwestern part of the island were those that produced the famous white marble used by Greeks and Romans”.

The famous white marble of Thasos, which is mostly exported to countries of Europe and the East, is still quarried today in the new quarries located on the northern side of the island.

The great discovery of the Parians

Tony Kozelj emphasizes that the natural and mineral wealth of Thasos became known when the island became a colony of the Parians who in the 7th century BC and more specifically in 680 BC arrived at the island and found marble, gold, vines and wood. He says that “The Parians were excellent sailors. A total of 1,000 people with three ships started their long journey from Paros to Thasos. At the same time another expedition reached Dalmatia and for this reason the Dalmatian islands owe their name to Parians, since they were the first inhabitants”.

Besides the quality of the marble of Thasos, the island was particularly preferred because most quarries were located by sea. This was of great importance for the economic development of the island and the spread of white marble. “There was also white marble in other places of Greece in ancient times”, Mr. Kojelj said but it could not be extracted because it was into the mountains. The lack of infrastructure, the huge economic cost and the insurmountable technical difficulties of that time make the extraction impossible. Thanks to the location of quarries by the sea the marble of Thasos was easily and quickly spread across other parts of the world. Today, we claim with certainty that the marble from which the tomb of Amphipolis was constructed came from Thasos. It could not come from anywhere else since the island of Thasos is so close, and the transport of the marble by sea was quite easy, according to the data of the period to which we refer. ”

The color of the marbles

In the Hellenistic and archaic period the builders used mostly white marbles because their surface should be painted following the construction with different colors as well as the columns, the sculptures and other items.  Thus, they started using more and more colored marbles and porphyra (purple laver) for interior spaces such as the Dome of Epidaurus the exterior of which was built with white marble, the interior with black marble and the floor was multicolored. It is not a coincidence that during the excavation in Amphipolis the archaeologists found many parts of marble surfaces and parts of the sculptured decoration colored with red and blue.

Mr. Kozelj says that in Roman times the decoration followed a different line. They were looking for colorful marbles throughout the empire. Therefore, new quarries open in Evia for the green marble, the so called “tsipolino”, the beautiful “pavonatzeto” and “portasanta” in Chios.

The three quarrying phases

One of the most remarkable elements of the research conducted by Tony Kozelj has to do with the particular marble quarrying techniques, its transport and the type of production.

The extraction of marble passed through three phases. During the first phase in the quarry, the extraction of the marble block never took place without a preplanning of the production project. The quarrymen knew from the beginning the future use of the marble block extracted, whether it would be a sculpture or a column, whether it would decorate a wall and more.  The appropriate marble block was quarried depending on its use.

The second phase took place in the workshop of the quarry. There the sculptors carved out the rough shape by removing the undesirable burden in order to make transport handling easier. A visitor can easily recognize today the type of production by the marble blocks abandoned in the quarries. The semi-finished sculptures or some monolithic columns that were made next to the quarries but then were abandoned for various reasons are really impressive and it’s easy to understand their intended use.

The third and last phase of the processing was when the already shaped marble block reached its destination. There, on the spot, the sculptor used to complete his work and give the final shape.

The extraction and processing techniques 

The technique used in the construction of the so-called kaneloures on the columns, i.e. the grooves running on the shaft of the columns, was even more impressive. Initially the sculptors in the quarry created small kaneloures at the top and the bottom of the columns. Then, when the column was placed in its final position, the sculptor drew together the kaneloures and placed the capital on top of the column. This technique was unique and as pointed out by Mr. Kozelj it made each column to be unique since all were hand carved and each one had its own perfect fit”.

The marble quarrying techniques reveal the mastery of the workers of that period but especially their great willingness and patience to exploit in any way this rich rock composed of minerals.

The quarrymen, in order to extract the marble blocks (after the right place had been chosen and the use of the marble was determined) carved a narrow channel around the three sides of the block to be removed. Next, openings were made in order to insert iron or wooden wedges. Then they used to pound them with hammers until the large marble block was released.

The hoisting machines

The abundant timber that existed on the island of Thasos contributed to the construction of hoisting machines with which the marble blocks were transported from the quarrying area to the platform and then to the ship that would transfer them. Tony Kozelj pointed out that “in ancient times there were several types of hoisting machines depending on the needs of the project and of each quarry”.  The smallest machine had a crank turned by two people and could lift up to 120 pounds while a crank turned by four people could lift up to 300 pounds.

The drum machine had a diameter of three meters and could lift weight up to 1,000 pounds when two people rotated the drum.

The simple winch could lift up to two tons and if a drum was added then it could lift up to four tons.

The organized societies of the quarries

The quarries according to Tony Kozelj had their own organization and operation. Prisoners of war, slaves and those sentenced to life imprisonment were chosen to do this hard work.  Mr. Kozelj underlined that it was a shared secret that those who worked in the quarries were condemned to die because of the hard work and hardships they experienced.

A large number of people worked in the quarries and each one of them had a different specialty. There were carpenters, blacksmiths, sculptors, all of whom contributed to the marble processing and production.

In the Hellenistic era and Roman times there were huts outside the quarries where the workers could sleep and small temples dedicated to Hercules. In early Christian times, many lifers who worked in the quarries were Christians and secretly carved religious symbols in places that could not be easily seen by the guards. In addition, each well-organized quarry had watchtowers from where the soldiers used to oversee the various stages of the work, mainly the marble blocks that were quarried and were responsible for the safety of the quarry.

The operating time of the quarries 

The quarries were divided into temporary and permanent ones regardless their operating time. The temporary quarry opens in order to meet the needs of a special order and is usually located close to the project that will take place. A permanent quarry is recognized by the many traces that are evidence of continuous quarrying.

In any case the marbles quarries of Thasos flourished as long as they were useful to meet the needs of the construction projects of the rulers that had the power. Thus, the quarry in Alykes, which was mainly used by the Byzantines, ceased to operate when the empire declined. Similarly, the activities in other white marble quarries were ceased upon the decline of the Roman Empire.

As for the ancient gold mines, these are the great personal challenge for Tony Kozelj. For years now, he waits patiently for the big moment and the appropriate time when he will have the financial resources to begin a systematic research and study of the mines which will certainly reveal the brilliant trajectory that the island of Thasos followed within the Greek historical development.

[SOURCE: http://www.xronometro.com/ , Nektarios Siskoglou]