Archaeology meets digital technology in a new project being developed by Christopher Lyes, a DPhil Candidate in Classical Archaeology at Jesus College and the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. He’s has been awarded a small grant from the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies to develop an online Marble Identification Workshop, using the collections at the University of Oxford Museum of Natural History (OUMNH). This novel digital tool will enable archaeology students to identify the range of marbles that they might encounter in their travels around the classical world. In this week’s College Coffee Break, Christopher explains what inspired him to create the Marble Identification Workshop, how his collaboration with OUMNH came about and how the pandemic has influenced the development of the project.

Chris Lyes portrait
Chris at the Kouros of Apollonas, Naxos – a statue that was abandoned when it cracked whilst being quarried in the fifth-century BC.

“The inspiration to develop the workshop came from some fieldwork I did in Italy a few years ago, at Castelporziano - the President of Italy’s private estate. The dig was led by Professor Amanda Claridge (formerly Lecturer in Archaeology at St John's). One summer’s day, after a picnic lunch of wild rocket and fresh melon, she took me to a spot she called ‘the Porphyry Mound’.  It was amazing - absolutely littered with fragments of coloured marble from the Roman buildings that once stood on the site—porphyry from ancient Egypt, yellow marble from Tunisia and purple breccia from Turkey.  Lots and lots of different colours and shapes, all brought to the surface by the activities of the local wild boar population.  That evening, Amanda helped me to identify each variety and where it came from.  And those identification skills have proved enormously useful over the years.  Each time I visit an ancient site and see fragments of those stones, I remember that picnic lunch and the scent of wild rocket!  And I think that when you learn a skill from someone like Amanda, you just have to pass it on.

I’ve always been passionate about the buildings of antiquity. When one thinks of ancient Rome, one thinks of a city glimmering with one material above all others—marble—and when you visit the quarries where these stones came from, and the sites where they ended up, it provides a keyhole view of so many aspects of ancient life.  The meanings bound up in the choice of stone, the cognitive processes of selection and working, the economy, logistics, trade, all sorts of things spring forth through thinking about this one material.  But, if I’m honest, I am a bit of a sucker for traipsing around the Mediterranean countryside with a camera, a backpack full of olives and a bottle or two of local wine! 

Marble column
The Markets of Trajan in Rome with a block of yellow giallo antico from Tunisia and a column of grey Granito del Foro from Egypt

Faustino Corsi (1771—1846) was an Italian lawyer with a passion for the ancient world, in particular the polished stones used by the Romans.  He built up a reference collection of amazing quality, which was eventually acquired by the OUMNH.  I first heard about it at an international conference of the Association for the Study of Marble and Other Stones in Antiquity (ASMOSIA – yes there is such a group!) and resolved to visit the collection as soon as I could. It’s an enormous collection (so not fully accessible to visitors) but I was taken aback by the very keen response of the staff to my enquiries.  The Head of Earth Collections and Director of the Museum were eager to help, and when I saw the sheer quality of the collection, I was spell-bound.  I’d already done the fabulous Eloquent Things course at the Ashmolean Museum, which helps to train postgrads to teach with real objects, and the Corsi Collection was clearly a terrific resource just begging to be used.  So, I planned, with the support of my supervisor—Dr Dominik Maschek - and the Museum, a 3-hour face-to-face workshop with around six of our archaeology students.

Chris (second from left) and the ASMOSIA team on an expedition to the Greco scritto quarries in Turkey.

One of the main drivers for the workshop came when I first pitched the idea to a couple of Dr Maschek’s Classical Archaeology and Ancient History undergraduates.  They were thrilled by the idea  - it seemed to be just the kind of thing that archaeology students were looking for; object-based learning in one of the best collections they’re ever going to encounter. I moved forward with developing the workshop, but then the pandemic hit so the students weren’t able to join in. This was a blow for them and me, and one of my deepest regrets about the past year. Not to be defeated, I decided to move the workshop online – to reach out to them, and students like them, both in Oxford and across the world. 

This grant from the Roman Society will enable me to take Oxford’s wonderful collections out into the online world, to show how much we can embrace all that Oxford has to offer its students and to showcase our object-based learning approach to anyone who shares our passion for these wonderful materials.  The great thing about this workshop, though, is that it won’t just be about some abstract theoretical concepts: it will be about real-world objects and the sharing of a skill that can be applied by anyone who loves the classical world as much as I do.  I long to overhear a visitor to an ancient site say something like “Oh look, there’s a piece of Giallo antico, I know about that, it comes from Tunisia!”  That would be wonderful!

The team at the Museum are really excited about this initiative, and we aim to do the filming work in late Trinity, with a view to launching the workshop online in the summer.  It will be open-access, available to all, whether an Oxford student or not, so while you might not be able to get here to view the collection in person, you will at least be able to see some of the best that it has to offer.”

You can read more about Christopher’s doctoral research here and visit the OUMNH Corsi Collection here.