As we all know, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But it was built in an extremely efficient manner. Be it roads or edifices from scratch, the ancient Romans were well ahead of their time with regards to construction.
The Roman stonemasons either carved or painted step-by-step instructions into the stones themselves, according to Arleta Kowalewska and Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa’s Institute of Archaeology.
Most of their research took place in Antiochia Hippos, the Romans name for a city overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
“Following the research at Hippos and around the region, we realized for the first time that the marks from the quarries can be dated to the massive construction of Herod the Great, and then, tend to disappear,” Eisenberg told Haaretz. “They appear again only within the great Pax Romana and boom of construction in the Roman East. The cities in our region needed a large-scale quarrying effort to fulfill the need for building blocks and architectural elements for the public and for monumental construction.”
Both archaeologists have demonstrated that in this hilltop village, the task of carving or painting masons’ marks started in the late first century and was completed in the late second century.
“Now, archaeologists who lack datable material can use the marks to narrow down the date of a single architectural fragment and even a structure, using — with caution — the suggested dating frame,” Eisenberg explains.
Building in Hippos (Sussita in Aramaic) and other cities around ancient Israel, and the Levant wasn’t accomplished by building with identical bricks as we do currently. Back then, stone blocks needed to be carved out the bedrock individually. In the town of Hippos, that bedrock was basalt.
Additionally, creating these stone blocks and constructing them was considered to be a highly skilled task.
They also ensured that the bricklayers would place the blocks and pieces precisely where they were intended to go during construction. Each purpose was achieved with masons’ marks.
About 2,000 years later, the imprints — small and usually hidden, to begin with — are hardly discernible. Locating them requires technology, a flashlight and the knowledge of where to begin looking.
Those marks were largely overlooked until Eisenberg and his team began partially reconstructing a Roman basilica at Antiochia Hippos.
“The penny only dropped after we had already rebuilt some of the heavy basalt drums comprising the Roman basilica’s columns,” Eisenberg explains. “Each column had been as much as 9 meters [nearly 30 feet] tall, and was made of a pedestal, base, shaft and, finally, the capital, all made of locally quarried basalt.”
The issue was that the drums of the columns all had the same diameter but were different in height. This means that the order of the drums had to be planned back at the quarry: Each drum was marked so the builder knows where it should be placed in the column. “The piece marked ‘IIIIA’ went above ‘IIIA,’ and so on,” Eisenberg said.