For other uses, see Spolia (disambiguation).
Dating of the reliefs on the Arch of Constantine.
Fragments of Greek inscriptions in the masonry of the Ottoman Heptapyrgion (Yedikule) fortress (1431), Thessaloniki.

Spolia (Latin, 'spoils'), the repurposing of building stone for new construction, or the reuse of decorative sculpture on new monuments, is an ancient and widespread practice whereby stone that has been quarried cut and used in a built structure, is carried away to be used elsewhere. The practice is of particular interest to historians, archaeologists and architectural historians since the gravestones, monuments and architectural fragments of antiquity are frequently found embedded in structures built centuries or millennia later.

Archaeologist Philip A. Barker gives the example of a late Roman period (probably 1st century) tombstone from Wroxeter that could be seen to have been cut down and undergone weathering while in use as part of an exterior wall, then, possibly as late as the 5th century, reinscribed for reuse as a tombstone.[1]

The practice was common in late antiquity. Entire obsolete structures, including underground foundations, are known to have been demolished to enable the construction of new structures. According to Baxter, two churches in Worcester (one 7th century and one 10th,) are thought to have been deconstructed so that their building stone could be repurposed by St. Wulstan to construct a cathedral in 1084.[1] And the parish churches of Atcham, Wroxeter, and Upton Magna are largely built of stone taken from the buildings of Viroconium Cornoviorum.[1]

Roman examples include the Arch of Janus, the earlier imperial reliefs reused on the Arch of Constantine, the colonnade of Old Saint Peter's Basilica; examples in Byzantine territories include the exterior sculpture on the Church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos in Athens); in the medieval West Roman tiles were reused in St Albans Cathedral, in much of the medieval architecture of Colchester, porphyry columns in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, and the colonnade of the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Spolia in the medieval Islamic world include the columns in the hypostyle mosques of Kairouan, Gaza and Cordoba.

Re-used reliefs as decoration in Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Although the modern literature on spolia is primarily concerned with these and other medieval examples, the practice is common and there is probably no period of art history in which evidence for "spoliation" could not be found.

Interpretations of spolia generally alternate between the "ideological" and the "pragmatic." Ideological readings might describe the re-use of art and architectural elements from former empires or dynasties as triumphant (that is, literally as the display of "spoils" or "booty" of the conquered) or as revivalist (proclaiming the renovation of past imperial glories). Pragmatic readings emphasize the utility of re-used materials: if there is a good supply of old marble columns available, for example, there is no need to produce new ones. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and there is certainly no one approach that can account for all instances of spoliation, as each instance must be evaluated within its particular historical context.

Spolia had apotropaic spiritual value. Clive Foss has noted[2] that in the fifth century crosses were inscribed on the stones of pagan buildings, as at Ankara, where crosses were inscribed on the walls of the temple of Roma and Augustus. Clive Foss suggests that the purpose of this was to ward off the daimones that lurked in stones that had been consecrated to pagan usage.

Liz James extends Foss's observation[3] in noting that statues, laid on their sides and facing outwards, were carefully incorporated in Ankara's city walls in the Seventh century, at a time when spolia were also being built into city walls in Miletus, Sardis, Ephesus and Pergamum: "laying a statue on its side places it and the power it represents under control. It is a way of acquiring the power of rival gods for one's own benefit," Liz James observes. "Inscribing a cross works similarly, sealing the object for Christian purposes".[4]

See also


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  1. 1 2 3 Barker, A. Philip (1977). Techniques of Archaeological Excavation. Routledge. p. 11.
  2. Foss, "Late Antique and Byzantine Ankara" Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31 (1977:65).
  3. James, "'Pray Not to Fall into Temptation and Be on Your Guard': Pagan Statues in Christian Constantinople" Gesta 35.1 (1996:12–20) p. 16.
  4. James 1996, noting O. Hjort, "Augustus Christianus—Livia Christiana: Sphragis and Roman portrait sculpture", in L. Ryden and J.O. Rosenqvist, Aspects of Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium (Transactions of the Swedish Institute in Istanbul, IV) 1993:93–112.

Further reading

There is a large modern literature on spolia, and the following list makes no claim to be comprehensive.

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