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Archaeology and Philology on Mons Claudianus


Article in Topoi Orient Occident January 1996

DOI: 10.3406/topoi.1996.1691


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Adam Blow-Jacobsen
University of Copenhagen


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Adam Blow-Jacobsen

Archaeology and Philology on Mons Claudianus 1987-1993

In: Topoi, volume 6/2, 1996. pp. 721-730.

Citer ce document / Cite this document :

Blow-Jacobsen Adam. Archaeology and Philology on Mons Claudianus 1987-1993. In: Topoi, volume 6/2, 1996. pp. 721-730.

doi : 10.3406/topoi.1996.1691



To start with the hard facts, Mons Claudianus is situated between Qena and
Hurghada, some 650 km South of Cairo at a height of 700 m in the mountains
that separate the Nile from the Red Sea. Which mountain exactly was the Mons
Claudianus is not known. The highest mountain in the immediate neighbourhood
is now called Gebel Fatirah, but it is a little way off and certainly not the Mons
Claudianus of antiquity. The name Mons Claudianus is now used about a whole
complex of quarries and structures.
There is a main camp with various buildings like a bath and a temple
outside. There are 130 quarries spread over a fairly large area and there is a
smaller camp, sometimes called a fort or a hydreuma, placed c. 1 km away.
Besides there are several wells, one of them immediately next to the main camp,
others spread out over the area. The whole complex is interesting for many
reasons. Buildings and quarries are extremely well preserved. There is no
vegetation to speak of and there has been no activity in the area since Roman
times. Rain is extremely rare and the sand is heavy, so it is not blown by the
wind. The excavation has thus been spared a lot of the usual problems that
confront excavations in Egypt, like modern culture and inhabitants, tons of sand
and structures of later periods covering what you are interested in and the decay
of organic material caused by a rising water table. As for the quarries, the major
risk is of course later or modern exploitation, but even this has mostly been
avoided. Mons Claudianus is simply quite far away and used, until recently, to
be difficult of access.
Nowadays there is an asphalt road, presumably built for military purposes
in the 1960ies and access is easy. Furthermore the expanding tourism on the Red
Sea Coast has already caused a certain amount of tourist-digging and general
damage and there has been an attempt at modern exploitation of the quarries.
But all this is light damage.

Topoi 6 (1996), fascicule 2

p. 721-730

The excavation has been carried out by a loosely co-ordinated international

team with funding from a variety of sources.1 Publication is already begun at the
IFAO in Cairo who have also provided the major part of the logistics for the
missions. One volume of Greek and Latin ostraca has already been published
and a second volume is in the press. A first volume of archaeology is also in the
press and several more volumes of both texts and archaeology will follow.2
The excavation is now finished, rather for lack of money than because
there was no more to do, but perhaps it is as well to take a break and publish
what has been found, for the finds up to now have been spectacular, both from a
quantitative and a qualitative point of view.
The excavation has mostly centered on garbage deposits of which there
were several both inside and outside the camp, but also salient features in the
buildings have been examined. Besides, quite a few rooms had been filled with
garbage at a later stage of occupation and these have been emptied. Apart from
excavation, the whole building-complex has been mapped in detail and all the
quarries have been mapped and described.
To continue just a little longer with hard facts, we have found over 9000
Greek and a few Latin ostraca, perhaps as many 50.000 fragments of textiles,
tons of ceramic-fragments, bones of animals plus, of course, glass, metal, small
objects, and botanical remains.
All in all the excavation has given most satisfactory results on all counts,
and even without the texts the results would have been extraordinarily
interesting. It would, however, be hypocritical to deny that what makes this site
really outstanding is the presence of ostracon-texts concerning the
administration of the quarries and the people who worked there.

The reason for this Roman presence in the desert was the extraction of the
grey grano-diorite, known as granito del foro, because it has been widely used
on Trajan's forum and in the Basilica Ulpia. In fact, the name granito del foro
covers stones of several provenances, but David Peacock now seems to have
succeeded in isolating the Claudianus-stone in various monuments, nearly all in
Rome and all of them Imperial buildings. The full list of these buildings will be

1. Funding and participants came from Belgium, Denmark, France and The United
2. Jean Bingen, Adam Blow-Jacobsen, Walter E.H. cockle, Hlne Cuvigny, Lene
Rubinstein, Wilfried Van R engen, Mons Claudianus, ostraca graeca et latina
(O.Claud. 1-190), (DFIFAO XXIX) Cairo (1992). Jean bingen, Adam Blow-
Jacobsen, Walter E.H. cockle, Hlne Cuvigny, Franois Kayser, Wilfried van
RENGEN, Mons Claudianus, ostraca graeca et latina II (O.Claud. 191-387),
Forthcoming, Cairo (1995 [?]). D.P.S. Peacock & V.A. Maxfield, Survey and
excavation at Mons Claudianus, 1987-1993. Vol. I: Topography and Quarries.
Forthcoming, Cairo (1996).
MONS CLAUDIANUS (1987-1993) 723

given in vol. I of the archaeological publication, but for the sake of chronology
I shall mention some here.
The earliest occurrence of the stone appears to be Nero's Do mus
Transitoria. The most extensive use is on Trajan's Forum and the Basilica Ulpia
which were completed in AD 1 12.3 Hadrian used the stone in the Templum Divi
Traiani which was also dedicated to Plotina after her death in AD 122. The big
columns of the Pantheon (AD 118-125) are also of Claudianus-stone. Towards
the end of his reign Hadrian used stone from Mons Claudianus in his Villa in
Tivoli and in the Templum Veneris et Romae. Use of the stone later than Hadrian
is more sporadic, but some is found in the Thermae of Caracalla and some,
perhaps re-used, columns are found in Diocletian's mausoleum in Split. The
stone is also mentioned in Diocletian's Price-Edict. From the use of the stone it
would thus seem that the quarries were active from the latter half of the first
century until sometime towards the end of the third century.
All this could be known without the evidence of the ostraca from the
quarries, even without any work on the spot, but how does it accord with their
story ? Well, not too badly, to put it briefly, but not perfectly either. The dating
of ostraca by their handwriting is always an uncertain business, but quite a few
of them are dated absolutely. Since the type of the document often decides
whether or no one puts a date on it, we cannot claim the ostraca as negative
evidence, i.e. the fact that there are no dated ostraca from a given period does
not necessarily mean that there were no ostraca written during that period. It
may just mean that we have by chance not found any of the type of document
that was habitually dated from that period, or that such documents were not
issued during that period. But the presence of a date is, on the other hand, the
best possible positive evidence.
The earliest ostracon is from AD 68 and was found at the so called
Hydreuma - the part that already the German team, who surveyed the site in the
1960ies, thought might be the oldest.4
From the fort itself there is, or was since it has mostly been lost, an
inscription with a dedication to Domitian, 84/5. 5 No ostraca relating to this
period have been found and we do not know where the extracted stone was used.
Early in the second century things really get underway, clearly in
connection with the building of Trajan's Thermae (104-109) and his forum (1
12). From the so called South Sebakh we have dated ostraca from the years AD

3. Construction dates are conveniently found in Marion Elizabeth Blake, Roman

Construction in Italy from Nerva through the Antonines, III, Philadelphia (1973).
4. KRAUS Th. & J. Roder, Mons Claudianus. Bericht ber eine erste Erkennungsfahrt
im Mrz 1961 , MDAIK, 18 (1962) pp. 80-120. Kraus Th., J. Roder & w. Mller-
Wiener, Mons Claudianus Mons Porphyrites. Bericht ber die zweite
Forschungsreise 1964 , MDAIK, 22 (1967) pp. 108-205.
5. . Claud. I p. 11-13.

106-1 1 1 and several inscriptions, some of them still in place, also date from this
After the completion of Trajan's forum there appears to have been a
slackening of activity. Furthermore there was the Jewish revolt in 115-117
which must have directed attention elsewhere, but with the accession of Hadrian
there is renewed activity at Mons Claudianus. One took the time to embellish the
camp building a temple with columns,6 and the papyrus P.Giess. 69 from 118/9
shows us that there was extraction of 50-foot columns,7 and most important, we
know that Hadrian had a good deal of very big columns extracted. The Pantheon
speaks for itself even today, but apparently the columns of the Temple of Trajan
and Plotina were as big or even bigger.8 All these columns must have been
extracted during the first 5-6 years of Hadrians reign, but this period has not
given a single dated ostracon.
Later, towards the end of his reign, Hadrian again constructed buildings
with Claudianus-stone. As already mentioned, the stone is found in the Templum
Veneris et Romae, built on the site of Nero's golden house and of the Thermae
of Trajan, so for the third time Claudianus stone was used on this site. The
temple was dedicated in 135. He further used columns of Claudianus-stone in
his Villa Tiburtina, begun after his second great journey, i.e. after 134. There
must therefore have been a fair amount of activity in the early and middle part of
the 130ies on Mons Claudianus, which has no equivalent in the ostracon-dates.
In the ostraca we find a spurt of dated texts from the last years of Hadrian and
the beginning of the reign of Antoninus Pius, i.e. between 137 and 155. This
period does not correspond to any known use of Claudianus-stone.
Later in the second century there are scattered dates, notably of Commodus
and Septimius Severus, but we do not know what they used the stone for. An
Oxyrhynchus papyrus (3243 from 214/5) demands grain for those who work in
the quarries at Porphy rites and Claudianus. As far as Claudianus is concerned,
this may correspond to the extraction of stone for Caracalla's Thermae, built
between 212 and 216.
The latest datable text from Mons Claudianus is a dedication on behalf of
Severus Alexander, so it belongs between 222 and 235.
Evidence for activity later in the third century is scant: Historia Augusta
(SHA Gord. 32.2) informs us that the Gordians (238-44) used 50 columns of
Claudianus-stone in their villa, but they may of course have been re-used, or, as

6. I.Pan 42, 23rd April, AD 1 18.

7. The understanding of P.Giess. 69 is due to J. Theodore PEftA, P.Giss. 69: evidence
for the supplying of stone transport operations in Roman Egypt and the production of
fifty-foot monolithic column shafts . JRA, 2 (1989), 126-132.
8. Filippo COARELU Guida Archeologica di Roma (1975), p. 127, suggests about 20 m
in height. This would make them 60-footers, the largest that have been found in the
quarries and larger than any preserved in Rome.
MONS CLAUDIANUS (1987-1993) 725

I am inclined to think, the information may be false. Two coins from the reigns
of Aurelian and Probus respectively have been found on the site, and two papyri
from year 300 mention quarry-activity in or around Qena.9 Finally there is the
price of Claudianus- 'marble' in the Price-Edict and 4 columns in Diocletian's
As for quantification of the activity, the ostraca sometimes give very
precise information. An undated, but clearly Trajanic, text gives the list of those
entitled to water on a given day. It includes both workers and soldiers, horses,
donkeys, even a passing postman, so it has every possibility of being exhaustive.
There the total number of people present comes to 913. For comparison I have
been able to calculate the number of workers present around AD 140 which
comes to 110. This calculation was done on the basis of accounts of distribution
of tools, so it comprises only the quarry-workers, but if one extrapolates from
the proportion of quarry-workers to all others in the water-distribution list, the
total number of people present on Mons Claudianus around AD 140 comes to
c. 350, i.e. about a third of what it was in the beginning of the century.
From the archaeology one gets the impression that the fortified camp as it
stands now was built under Trajan, or perhaps under Domitian and was kept in
good, even luxurious condition under Hadrian as well. Then there may have
been a break in occupation during the late 120ies and early 130ies followed by
renewed activity in the middle 130ies. But this renewed and reduced activity
took place in a camp that was too big. The impression is that people moved in as
squatters. Some rooms were used for lodging, others, often immediately
neighbouring, were used as rubbish-dumps.
The disparity between the dates known from the ostraca and the dates we
must necessarily assume from the use of the stone, need not worry us overmuch.
One solution would be that one produced standard pieces which were stockpiled
in Rome for later use, as Ward-Perkins has shown that one did with marble.
This may have happened to a certain extent, but much of what has come from
Mons Claudianus are very big columns, and it seems more likely that they were
produced to measure directly. A more probable explanation will be that the
ostraca do not give us an exact image of the activities. First we must assume that
we do not have all the garbage deposits. A certain amount must have been
deposited to the South of the excavated South Sebakh and must have been
destroyed by floods in the wadi. Secondly we may assume that we do, in fact,
possess ostraca from these periods, but that these texts are not dated. Absolute
dates are rare in the ostraca from Mons Claudianus and are normally given only
to texts that had some kind of legal interest typically receipts for loans. Since
one seems to have operated a system of paying some salaries in advance in the

9. P. Beatty Panop. 2, 153-155 (AD 300) and SB I 2267 (c. AD 300), both may,
however, concern quarrying in the Qena-region, not necessarily at Mons Claudianus
or Pophyrites.

form of loans in the middle of the second century, there are a lot of dates exactly
from this period, and all of them on receipts for advance on salary.
The workers who extracted the stones were apparently all free, trained
craftsmen. In no document or archaeological find has there been anything to
suggest the use of forced labour. Very occasionally a person is qualified as ,
which in the context rather means apprentice than slave. The labourers were
normally paid 47 drachmas per month plus one artaba of wheat.10 This sum was
paid in the valley and every month the workers delegated one from their midst to
go down, presumably to Qena, to collect the money, make the various payments
on account and give the grain to each worker's wife, sister or mother, in order
that she make the bread. The bread was then transported to Mons Claudianus for
each individual worker, marked with his name. The worker who went to the
valley was styled , evidently a word drawn from the Latin cibaria.
Every worker wrote, or had written for him, every month an ostracon with
instructions for the kibariates on what to do with his salary etc.
The workers came from Arsino, Alexandria or Memphis, but many were,
not unnaturally, from Asswan, where there was already a strong tradition for
working in granite. But besides the ordinary workers who work as smiths and
stone-masons there is another category called those of the familia. These are not
slaves, even if one has to think of familia Caesaris in connection with them,
since they have patronymics. Their names are exotic for Egypt and can often be
traced to Asia Minor. These people seem to have been occupied with logistical
work like water carrying, transportation, helping in the smithy, while the smith
himself is always a local worker.
The whole problem of salaries and the monthly accounts of the workers,
the so-called entolae, will be the subject of a treatise by Hlne Cuvigny. These
entolae, of which more than two thousand have been found, form by far the
largest single group of texts.
In addition to the workers there were some soldiers, but very few. One
does not have the impression that the soldiers were there to guard the workers,
let alone to prevent prisoners from running away, but rather to mark a military
presence in this empty area, and to keep the bedouins at bay. The highest
ranking officers recorded in place are a centurion and a decurion.
The actual quarrying of the stone will be the subject both of a treatise by
David Peacock and of another by myself, from the point of view of archaeology
and geology and from that of the texts, respectively. This is not the place to go
into detail with the quarrying methods, except that the stone was broken from

10. The salary is called . This together with the combination of money and
victuals makes one think of the workers employed at the large estates in Egypt as
, see D. RATHBONE, Economic rationalism and rural society in third-
century Egypt, Cambridge (1991), p. 116f. The salaries are the subject of a
forthcoming paper by Hlne Cuvigny, Le montant du salaire en numraire des
ouvrier dans les carrires du Mons Claudianus .
MONS CLAUDIANUS (1987-1993) 727

the bed-rock with iron wedges and subsequently treated with hammer and point.
The texts tell us that other tools, like large hammers and hoes, were used in very
limited numbers, but the traces on the stone-objects are all of points. The stone-
objects were shaped in the quarries to a large extent in order to reduce their
weight before transportation.
And the transportation must surely have been the biggest problem in
connection with the Mons Claudianus enterprise, both the transportation of
everything needed on the spot and, notably, the transportation of the stone-
objects down to the Nile. For there is no doubt that this was the way the stone
was taken to Rome. In spite of a worker we once had, who used to tell tourists
that the columns had been transported by elephants down to Safaga, we must
insist that the Red Sea played no role at all in the functioning of Mons
Claudianus, except in the availability of fresh fish. There is a perfectly easy
track from Mons Claudianus out to the coastal plain at the level of the modern
Hurghada and halfway there are even the ruins of a small station next to a spring
that still functions at Umm Dalfa. The coast would thus have been accessible in
two days, but there will have been little reason to go there except for fish. The
letters tell us that fresh fish was imported to Mons Claudianus and we even get
the impression that it was re-sold from there to other places in the
neighbourhood. 1 1 Wrapped in wet cloth a good firm fish will still be fresh after a
couple of days, but it is understandable that the letters mentioning fresh fish
mostly presuppose payment in advance. Our palaeontologist has made an
intensive study of the many fish-bones found and with one exception they are all
from Red Sea fish. Most of the fish consumed at Mons Claudianus must have
been in the form of salted fish, , in jars. Whether these amphorae with
salt fish were imported directly from the nearest point on the coast, where there
was nothing in ancient times, or rather was brought up from Myos Hormos or
another coastal fishing-town, we do not know.
There is also evidence of communication North- South to Porphyrites. In
vol. I of the ostraca there is published a series of laissez passer to allow
personnel to pass on the and the . There was
similarly communication with the smaller quarry in Wadi Barud which was
supplied by the same caravans as Mons Claudianus and which has now been
identified as the of antiquity. Equally there must have been contact
directly South to Semna, the Mons Ophis of antiquity, and presumably down to
Wadi Fawakhir on the Coptos-Myos Hormos road. The terrain permits passage
and David Peacock has found small fragments of porphyry and Claudianus-stone
both at Semna and Fawakhir, so we can assume that workers passed.
Furthermore, both Mons Claudianus, Tiberiane and Semna were part of the
administrative circumscription of Porphyrites, so the North-South
communication will have been necessary for administrative reasons.

11.0. Claud. I 157 and II (forthcoming) 227, 241 and 242.


But, even if there certainly was communication from Mons Claudianus to

the coast, and through the mountains both North and South, the important route
goes the other way, West, down to Qena. This was the supply-route and the
route of the columns. But how? This is always the second question that people
ask, when they have seen the site. What animals were used to pull? is
another version of this question. Well, there are a lot of things we do not know
and some that we do. Since Mons Claudianus is on the water-shed the route to
Qena is downhill all the way and there are no major obstacles. It is all flat desert
and there are few or no patches of very soft sand. As for the precise route, there
are at least two possibilities, one leading over Abu Zawal to join the Porphyrites-
Qena road at el-Sakkia, the other almost to Abu Zawal, then to Tal'et Zerqa,12 to
Qreia and then to Qena. The latter is perhaps the shorter, the former the flatter.
According to Peacock it is possible that the lightly loaded wagons travelling up
to Mons Claudianus went by Qreia and Tal'et Zerqa and the heavily loaded
wagons came down the other way.
The evidence for the use of wagons rather than rollers is not without
problems. Wheel tracks that have to be ancient have been found on both routes
and we further have mentions of wagons in the texts. In addition there is the
evidence of the loading ramps that are found everywhere on Mons Claudianus
where the steep ramps coming down from the mountains join the wadi-bed. It is
clear that once the column or other object had been brought down on the flat, the
means of transportation was changed. As can be seen from the loading-ramps,
this second means of transportation was between 0.7 and 1 .7 m high.
In the ostraca there are mentions of wagons with two, four or even twelve
wheels. The problem is, that one does not know how much weight a wagon
could carry in antiquity. The stone objects from Mons Claudianus weigh from a
few tons up to over 200 tons for the big 40-50 foot columns. For the smaller
object there is no problem in accepting that they were transported down to Qena
on wheels and it is even written in a text that i.e. stone plates, or veneer,
are loaded onto the wagon (). Another text mentions loading plates onto a
four-wheel wagon. But plates are easy. They weigh perhaps 500 kg each and one
can just load as many as the wagon will carry. There is a dogma in ancient
technology which says that the maximum that one was able to transport on
wheels was 10 tons. This dogma seems to be based on the technology found in
Carrara in the middle ages, where the carts transporting the marble carried this
weight. These carts had four small wheels.13 We can then push the argument and

12. Thus on the Tabula Imperii Romani map, Coptos-sheet. Steven Sidebotham has
informed me that this name is wrong and the station there is called something else by
the bedouins.
13. Christiane KLAPISCH-ZUBER, Les matres du marbre. Carrare 1300-1600, Paris
(1969) quotes a desciption of the carri (Latin currus) used for transporting marble
(p. 70-71) : Le 'char marbre' des XVe-XVIe sicles a d'ordinaire quatre roues
'basses et bien fixes' raies presque jointives, des poutres grossires pour essieux;
MONS CLAUDIANUS (1987-1993) 729

claim that the carts with twelve wheels could carry three times as much, since
they had three times as many axles. Thus we can accept that 30 tons could be
transported on wheels down to the Nile. But 30 tons is not a very big column,
even if it impressive enough. Those who have been to Mons Claudianus will all
have seen the very first column that lies broken to the East of the camp. That is a
column of just over 30 tons. For those who have not been there, it measures
c. 8.5 m and has a diameter of 1.30 m. Are we really to accept that the Romans
transported everything bigger than this on rollers all the 120 km down to the
Nile? If it had been just one column the size of those in front of the Pantheon,
I could accept it, but there are all the columns in front of the Pantheon and an
unknown quantity of very big columns for the temple of the Divine Trajan that
were brought down inside a few years at the beginning of Hadrian's reign. I find
it impossible to believe that the brilliant engineers that the Romans were, would
not have found a way to transport these columns on wheels. In the first volume
of the archaeological publication David Peacock comes to the same conclusion
and makes some calculations of wheel-sizes, width of tyres and pressure per cm2
and argues that it is quite possible to transport 200 tons on a wooden cart with
twelve wheels.
How were these carts pulled? Oxen would be the normal answer in
antiquity, but they are unsuitable for desert-conditions, and not a single ox-bone
has been found on Mons Claudianus, nor is there a single mention of oxen in our
texts. The choice seems to be limited to camels, donkeys or humans. Peacock
concludes in favour of donkeys rather than camels, because camels are difficult
to harness, tall and narrow as they are.14 He arrives at a total of 200-250 donkeys
to pull on column of 200 tons. But he also argues that harnessing so many
animals and making them pull in unison would have been extremely difficult.
We should keep in mind that just as the ancients were not able to make carts that
could be steered if they had more than two wheels, they could not harness
animals in series either. Every animal had to be harnessed directly to the cart.
Let us try for a moment to imagine a completely stiff wagon that can only roll in
a straight line, with twelve wheels of 1,70 m in diameter, that is to say at least 1 1
metres long, but probably more and, as we know from the wheel-tracks, three
metres wide, and loaded with 200 tons and drawn by 2-300 donkeys harnessed

une flche de bois, Y antenna ... joint les deux trains de roues et se prolonge l'avant
par le timon, l'arrire par le serre-frein. ... Ces lourds chariots taient mus par
plusieurs paires de bufs ; une douzaine pouvait tirer un bloc de 9 tonnes .
14. We know that camels were used for transporting columns, which does not mean that
this was always the case. Two papyri from the Fayum mention camels requisitioned
for transporting columns of porphyry : BGU HI 762 and P. Lond. II 328 (both AD
163) both have . The choice of
could mean being hauled down (from the mountains) , but a local
operation of may equally well be concerned.

individually in a fan-pattern. And then let us imagine 120 km through the sand
with this. Perhaps humans were an easier draft-animal to manipulate, and
Peacock is tempted, as I am, by that solution. Certainly there was a long
tradition for using humans as draft-animals in Egypt. The problem is that the one
text we have (P.Giess. 69) tells us rather clearly that 50-foot columns were
pulled by animals, but unfortunately the text does not say which animals they
were, only that they had no more to eat.


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