The ancient marble quarries

The source of Paros’s superb marble lies 5km due east of Parikia along the road to Lefkes, in a valley which cuts south from the eastern end of the settlement of Marathi. The whole area has much evidence of 19th century quar rying activity. The shell of a large marble-cutting factory stands on the southwest side of the valley: it is a particularly fine relict of industrial architecture, with a low triangular profile, arched windows and oval window-light in the pediment. These buildings date from shortly after the reopening of the quarries on Paros in 1844, for the specific aim of providing marble for the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides. In 1878 the Societe des Marbres de Paros was created to exploit the quarries further.
   Three hundred metres south of the road, in the eastern slope, opposite two ruined 19th century buildings which originally housed hauling machinery, are the entrances to the principal galleries of the ancient quarries, active since the early Archaic period. (Flashlight and sturdy foot wear are necessary to explore the galleries.)

   The two galleries, whose entrances you see before you, descend over 100m into the hillside and communicate at their farthest point by a transverse gallery which permits an essential movement of air. They descend at the same gradient, but diverge from the parallel in their trajectories. A series of smaller chambers and galleries radiate from the extremity of the northern gallery. The steepness of the gradient must have doubled the difficulty of extracting large blocks. Small debris was left to accumulate on the floor of the gallery and this facilitated the movement of cut blocks over its surface. But from the outset the gradient must have been dictated by the purity of the particular vein of marble, which must follow the angle indicated by the slope of the natural roof over the entrance to the south gallery. A descending gallery in this way also allows for the escape of smoke and fumes from the burning of lamps.
   Of the two galleries, the southern is more interesting, but more difficult to descend. The northern gallery has been worked in the 19th century, and the drill marks along the walls, and the supporting walls date from this recent period: whereas in the southern gallery (to the right as you face the hill) can be seen evidence of ancient working—the fine and regular striations left by ancient picks and bull-nose chisels— in the roof and along the walls. On the left as you enter the south gallery, carved into the rock-face behind a protruding boulder, is the mid 4th century bc, * relief and inscription dedicated to the Nymphs, protectresses of these ‘artificial caves’. The scene—fragmentary and eroded by superficial ef florescences—in fact depicts nymphs, satyrs, silens, and oth er figures (possibly Pan) whose identity is hard to decipher: the three-word inscription is so elliptic that its meaning is also far from clear. The subject matter of the scene may re late in some way to the legend recounted by Pliny that in the quarry on one occasion, when the stone-breakers split open a block ‘a likeness of Silenus was found inside’ (Nat. Hist., XXXVI, 14). As you descend the gallery, on the right there are regularly-spaced, natural columns of rock left so as to give support to the roof. At various points there are graffiti left by visitors from the 18th century onwards. At the bottom of the two galleries the space opens out: it appears that the greatest quantity of marble was extracted from here.
   Two hundred metres further up on the west side the valley, quite high on the slope, is a natural breach which was quar ried superficially in Antiquity; and a further 100m beyond is another deep quarry, which progresses into the hillside in a series of chambers. A few unfinished blocks can be seen around its entrance. In these two areas the marble is less pure and is slightly veined with grey.

   On the hill to the west of the quarries is the heavily fortified and buttressed, 17th century monastery of Aghios Minas (dedicated to SS. Minas, Victor and Vincent). It contains a number of spolia in its fabric: most important of these is the missing fragment of the relief of the Nymphs in the quarries below, which is immured into the solid banister of the steps here.

Travel Guide to Paros & Greece

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