1. Abandoned sarcophagus left on the quarry site in Massalia (Marseille), early 5th century BC.

Quarrying the history of Massalia

In advance of a housing development in Marseille's Boulevard de la Corderie, archaeologists from the French Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have uncovered a limestone quarry that was used to build the city of ancient Massalia in the 6th century BC. Founded by Greek sailors from Phocaea, the port-city was developed on what is now the north bank of Marseille's Vieux-Port.

As a number of ruins show, the local fine-grained Stampian limestone found on the south bank near the Abbey of Saint-Victor and the Bassin de Carénage, was widely used in the construction of the city, but discovering the actual place where this 'Saint-Victor limestone' was quarried is like finding the true 'source' of Massalia. The Corderie site shows signs of six metres of limestone extraction in a quarry that was exploited over several decades throughout the 6th century BC, and then abandoned and filled in during the first quarter of the 5th century.

Activity resumed at the quarry in the 2nd century BC in order to extract calcareous breccia, a rock consisting of angular fragments of stones cemented by finer calcareous material. Greek quarrymen extracted large blocks and also cut circular architectural elements of various diameters, but the best preserved examples show that they were destined specifically to be made into sarcophagi (1) and their lids.

The limestone shows imprints of tools used throughout Antiquity: hatchings left by pick-axes and long-shaft chisels, marks left by wedges and levers. It confirms that the extracting method has remained the same for over two millennium.

In view of the importance of the site for research, its discovery aroused the question of what to do next, bearing in mind that the developer had already been granted building permission. In July, the Ministry of Culture declared a protected area of 635 square metres from a total of 4,200 square metres. This decision was confirmed recently and the area is now listed as a historic monument. Fortunately, it lies right on the spot where a garden was planned in the housing project, so it will be accessible to the public. When building starts, the quarry will be buried again to avoid damage during the new construction work. In the meantime, the data collected by researchers will be analysed to provide information on the length of time over which the quarry was exploited, on extractive strategies, and the economic aspects of the quarrying activity during the city's Greek period.

• (For more information visit www.inrap.fr/boulevard-de-la-corderie-12978).
Nicole Benazeth