Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.05

Jon M. Frey, 'Spolia' in Fortifications and the Common Builder in Late Antiquity. Mnemosyne, supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 389.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xi, 222.  ISBN 9789004288003.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Douglas Underwood (


Spolia studies are undergoing something of a renewal recently. This is at least partly due to the modern world: as Dale Kinney has posited, “many of the tropes and strategies of postmodernism are also characteristic of spolia: fragmentation, historicism, memory, authenticity, authorship, and appropriation.”1 Apart from the cultural resonances that may have sparked this interest, the study of reuse in antiquity has been updated with many new and sometimes fairly speculative methodologies. These recent inroads have attempted to break spolia free from a prison of late antique and early medieval architectural fragments (especially found in a handful of churches in Rome) to explore how other physical—and indeed, intangible—objects could be reused across a wider range of periods and places.

Spolia in Fortifications and the Common Builder in Late Antiquity fits in this mold, offering a new approach to this burgeoning topic. It explores the phenomenon of spolia in the context of late antique fortifications in southern Greece, taking walls at Aegina, Sparta and Isthmia as case studies. While there is some discussion about late Roman fortifications in this book, the book’s primary focus is on spolia and late antique construction practices, rather than fortifications per se.

This study is derived from a doctoral dissertation, and maintains some of the scope and structure of its precursor. It begins with a broad introduction to the topic (Chapter 1), which sets up the methodological footing of the study, followed by a chapter (2) on ‘Themes’, which lays out the conceptual framework for examining spolia. Chapters 3-5 take each of the three case studies in turn, before a final chapter (6) which summarizes the major points and explores the issues arising overall about spolia, fortifications and the ‘common builder’.

Chapters 1 and 2 lay out the basic background to the study and, importantly, its methodological underpinning. Frey adopts a post-processual approach, exploring “what the practice of reuse tells us about the role that such lower-level, historically anonymous agents played in bringing about architectural, stylistic and possibly even social change.” (p. 2). The major ‘themes’ of the book are laid out in this introductory section, providing a good introduction and history of spolia, the ‘common builder’ and late Roman fortifications, through concise and fair representations of the current scholarship.

Importantly, this introductory section aims to define spolia. Frey notes the difficulties that scholars have had in determining what should and should not be included in the term spolia—essentially how broad a definition we ought to use for this nebulous term. He recognizes that the field critically needs, “a more methodologically explicit development of an objective set of clearly defined criteria” (p. 21) for the term. Recent literature on the subject has, in order to clarify some the issues that Kinney notes above, begun to distinguish between reuse, recycling and spoliation (the latter implying a “forcible transfer of ownership”).2 Spolia in Fortifications, however, defines spolia as an action, rather than any particular set of objects. Focusing on the process of reuse rather than the reused object is laudable, since as Frey notes, each reused stone had to be removed from its previous context, moved to a new site (and possibly warehoused on the way), selected for a context, generally reworked to some extent, and then placed. One might wish here that some nuance in this new definition had been developed, as there is still huge diversity in the phenomena of reuse, from stones having been taken from spoliated but recently disused monuments to monuments that had decayed over time. These materials were similarly reprocessed in a variety of ways: sometimes re-carved, sometimes turned inward to hide their original usage, and sometimes with original decoration or inscriptions clearly displayed.

There is a lot of history to be explored in the processes of reuse—even if much of it has been lost—and one that can tell us a good deal about the economics and building practices of late antiquity and how individuals approached the “decision to conform to, adapt, or reject aspects of [spolia’s] prior appearance and manner of use” (p. 24). However, this particular study is somewhat hamstrung in those goals by its reliance on observing blocks in situ, using a close examination of the wall or its broken edges, without destructive excavation. This is understandable for doctoral research—and indeed, much research overall—as money and permissions for such work are often harder to come by than would be ideal. Frey aims to overcome these acknowledged limitations by examining similar stones having fallen out of the walls as comparanda and somewhat hedging his conclusions, but a full exploration would recognizably be more revealing.

Frey makes the best of his somewhat limited evidence in the following three chapters, showing the utility of thoroughly documented surface observations combined with archival work. Unfortunately, a justification is never fully given for these particular case studies. Some further notes on how they work together or why they ought to be considered together would have been helpful. Each chapter begins with an introduction to the site, followed by a history of the monument in question along with a history of its excavation and study. The bulk of each chapter is given over to the description and discussion of a manageable stretch of the fortification, before concluding with a brief analysis of those remains. This analysis shows that at each of the case studies—the section commonly called the “Inscription Wall” at Aegina, Section R at Sparta, and several portions of the Fortress at Isthmia—ancient builders took different approaches when putting reused architectural elements to use.

There is sometimes in these chapters a deficiency of chronological data; to a large extent, that is entirely understandable for this project, which involved only surface level cleaning and documentation. Yet the three case studies are all only roughly dated, and Frey sometimes grasps at various barbarian raids in the fourth and fifth centuries to help tie them down more precisely. Better dating evidence (which would have been impossible for Frey in this context) may have revealed connections between some of the observations made in this book and changes in spolia practice over time.

Frey ends the book with a concluding analysis chapter called, “Spoliation as Process, Military Strategy, and Democratization” which recapitulates the discussions and ties together the particular trends that he identifies throughout the text. There are some very interesting points made here, such as the relative importance of what was protected within the walls compared to what was being spoliated to construct them. He points out that these walls do not disfigure or ‘Christianize’ stones before they were reused, suggesting there was not the element of iconoclasm sometimes seen in spolia used in a Christian context; instead this kind of practical reuse is part of a much longer building tradition in the Mediterranean. Frey also argues that studying monuments built with spolia, especially walls, can lead to insights about individuals and their process, which relates to the ‘common builder’ in the title.

Overall, the strength of the concluding chapter lies in how it lays out some new strands for thinking about spolia. First, Frey shows that fortifications and other non-religious architecture have much to say about the origins and significance of spolia. Second, he argues that there were no universally adopted practices for building with spolia, and that instead it was varied and “experimental and locally determined” (p. 7) and as such, we cannot conclusively say that spolia was motivated solely by pragmatism or ideology.

In total, this book presents evidence for different practices for and concerns about spolia in late antiquity in a compelling way. Its aspiration to pull the ‘common builder’ from the proverbial mists of time is laudable, but ultimately not fully achieved with the evidence here. It is a difficult task to identify agents at multiple levels in the building process, but Frey only succeeds here in proving that different hands had an impact on the appearance of these fortifications. But that conclusion is still significant. It shows that late antique builders could respond in a variety of ways—by considering local traditions or limitations placed by materials—to the question of how and why to use spolia. There are, in his words, a ‘spectrum of possible motivations for spolia use in late antiquity’ (p. 128). This is important as it breathes life into building tradition in a period where it is generally thought of as moribund. We can begin to see the late Roman wall builder in Greece as a true architect who has to develop a strategy to conquer the manifold engineering problems of an individual project.

There are a few minor issues of style, which detract from, but do not majorly undermine Frey’s study. The text is sometimes a bit short of details, which becomes trying for the reader in such a focused archaeological study. For example, on p. 54, in discussing possible dating evidence for the wall at Aegina, Frey notes, “the substantial rise in surface level in this part of the site” but does not provide a specific figure. The descriptions of the walls are occasionally unclear (e.g. “at a point roughly 4.5–10 m from the west end of the central span of the wall as well as the section of the wall that turns at a right angle to the north at the western end of the central span.” P. 71). Overall, these long and sometimes difficult to follow text descriptions could have been shortened by the use of several further good quality plans, with adequate detail of the described sections. While the quality of the pictures is good in the printed version of the book, some of the plans are on the small side, making detail challenging to discern. Photographs are printed in black and white, which is largely adequate, but there are a few that would have benefitted from being reproduced in color. For example, color could have improved a few of the close-up images of walls and mortar, where greater contrast would be helpful; this is particularly the case for the wall at Sparta, as Frey argues that the color of the spolia was one element that builders took into account to recreate a Doric style frieze in the wall facing. But perhaps the most vexing problem is the lack of in-text references to figures and illustrations, which can leave the reader confused as to what exactly is being discussed and how it relates to the images on the neighboring pages. The reader is thus left to match up long text descriptions of detailed analysis of sections of wall, masonry, and joins, with quite brief image captions.

Beyond these issues, there is little problematic about the presentation of the text. Overall, Spolia in fortifications and the common builder in late antiquity is a welcome addition to an ever-growing field—and one that crucially works to identify and explore a new method for understanding reuse.


1.   D. Kinney, “Introduction” in Reuse Value: Spolia and Appropriation in Art and Architecture from Constantine to Sherrie Levine (Ashgate, 2011), p. 1.
2.   Ibid, p. 4.
3.   E. Zanini, “Artisans and Traders in the Early Byzantine City: Exploring the Limits of Archaeological Evidence” in Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity (Brill, 2006) p. 373–411.

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