Upcycling Ancient Beauty – How Precious Stones, Monuments, and Jewels Have Been Re-Used

Upcycling Ancient Beauty – How Precious Stones, Monuments, and Jewels Have Been Re-Used

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Sculptures, monuments, jewels, and even floors of churches and palaces… Impressive artifacts, outstanding pieces of art, and treasures which could satisfy even the most demanding person... Many of these items were created during ancient times, but very often they became victims of their own beauty.

What could satisfy the rich and vain more than wearing a necklace once owned by a Roman Empress, drinking from Cleopatra’s chalices, or wearing a crown made from ancient kings’ treasures? How could one save money on monuments of saints but still have the most impressive depictions of St Peter or Paul in the world? How does one go about finding incredible columns which look exactly like they were taken from an ancient temple or palace? The desires of royals and nobles made it so ancient treasures changed their location, form, and owners. There are so many examples of this “recycling” that it is impossible to mention them all.

Diocletian's Palace was built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century AD. Today the structure forms about half the old town and city center of Split, Croatia.

Diocletian's Palace was built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century AD. Today the structure forms about half the old town and city center of Split, Croatia. (Ballota/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Finding the Church’s “Perfect” Floor

The style of geometric decorative stonework which is often seen on the floors of medieval churches in Italy, France, and the UK (as well as several other countries) is known as Cosmati or Cosmatesque. This beautiful way of creating unusual shapes and sequences of stones continues to be one of the most sophisticated aspects of European architecture. The name of the style comes from the surname of a few generations of artists who created them between 1190 and 1235 – the Cosmati family.

Detail of Cosmatesque floor, in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome.

Detail of Cosmatesque floor, in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome. (Manfred Heyde/ CC BY SA 3.0)

Looking at the structures of churches in Rome, for example, visitors may wonder where the architects found such perfect pieces of marble and other stones - the answer lies in ancient ruins.

Ruins served as a source for precious stones, columns, and other parts of construction. These architectural features were taken from ancient sites and then re-arranged into new shapes. If one looks closely while stepping on the floors of places like the Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican and churches in Roman Laterano, one can see the remnants of ancient temples.

A Cosmatesque screen in Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome.

A Cosmatesque screen in Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome. (Anthony Majanlahti/ CC BY 2.0 )

Moreover, many of the oldest monumental sculptures of saints were often created from previous representations of philosophers and ancient leaders. Trading and transforming ancient sculptures was very common. After battles near ancient sites, armies would search for treasures which they could use or give to their rulers for new decorations in temples, churches, palaces, etc.

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

Re-used reliefs as decoration in Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome. (Vincent de Groot/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Magnificent Ancient Details Hidden in Versailles

One of the greatest examples of the re-use of ancient stones was the palace of the famous King Louis XIV of France. It was built in such a style that no other palace could compete with it. However, to achieve this incredible image the architects needed to find elements which were unique, but also “good enough” to satisfy the powerful king. The answer to this problem was found thousands of kilometers away– in the ancient city of Leptis Magna.

Over 600 columns from Leptis Magna were reused in Versailles. Some of them were taken from the original location between 1686 and 1708 by the French consul in Tripoli, Claude Lemaire. Apart from the famous palace near Paris, Lemaire donated a few columns to Windsor Palace in London as well. Moreover, the precious statues of deities (such as the Diana once found in Versailles) came from Leptis Magna.

Artemis, better known as “Diana of Versailles.”

Artemis, better known as “Diana of Versailles.” (Sting/ CC BY SA 2.5 )

Another example of recycling ancient features can be found in the facade of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. It is decorated with horses known also as the “Triumphal Quadriga.” The origins of this decoration are uncertain. Some researchers believe they were made by the Greek artist Lysippos during the 4th century BC. However, others have dated it back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD and think that the horses come from sculptures made for Marcus Aurelius or Septimius Severus.

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Ancient Technology

Grinding stone, Dendera Temple, Egypt.
Most people know of the great construction achievements of the dynastic Egyptians such as the pyramids and temples of the Giza Plateau area as well as the Sphinx. Many books and videos show depictions of vast work forces hewing blocks of stone in the hot desert sun and carefully setting them into place.

Ancient Places

From this map of the site, all the main structures and rock carvings are visible.
The little town of Malinalco lies at the margins of the Valley of Tepoztlan, some 115 kilometers (71 miles) to the southwest of Mexico City. Since Prehispanic times, its name has been associated with magic and sorcery: Malinalxochitl, goddess of snakes was worshipped on the Cerro de los Idolos, a hill overlooking the entire valley and the town below.

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View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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