The archaeological and cultural value of the ancient marble quarries
Historically, Paros was known for its fine white marble and, today, abandoned marble quarries can be found in abundance on the island. The main groups of ancient quarries are located near the village of Marathi. They were in operation from the Early Cycladic period (3,200 BC) until the 19th century. They include a number of magnificent underground galleries created from the extraction of marble. All set within an enchanting natural environment.
Best known are two underground quarries, the Quarry of the Nymphs and the Quarry of Pan, the source of the extremely pure and highly translucent lychnites marble. Nearby, in a location called Lakkoi, there are at least 20 opencast quarries of different shapes and sizes. They were the source of coarser grained marble than lychnites and mainly used in architectural works and are older than those of Nymphs and Pan, already in use in the 7th Century BC.
The Parian marble became the dominant medium in monumental art from the 6th century BC and maintained its dominant position through the classical period and afterwards up to the 3rd century AD. Hermes of Praxiteles, Venus de Milo, Augustus of Prima Porta are just a few of the famous works of art adorning major museums in Europe.
Parian marble was exported not only in rough blocks but also in the form of art works, such as statues, columns, funerary monuments, stelai or sarcophagi. Marble artists’ workshops flourished in Paros. Exports of fine works and semi-finished works of art were often accompanied by Parian sculptors. Works produced in Parian marble have been located in an extensive area from the Black Sea to Spain.
This huge industrial and commercial activity brought economic prosperity as well as splendour to Paros in ancient times. The capital city of the city-state of Paros was known as the “brilliant city” of Paros, due to its embellishment with works made of Parian marble. It was a substantial city of 40,000 inhabitants including a large number of slaves working under harsh conditions in the quarries.
The ancient quarries were revived in the 19th century with a succession of foreign companies extracting the remaining deposits of lychnites. The disused quarries were largely forgotten in the first half of the 20th century, and it was only from the 1960s onwards that local people and the growing numbers of tourists started paying attention to these, by then, hidden treasures.
The quarries were designated a protected ‘archaeological area’ in 1974 and this was extended in 2000 to include the quarries at Lakkoi. It covers nearly 200 ha, owned in its entirety by a number of private owners. In 2018, the part that contains some substantial but largely derelict industrial buildings from the 19th century operation of the quarries, was additionally designated as a ‘historic site’ by ministerial decision. The Ministry of Culture – its central services in Athens and the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities – is statutorily responsible for the archaeological area.
A long-term vision is becoming reality
A major landmark in this process of re-discovery was an international archaeological conference entitled Paria Lithos, held on Paros in 1997. It brought together a large body of relevant research and documented the recognition of the unique importance of the ancient quarries. The conference resolution included that: “The Marathi-Lakkoi area is a complex union of man and nature. Efforts must be initiated to convert the zone into an archaeological-cultural park, which will include quarries, landscape, and buildings, the last representing an important complex of 19th century industrial architecture. After restoration, the buildings should be used for cultural and scientific purposes”
Alas, nothing happened in the following 20 years and the current state of the quarries is deplorable. The ancient galleries are neglected and inaccessible – a source of constant disappointment for thousands of visitors to Paros.
Seeing the issues of protection and neglect persisting for so long, the FoPA along with other local associations sought to mobilise the local stakeholders in an initiative for the rescue, protection and promotion of the monument of the ancient underground quarries and the broader archaeological area. A key step was a workshop in November 2019, bringing together local associations, the Municipality of Paros, representatives of the Ministry of Culture and high-level guest speakers. It laid the foundations for all relevant parties to work in partnership and seek practical solutions instead of blaming each other for past failures and the current state of the quarries.
The leading role in these efforts is now played by the non-profit organisation “Paros Ancient Marble Quarries Park A.M.K.E.” which launched its activities in July 2022 with the aim to promote and support the protection of the ancient marble quarries and the creation of an archaeological and cultural park in Marathi. The FoPA and five other local associations are behind this initiative. The organisation acts in close consultation with them and with the relevant public authorities, notably the Ephorate of Cyclades Antiquities (Ministry of Culture) and the Municipality of Paros.
The organisation is driven by the ambition to overcome years of neglect of this unique monument and has a long-term vision of achieving its recognition as a World Heritage site. It is action-oriented rather than focused on expressing opinions and acknowledges that many, often small, steps will need to be taken by various public and other bodies and individuals to achieve progressively the goal of safeguarding the future of the ancient underground quarries and promoting them globally.
In 2023, non-profit organisation “Paros Ancient Marble Quarries Park” is engaged in several interconnected projects, preparing and promoting their implementation, including fund-raising. They come under three headings:
The protection of the monument of the underground galleries of the quarries:
- The 3D digital topographic survey and geological investigation of the underground galleries by the National Technical University of Athens. This project was funded by the Ministry of Culture and is approaching completion. Preliminary results were presented in an open event in Parikia on 27 November 2022.
- The assessment of the stability risks and the installation of a permanent monitoring system, followed by any necessary support to prop up sections of the galleries or other remedial measures, to allow eventually, visitors’ access to some sections of the galleries.
Improving the experience and appreciation of the quarries by the virtual and physical visitor:
- The creation and ongoing development of the website parianmarble.com bringing together extensive information and knowledge about the quarries, including information about works of art from Parian marble, and news about the creation of the archaeological-cultural park.
- Improved signage and tidying up of the footpaths and other common areas in thearchaeological area of the ancient quarries.
- Organising guided tours of the archaeological area in conjunction with the FoPA and other local organisations – the most recent in November 2022.
- An information and awareness raising programme for secondary schools and local communities in Paros including video, talks and other activities.
Creating and promoting the new archaeological-cultural park:
- Initial branding strategy for the archaeological-cultural park, presented at ΑΜΚΕ’s launch event in July 2022 at Marathi.
- Preparation of a master plan for the archaeological-cultural park through a participatory process. Terms of reference have been developed in consultation with the Ephorate of Cyclades Antiquities and Newer Monuments Service of the Ministry of Culture.
- Engagement with the private land owners in the archaeological area, the Ministry and the Municipality with a view to securing the ownership or use of the main areas in the Park through purchase, leasing or gifting.
To be able to realise all these and other specific projects, “Paros Ancient Marble Quarries Park”, as a non-profit organisation depends on the support of local residents and the friends of the island, especially the members of the FoPA and the other associations that have backed its creation. At this stage funding support is particularly needed for the master plan, the schools programme and the leasing or acquisition of key parcels of land in the archaeological area.
Haris Martinos and Marousso Bouras
Anyone interested in helping with the ancient quarries projects can get in touch with the board of “Paros Ancient Marble Quarries Park A.M.K.E.” at email@example.com.
Donations can be made directly to the bank account of the organisation at parianmarble.com/donate.