The Mediterranean region had abundant supplies of stones, such as marble and limestone, which the ancient Greeks and Romans used for sculpture and the construction of buildings. The Greeks began excavating* these sites in the 700s B.C. as a way to extract the stones. Greek quarrying techniques changed very little over the centuries, and the Romans later adopted these methods to extract stones on a much wider scale.
The Greeks and Romans built quarries wherever there was a valuable source of stone. The Greek colony of Syracuse (on the island of Sicily) had an abundant source of limestone that produced more than 100 million tons of limestone during the ancient period. Marble extracted from quarries on the islands of Paros and Naxos in the Aegean Sea was prized for its special characteristics. Parian marble had a glistening white sheen, and the marble quarried in Naxos was stone gray. Quarries in Spain yielded selenite, a variety of gypsum that was used to make plaster.
Although most quarries consisted of rock formations on the surface of the ground, some stones, such as a special variety of marble at Paros, were extracted by tunneling through the mountains. Quarry workers used hammers and picks to carve deep grooves into the rock. Soft stones were forced out of the rockbed with wooden wedges that had been saturated with water. When the wedges swelled, soft stones, such as tufa, split away from the rock face. Harder stones, such as basalt, required iron wedges that were heated by fire to extract the stone.
Once the stone was extracted from the rockbed, various methods were used to cut the stone. Some stones were cut with a conventional saw, but a more common method involved sand and a strong wire. The pressure of the wire moving back and forth on the sand was enough to cut the stone without leaving any roughness. By the A.D. 300s, waterpower was used to drive large marble-cutting saws. (See also Construction Materials and Techniques.)
* excavate to uncover by digging