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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 17 of 30: Roman Sites - Chemtou Marble Quarris

photo by MAW

Chemtou marble

This was the source of the golden pink veined marble prized throughout the Roman World. The industry supported a sizeable town with a large forced labor camp to the north east. The river was deemed to be an unsuitable water source so an aqueduct brought in water from the north. A few remaining pillars can still be seen.

There were up to 20,000 men working in the quarries. Many were convicted criminals who had the choice of being thrown to the animals in the amphitheatre, working in the quarries or working in the mines. Working in the mines gave slightly better odds of survival. There was a large settlement of old soldiers who oversaw the work and helped keep order.

Blocks cut to standard sizes were marked with the name of the reigning emperor, the proconsul for Africa, quarry supervisor and a reference number. Originally the blocks were hauled on rollers to Oued Medjerda and floated downstream across Tunisia to the port of Utica on barges. The river began to silt up making transport difficult, so the first recorded road was built under Hadrian to Tabarka and the marble was shipped out from there. The quarries worked until the Arab invasion in the 7thC. There was some reworking during 19thC.

The quarries are now huge gashes in the hillside. The road to the museum runs through them and gives good views of the pinkish orange cliffs. There is little left of the settlement. A few remaining pillars from the aqueduct can be seen along the road to Chentou.

There are the remains of the paved street which took marble to the oued. There are remains of buttresses and some arches of the bridge across the oued. Next to the bridge are the remains of the water turbines which were used to grind grain. The water channels can still be seen.

Very little of the site has been excavated and it is overgrown with vegetation. You can see assorted bits of masonry standing up around the site but it is not always easy to work out what they are. A farm track leads to the hillside surrounded by ruined walls.

One of the largest buildings left standing is the theatre. The outside walls and underground arches supporting the tiers are still visible but the seats have gone. The steps to the stage are still visible.

There is a large museum on the site. Labels are in Arabic, French and German although there is a leaflet in English which gives information about the history of the site and has a map of the museum and site. The first room contains information about the Numidians who settled here before the Romans. There is some information about farming and way of life as well as a display of coins. Another room has a display of Chemtou marble with examples of the different colors and patterns. There is information about quarrying and a model showing how the stones were lifted. The final room has a display about the Roman colony which includes a lot of carved tomb stones and a working model of the water turbines.

Chemtou is near to the Algerian Border and a long way from the major Roman sites of Thuburbo Majus, Dougga and El Jem. Few tourists make it this far but it can be combined with a trip to Bulla Regis. It was interesting to see the quarries but I wouldnĺt rank it as one of most important sites on our itinerary and it can be missed out.

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