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Alpine Archaeology: Stone Sourcing of a Jupiter Temple and Petrographic Provenance

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Fig 1a Calc-Schist from Fenetre-de-Ferret, 2700 m elevation (left), Petrographic Photo (400 x) Both Temple and Quarry Stone, Calcite (gray-green) and Mica (yellow-green) grains; Fig. 1b Quartzite from Gran San Bernardo Valley, 2300 m elevation (right) Petrographic Photo (400 x) fused quartz grains [both in cross-polarized light]

Field provenance of stone sources - matching archaeological and geological materials - can often be researched with varying degrees of success. It is suggested here that ultimate positive matches of provenance and context of archaeological stone materials can be streamlined, especially when initially aided by a portable field petrography lab, as well as excellent geological maps and a trained reconnaissance team using reliable field tests even in challenging topography and high altitude terrain. Experiments have been conducted over several decades by this author in global montane contexts of stone provenance research, including the European Alps, Pentelic and other mountains in Greece and the Aegean Islands, Apennine Mountains of Italy, the Near East, Andes Mountains of Peru, and Tuxtlas and Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, among others.

The most recent application of this petrographic provenancing to specific field research has been conducted since 1994 in the Alps at the Grand-St-Bernard Pass. The Temple of Jupiter (11 x 7 meters) at Summus Poeninus was constructed around 70 CE at the summit of the Grand-St-Bernard pass between Switzerland and Italy at 2464 meters just over the Italian border in what was then a provincial outpost along the old Roman road Via [per Alpis] Poenina connecting the rest of the empire with Italy. The present remains consist now mostly of rock cuttings in the local schist with a few broken orthostats and many fragmentary ashlars of a whitish stone, identified in 1996 as calc-schist. The geological context of the Plan de Jupiter is a schist region where the temple emplacement was close to a previous Celtic (Salassi tribe) sacred site with its high rock outcrop, now dominated by a late 19th c. bronze statue of St. Bernard.

Fig. 2 Hypothetical Reconstruction of Jupiter Poeninus Temple (11 x 7 meters) based on rock cuttings and retrieved stone (over 300 ashlar fragmentary blocks)

The site of Summus Poeninus and its Alpine pass have been known and recorded at least since the mid-second century BCE by the historian Polybius; later recorded by Julius Caesar, the geographer Strabo and other Romans between the 1st c BCE to 2nd c. CE. This is the most important Alpine pass for direct north south connecting Italy with Gaul, Germany, Britain, although its elevation has usually been daunting along with its challenging weather year-round.

As part of his Ph.D. research (Institute of Archaeology, UCL, London), the author had assembled a portable petrographic field lab that was published in the peer-reviewed journal World Archaeology 21.1 (1989). Preparing stone thin sections in the field took about 45 minutes. The entire portable field lab fit into a backpack for remote locations, but the necessity of running water (in local streams) was generally optimum to avoid carrying heavy quantities of water for grinding samples in wet slurry. Applications for ceramic petrology were also explored in the 1989 published article.

A full account of the corroborating petrographic and petrologic research on stone provenance of the Temple of Jupiter in the Grand-St-Bernard Pass is now found in a new book published by this author, Alpine Archaeology, 2007.

Fig. 3 Map of Poenine Alps (snowy mass on right) and Mont Blanc Massif (snowy mass on left) with site of Summus Poeninus (2464 m) in between

Stanford University

copyright © 2006 Dr. Patrick Hunt