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Red porphyry
Red porphyry | Photo: James St. John / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Porphyry has been used since ancient times to make sarcophagi, sculptures and a host of other items as well as architectural features. The most widely used type of porphyry was red porphyry, or rather porphyry andesite, characterized by the purple colour of the rock.

In Roman times, red porphyry was also of great symbolic importance, as a stone considered an equivalent only to the emperor, his family and gods. Porphyry is believed to have been first brought to Rome in the 1st century BCE and was used consistently but sparingly during the times of the Republic and the first years of the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder however mentions that the stone was discovered in 18 CE thanks to the Roman legionary Caius Cominius Leugas. According to the researchers, however, the discovery was made earlier, and the use of porphyry itself increased significantly after the conquest of Egypt. The Romans began extracting porphyry from Egyptian quarries during the reign of Emperor Claudius. From the rule of Trajan to the rule of Diocletian, there has been a steady increase in the production of porphyry. Porphyry was only used to decorate public buildings and the Emperor’s palaces. It is believed that the most important parts of the imperial Diocletian’s palaces and Constantine were covered with porphyry, as well as the reception halls, the circles marked with porphyry – the place where the ambassadors fell to their knees in front of the emperor. Porphyry as a symbolic stone was also used in imperial burials: Nero’s ashes were kept in an urn, and Emperor Hadrian had his huge sarcophagus also made of porphyry.

Septimius Sever, wanting to be sure of the imperial burial, in the event of his death in battle, took his porphyry urn to Britain.

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