Assessment / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

Mason’s Marks

As much as I enjoyed reading Van Nice’s correspondence and records from his many trips to and from Hagia Sophia, I think that some of the most valuable information in this collection is contained in the hundreds of rubbings that Van Nice took of the mason’s marks and other carved symbols throughout the building. They are incredibly well-documented (numbered and labeled according to the precise part of the building in which they were found), and as far as I know, unique in their comprehensiveness. Lately, I’ve been working on assessing a number of boxes that contain most of these rubbings.

Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Robert L. Van Nice Collection

So what are mason’s marks? Generally speaking, mason’s marks are carved or chiseled symbols that are found on dressed blocks of stone in buildings.  They can be the personal symbols of the mason who worked a particular block of stone, or they can be used as instructional symbols for the builders who had to put them all together.  Similar kinds of symbols may be stamped into bricks, as well.

Mason’s marks are interesting on their own–they are incredibly varied, and give a kind of hand-made feel to otherwise impersonal marble blocks.  But they are also very valuable tools to the historian or archaeologist.  Van Nice was able to use mason’s marks as one type of evidence to make many arguments about the structure of Hagia Sophia–which sections were built and repaired at what time, how the blocks were actually put together, etc. (See, for example: Van Nice, Robert L. “Hagia Sophia: New Types of Structural Evidence,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians , Vol. 7, No. 3/4 (Jul. – Dec., 1948), pp. 5-9, and Emerson, William and Robert L. Van Nice. “Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: Preliminary Report of a Recent Examination of the Structure,” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 47, NO. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1943), pp. 403-436.)

To this end, he made hundreds of rubbings and tracings of mason’s marks from all over the building. (Not to mention brick stamps, the surfaces of the stone blocks that indicate what kinds of tools were used to cut them, and graffiti).

Mason’s marks, Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

Mason’s Marks, Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Mason’s mark, Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

Among these rubbings and tracings, I found a small group labeled “footprints.”  And the folder contained just that–tracings of foot prints of animals that he found throughout the building!

Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

At first I thought this was adorable and charming, but then I found this note at the top of one of the bird-like footprint tracings:

Robert L. Van Nice Collection.

It reads: “Footprint, traced from the bloody outline on lead of the roof of a hawk that was tearing flesh from the skin of some animal.

Yes, he recorded everything.

One thing I like about Van Nice’s attitude towards his work at Hagia Sophia is that while he was incredibly organized, he doesn’t separate things like the footprints out from the more “useful” information that he gathered  The bloody footprints are right there, next to the mason’s marks and the ancient graffiti–another valuable part of the building worthy of interest and record.


4 thoughts on “Mason’s Marks

  1. Pingback: Motivation, Methods, and Meaning: Architectural Drawings of Hagia Sophia | icfa

  2. Pingback: Motivation, Methods, and Meaning: Architectural Drawings of Hagia Sophia | Project PINOCCHIO50

  3. Pingback: Artistry of the Early American Stonemason | Old Stone Houses

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