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Pietra Ollare: Alpine soapstone vessels in Byzantine Corinth
Author: Rossana Valente. DOI: 10.32028/9781789693775-12.ISBN 9781789693775-12.

Pietra ollare is the Italian nomenclature for a grouping of different lithotypes of basic and ultrabasic metamorphic rocks, related to green schist facies, and used in the production of ollae (Latin for ‘cooking pots’). The label pietra ollare is not related to a petrographic stone type classification, but rather encompasses, in archaeological literature, a variety of commodities made in a range of stone types, from soft grey soapstone to pale green coloured lithotypes that are medium to fine in grain, such as serpentinine, chlorite and amphibole schists rocks. Artefacts made in pietra ollare are, in fact, characterised by similar chemical and physical properties, including: good thermal stability to 1200°C, low porosity and a homogeneous texture. Moreover, an important physical characteristic of these rocks is their low hardness, ranging between 1 to 4 according to the Mohs hardness scale, which makes them easily workable and contributes to their wide use in the Alpine region to produce pans, mugs, plates and, for architectural purposes, heaters, stoves, doors and doorframes, chimneys, pipes and roof tiles, all of which are still made today and used in this area of the Alpine region. Nevertheless, even in modern times, the main use for pietra ollare lavezzi is for specific cooking practices. The low porosity of the stone means that these vessels do not absorb liquids and smells, nor do they introduce unrelated mineral deposits into the food through the cooking process. Furthermore, according to a popular tradition, the stone is able to neutralise the poisons that are present in some foods during the cooking process and, therefore, it was recommended, even in modern times, to cook food for pregnant women in pietra ollare vessels. Finally, soapstone is well known for its resistance to thermic shocks and for its ability to warm up and release heat slowly when in direct contact with fire, a trait related to its refractory qualities. Because of this physical property, soapstone pots have also been used for preserving food, since they are able to maintain a cold temperature for a long time. Finally, it is worth highlighting that, due to their fire-resistant characteristics, pietra ollare pots have also played an important role in artisanal manufacturing activities. Particularly since early Medieval times, lavezzi have been used as a crucible for melting metals, as well as being used in glass production.

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