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Greek Masonry

and Construction Techniques

Masonry

Cyclopean

Wall in Mycenae, built c. 1500 B.C.

The earliest example of substantial building in Greece was the Cyclopean masonry found in Mycenae and nearby in other Bronze Age citadel cities. It is unknown how the ancient Mycenaeans moved such large stones, some of them, such as the megalithic lintel stones over the Lions Gate, weighing up to several tons. In fact, very little is known about any of their construction techniques. The skills were lost in the years after the Bronze Age ended, around 1100 B.C. What we know though, is that the stones were only very slightly worked with tools, and were probably found lying around the area rather then quarried. Smaller chunks of stones would be jammed between any cracks between the larger ones. Because of the great mass and weight of the larger stones, the walls proved to be very durable and sturdy.

Polygonal
When Greece came out of its Dark Age around 800 B.C., it had to reinvent the masonry skills it saw in the ruins of Mycenae. Unless rectangular blocks were necessary for aesthetic reasons, masons tended to try and imitate the Cyclopean style as best they could, because it took less time and effort to work the stones into proper shape. They used smaller stones than seen in Cyclopean masonry because they didnt have the technology to move stones as large as those used in Mycenae. In Polygonal masonry, masons cut blocks with curved outlines and fit them together like a puzzle, using the natural form of the rock This masonry was very stable, and because they interlocked so tightly, the wall didnt need any extra support from metal clamps.

Delphi terrace wall, early sixth century

Horizontal
About 500 B.C., it became high style to lay blocks in more or less horizontal rows. This sense of order was seen as more formal than the irregularity of the polygonal masonry, and was often used with temples and important civic structures. It was less stable than the interlocking polygonal style though, and so the masons would secure the blocks with horizontal clasps and vertical metal dowels to prevent any lateral shifting. All of the metal was further fixed by a seal of molten lead, all of this security important in Greece, which was often hit by earthquakes. With all of the metal used and the time it took to finely shape the stone, this sort of masonry was expensive, and saved for only the most prestigious structures.

Priene street with supporting wall for the temple of Athena Polias, fourth century

Ashlar / Isodomic
This masonry was a fifth century development, and basically a refinement of the horizontal masonry. At the corners, the joints were often placed perpendicular to one another in alternating layers. Generally this was used for smaller or highly important surfaces as the regularity could seem monotonous if carried on for too long. Generally, for added interest, larger blocks were used for the lower courses of the walls, and is often seen in temples where the foundation is above ground and where an intermediate size stone softens the difference between the large foundation slabs and the smaller ashlar stones.

The Erechtheion, Athens, c. 421-407 B.C.

Others
Decorative Polygonal
In the Hellenistic period, polygonal masonry came back into style, but instead of selecting rocks from the surface of the ground and just barely working them, later masons deliberately carved the stones into complex geometrical shapes. This style was mainly reserved for decorative masonry, real polygonal masonry was still used for more utilitarian purposes.

Knidos terrace-wall 3rd- 2nd c.

Others
Decorative Polygonal
In the Hellenistic period, polygonal masonry came back into style, but instead of selecting rocks from the surface of the ground and just barely working them, later masons deliberately carved the stones into complex geometrical shapes.
The earlier polygonal from Delphi shows more natural shapes, while the irregularities of the later wall seem manufactured in comparison

Knidos terrace-wall 3rd- 2nd c.

Others
Slanted Ashlar
This style seems to be a sort of compromise between polygonal and horizontal masonry. The blocks are flat on the top and bottom and set in relatively straight courses, the only difference was that every so often, the sides were cut on angles. These angled edges retained some of the extra stability polygonal masonry gave and so masons felt safe to use this style for purposes such as fortification despite the small block size, which would usually lead to weaker walls. Although most of the walls were still constructed using Polygonal masonry, this provided a cleanerlooking alternative for embellished pieces of the walls.

Messene, city wall and tower, min 4th c.

Others
Slanted Ashlar
This style seems to be a sort of compromise between polygonal and horizontal masonry. The blocks are flat on the top and bottom and set in relatively straight courses, the only difference was that every so often, the sides were cut on angles. These angled edges retained some of the extra stability polygonal masonry gave and so masons felt safe to use this style for purposes such as fortification despite the small block size, which would usually lead to weaker walls. Although most of the walls were still constructed using Polygonal masonry, this provided a cleanerlooking alternative for embellished pieces of the walls.

Messene, city wall and tower, min 4th c.

Building Techniques
Mystery of Mycenae
When Greece regained an interest for monumental building around 800 B.C., Mycenae was already in ruins. The Greeks knew that they still had the same materials as their ancestors; timber, mud bricks, and stone, but they had forgotten the techniques that the Mycenaeans had developed for their massive structures. The Greeks could only guess that the walls and other structures must have been built by the giant Cyclopes, hence the name Cyclopean masonry.

Dark Age of Greek History


During the Dark Age of Greece, buildings had been mainly made of sun-baked mud brick with timber support frames and thatched roofs. Buildings were not meant to be monumental, and most sacred places were not temples but rather natural formations such as caves.

Stone was used only for the base of the buildings to keep water moister away from the mud walls, but these unworked stones were generally just those that were found on the surface of the ground.
The buildings themselves were competently built, but there was certainly little if any attempt of elaboration, and everything was kept on a relatively small scale as the proportions were dependent of the size of the tree trunks they could find.

Historical and Egyptian Inspiration


Around 800 B.C., there was an increased interest in the historical past, perpetuated by people like Homer who told stories about the heroic past of Greece.

Greeks wanted to emulate the style of their ancient heroes, and were given the chance through increased interactions with Egypt.
Around 660 B.C., the Greeks had given support to Pharaoh Psamtik, who regained control of Egypt from Assyrian control. His victory opened the door for increased trade and communication, and the Greeks founded a trading town named Naukratis on the western Egyptian coastline around 620 B.C..

Homer

Megalithic Building
Egypt built monumental works completely in stone, and the Greeks eagerly studied their techniques in order to develop their own style. From the early seventh century onward, they would have had new knowledge of how to dress stone as well as how to physically put up such megalithic buildings. One of the easiest comparisons between Greek and Egyptian architecture is the Doric order.

The Greeks at first closely followed the Egyptian models, although in their earlier temples it can be seen that they still needed to develop their refinement.
But although the Greeks did copy some of Egyptian building techniques, their buildings in whole were very different from their Egyptian counterparts, keeping to traditional Greek forms.
Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Deir-elBahari, Egypt, c. 1500 BC

Megalithic Building
Note that the Temple of Apollo, which is one of the earliest examples of Greek megalithic buildings, has monolithic columns. This would later be refined by building the columns up in drums rather than trying to carve the entire pillar, which took larger pieces of stone and so was both more expensive and more cumbersome.

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Deir-elBahari, Egypt, c. 1500 BC

The Temple of Apollo at Corinth, mid-6th century B.C.

Steps to Construction: The Architects Job


In ancient Greece, there was no difference between architect and engineer until the late fourth century, and he was the most important person on the project, sometimes even more so than the patrons themselves. The architect of the building project was expected to control all details of workmanship, inspect each course of stone before the next could be laid down, approve the tightness of each joint and the quality of the clamps, and authorize payments to all the workmen and contractors.
In fact, the only part of the building process which he had no direct control over was the quarrying process.

Steps to Construction: Quarrying and Initial Carving


After the 6th century BC, the Greeks followed the Egyptian method of quarrying. Blocks were cut from the quarry on order from the builder, and even column drums were sometimes precut in their cylinder shape.

A channel would be cut around the block to the depth of the height required and then it would be detached from its base with wedges.

Steps to Construction: Quarrying and Initial Carving


As Greek masons and architect refined their work, temples (it was mostly temples that were built with the best stonework) grew in size to a more monumental scale. As the temples grew, so did the size of the required blocks if the style was to remain in the same proportions. To ease the growing pressures on lifting and transportation, stoneworkers would often hollow out parts of the stone that werent essential to the support of the building.

Steps to Construction: Transporting the Stone


Most blocks could be transported to the build site in ox-drawn wagons, and this was the standard practice. The Greeks did at times use the Egyptian method of having blocks moved on sledges and rollers, but it wasnt practical for long distances, and took too many men to execute properly.
At times though, loads would become too heavy for wagons, and new plans would have to be worked out. Some worked while others not so much. Lower left design was actually used by the architect Cherisphron to move the architrave blocks for the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos (c. 560 BC).

Steps to Construction: Lifting and Leveling


Once the blocks had arrived at the construction site, the real work began. The Greeks did employ the earthen ramp method of the Egyptians, and even improved on the idea by using sandbags instead of earth so that once the stone block was in place, it could be lowered by a controlled flow of sand as they loosened the bags one by one. A preferred method though, was the use of cranes, much like the cranes we have today except made mainly of wood and rope. These cranes made it possible to have only a small workforce of professional workmen on the site, rather than the large mob it would take to use other methods like the earth ramp, and so was much more efficient and reasonable in a society which didnt have the instant workforce which a pharaoh would have.

Steps to Construction: Lifting and Leveling II


The cranes, however more efficient than ramps, could only handle smaller sized blocks. Multiple cranes could be used on one blocks, but architects adapted to the machinery instead by having the same structure made of smaller individual units. U-shaped notches or protruding bumps would be carved into the stone pieces so that ropes would have somewhere to attach to when the block was lifted into place. Once the blocks were set in place, as well as during initial carving, masons would check that the blocks were level using an Ashaped level. This level had a plumb-line hanging from the apex, which on a level plane would hang directly between the two legs.

Steps to Construction: Connecting and Finishing


The column drums were connected by metal dowels which were fixed with lead, and the regular blocks of the walls were fixed by metal clamps and lead as in general horizontal masonry practices, with no mortar used. To make sure everything looked regular and aligned properly, the final carving was saved until all the blocks were in place. The stone was worked down with chisels until it was finally smoothed by small stones and sand. If it was marble, it could be further polished with leather. Completely finishing stone seemed to be reserved for only the most important buildings, as it took a lot of detailed work.

a) The U-Shape holes on top, here for levers rather than cranes because of the small stone size The dove-tail clamp connecting the top of the two stones

b)

f) Preliminary finishing

Temples versus Secular


Temples were unique to Greek architecture in that their form never changed much. It was always a post and lintel structure, mimicking the homes of the early Greeks.

This is somewhat misleading, because the Greeks did know about other construction methods such as the arch, they just chose tradition instead of new forms.
In fact, the arch and other more experimental forms can be seen in secular structures. The arch in particular, was saved for structures with thicker walls, which would provide the proper amount of buttressing for the outward thrust.

Parthenon, Athens, 447- 431 BC

Techniques Seen in Fortifications


Because of their thick walls, fortifications (as well as tombs) often had domes, because they didnt need buttressing. Seen here is also an example of cantilevering, where the steps are supported only on one end of the stone block which is embedded into the wall. The Greeks though never built a dome larger than the span of a small room. It would be the Romans who would fully explore the use of domes as well as other more experimental forms of stone construction, aided dramatically by their invention of concrete.

Bibliography
Coulton, J. J. Greek Architects at Work. London: Elek Books Ltd., 1977. Lawrence, A. W. Greek Architecture. 5th ed. New York: Yale UP, Pelican history of art, 1996.

Sadler, Simon. "Lecture 3." AHI025. ART 217. 14 Apr. 2008.


Tomlinson, Richard A. From Mycenae to Constantinople: The Evolution of the Ancient City. New York: Routledge, 1992.