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An example of ancient Greek construction is this Parthenon temple on the Acropolis of Athens. Source: anastasios71 / Adobe Stock.

Greek Construction Methods Now Pushed Back In Time

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Ancient Greeks used cranes over a century earlier than currently believed, according to a new scientific paper.

Walking through any modern city will confirm that as a species we have our heads fixed firmly downwards. While some of us attempt to avoid any and all eye contact with strangers, most of us are checking how many likes a post got. However, in ancient Greece it was quite the opposite where attention was greatly focused on raising cast stone buildings into the heavens, lifting one heavy block at a time without modern machinery.

‘How’ the Greek engineers managed to lift blocks, some weighing almost half a ton, has been studied by Alessandro Pierattini, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, who provides demonstrable evidence that the construction methods were being developed as early as 700-650 BC. In the new article which was published in the Annual of the British School at Athens , Alessandro Pierattini said the crane was “the foremost discovery of the Greeks in building technology ” and attempting to rationalize ‘why’ this device has remained a central tool in building for nearly 25 centuries, he said “because it was perfect”.

The Groove Problem

Pierattini says that from around 600 BC winches were being associated with “a lifting framework” and that cranes proper, including both winch and hoist, appeared later. Using the Isthmia and Corinth buildings as working examples, dating from 700-650 BC, with their massive stone blocks weighing up to 882 pounds (400 kilograms) each, Pierattini said they “have a peculiar feature: twin grooves running parallel along the bottom and turning up on one end”.

Block Ar 39 from Isthmia, side (a) and front (b) views. (Alessandro Pierattini / University of Notre Dame)

Block Ar 39 from Isthmia, side (a) and front (b) views. (Alessandro Pierattini / University of Notre Dame )

Pierattini says in the paper, “the first stone ashlar blocks of Greek architecture , those of the mid-seventh-century temples at Isthmia and Corinth, pose a problem for understanding the beginnings of Greek stone construction because “of the presence of these grooves”.

Ironing Out Incorrect Historical Assumptions

These mysterious grooves have been featured in a historic construction debate which was highlighted in a book published only last year titled Building Knowledge, Constructing Histories, volume 2 , by the Proceedings of the 6th International Congress on Construction History. The authors argue that in 1950, scholar M. C. Roebuck “incorrectly believed” that the construction of the temple at Corinth required “no special building techniques for lifting”.

Furthermore, it was stated that these long thin marks on the stone blocks served to help “load and unload the blocks on wagons”. This aging theory was directly challenged by Pierattini who now suggests the grooves were made for “lifting and for placing” the enormous blocks into walls.

Navigation Skills Applied On Dry Land

According to an article in PHYS.org, ancient Corinthians had mastered shipbuilding which is thought to have been “the most advanced technology of the Early Archaic Period”, but Pierattini contends that the navigators “framework”, that effectively redirected force in nautical applications, was “probably also used for lowering heavy sarcophagi into burial pits ”.

Egyptian methods for lowering blocks into pits by means of ropes and wooden frameworks. (Alessandro Pierattini / University of Notre Dame)

Egyptian methods for lowering blocks into pits by means of ropes and wooden frameworks. (Alessandro Pierattini / University of Notre Dame )

In the paper, Pierattini says that while examining the blocks he found evidence that after being lifted, “the blocks were maneuvered into place with a method anticipating the Classical period's sophisticated lever technique”. Using ropes to lower each block up against its already in place neighbor in the wall, this is the “earliest documented use of the lever in Greek construction in historical times”.

Lost Construction Technologies

In this field of research mostly ‘all’ scientists focus on the ‘method’ of lifting blocks, as if ‘the method’ was the beginning of lifting technology. But this is not the case. While the ropes that lifted the blocks are so often mentioned by the scientists, they are always skirted over as a second thought, but ropes are the most ancient building technology on the planet.

9th century [BC] Assyrian relief from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud, showing a pulley - underneath the arm of the first archer from the right. (Alessandro Pierattini / University of Notre Dame)

9th century [BC] Assyrian relief from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud, showing a pulley - underneath the arm of the first archer from the right. (Alessandro Pierattini / University of Notre Dame )

Having identified a gross lack in studies on the production and applications of ancient rope, in 2006 I began a formal study of ropes in prehistory. After 10 years of research, in 2016, I published A Twist in Time presenting the story of ancient rope-making procedures as a result of our “increasing awareness of measure, geometry, space, mass, weight, leverage, angle, ratio, and proportion”. 

Long before any stones were cut or raised, anywhere in the ancient world, the underlying designs and measurements were laid out with ropes, and if we consider how enigmatic structures were planned and built in prehistory, on an evolutionary time scale, ancient people had a one night stand with stone and a long and happy marriage with rope.

Top image: An example of ancient Greek construction is this Parthenon temple on the Acropolis of Athens. Source: anastasios71 / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Prof Korres has commended strictly on the Parthenon building techniques, that involved moving blocks nowhere as heavy as the heaviest at Baalbeck. On the other hand, that was Roman era, and Romans had made a lot of progress in heavy lifting machinery (thanks mainly to the works of Archimedes).

Gary Moran's picture

Does the Professor have any theories or insights as to how the massive stones at Baalbeck were lifted? 

As about how the ancient Greeks were cutting, transporting and lifting the marble blocks to build the temples of Acropolis of Athens, it is worth looking at the book “From Pentelicon to the Parthenon” of Prof. Manolis Korres.

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