A Brief Journey Through The Ancient Art Of Masonry

A Brief Journey Through The Ancient Art Of Masonry

Words: Mike Aylwin

If you look around at the buildings in any city, town, or village, brick and stone play a vital role in their construction. Yet, while masonry still plays such a crucial role in modern building processes, the craft actually dates back over 6,000 years. The roots of masonry construction can be traced back to the very earliest stages of human civilization when prehistoric societies began experimenting with stone for various shelters and fortifications.

Skara Brae (Credit: Jule_Berlin)

This ancient and enduring skill has left an indelible mark on human history over the years. From the towering pyramids of Egypt to the stunning temples of Greece, stonework has helped to shape countless civilizations.

These very primitive constructions were created using a dry-stone method without mortar, and some of the earliest examples include the Cairn de Barnenez in Brittany or the Skara Brae in Scotland. As these societies advanced, so did the construction techniques they utilized, and mortar began being used shortly after, with French Archeologist Roman Ghirshman finding examples that date back to 6,500 BC. The historical Mesopotamia region, in what is now West Asia, has some of the best demonstrations of this, with the various civilizations using clay bricks and mortar to build ziggurats and fortifications.

Cairn de Barnenez (Credit: elgol)

These constructions are a testament to the skill and precision of these masons, meticulously fitting together vast limestone and granite blocks. These constructions utilized a type of mortar created from a clay, sand, and water mixture. This helped to bind the stones together firmly, allowing them to endure thousands of years exposed to the elements and still be standing strong today.

These early adopters helped to pave the way for future civilizations, and the pinnacle of ancient masonry is often exemplified by the awe-inspiring pyramids and statues in Egypt. The Old Kingdom period between 2613 and 2181 BCE saw some of the most recognizable constructions built, including the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Giza Pyramid Complex.

Khufu Pyramid (Credit: sculpies)

The architectural marvels created by the Egyptians were commonly built from limestone, which was the cornerstone of their architectural design. Widely available, it is the primary material for the likes of the Great Pyramid of Giza and could be precisely carved and aligned to create these wonderful monuments. Limestone was not the only material, though. Granite also played an important role in Egyptian masonry thanks to its fantastic resilience. The Red Pyramid at Dahshur, created by Pharaoh Sneferu, is a wonderful example of how these architects were able to quarry and shape huge blocks of granite.

However, while these vast structures have become symbolic of ancient Egyptian masonry, other techniques were utilized for other facilities. Mudbrick, a versatile and economical material, was often used in the construction of homes and other administrative buildings. As the Egyptians continued to advance, so did the art of masonry, and different generations and civilizations added their own unique architectural styles and construction techniques that still influence Western culture today.

When looking at the history of masonry construction, the next chapter in its evolution belongs to the ancient Greeks, who embraced the use of quarried stone, most notably marble, to create stunning buildings that still stand the test of time today. Some of the most iconic examples from this era include the architectural styling of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Limestone was popular throughout the ancient Greek period, as was the use of sandstone, which was used to create the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. However, it was marble that these masons were most famous for. These were able to create beautiful and elegant columns, sculptures, and properties that offered unrivaled aesthetics.

The Temple of Hephaestus (Credit: Apostolos Giontzis)

The Romans brought the next evolution in masonry, elevating construction and design to new heights. They utilized concrete, a revolutionary building material at the time, which allowed them to create vast and incredibly durable structures, many of which can still be seen today. Romans used their masonry skills for far more than just shelter as well. Constructions such as aqueducts (the Pont du Gard in France being a fantastic example) allowed them to transport water over great distances, while the Colosseum in Rome allowed them to host huge public events.

As the Roman Empire began to decline, the Byzantine Empire started to emerge as the new center for artistic and architectural design. These masons continued to utilize concrete and stone in their construction projects, with the Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul being one of the prime examples of Byzantine masonry. The structural skill and expertise of these craftsmen allowed them to move away from square bases and begin incorporating domes and geometrical designs. 

Hagia Sophia (Credit: tunart)

As the world moved into the medieval period, construction and masonry started creating more complex and imposing buildings, with castles and cathedrals appearing across Europe. The Gothic era, as this became known, is stylized by its pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and buttresses, all of which pushed the boundaries of masonry construction even further. Some great examples from this period include the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, while castles such as the Tower of London and the Alcazar of Segovia are prime examples of medieval masonry.

The Renaissance period marks the next chapter in ancient masonry, with a renewed interest in Greek and Roman techniques and styling. Famous architects such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti looked to the past for inspiration, creating beautiful works of masonry that perfectly captured the fine details of classical architecture. One of the key features used in this period was rustication, which was the intentional roughening of the exterior stonework. This kind of masonry can be seen in buildings like Palazzo Medici Riccardi and Palazzo Farnese in Rome, perfectly exemplifying how the art form can express cultural and intellectual ideals that last a lifetime.

Palazzo Farnese (Credit: Flavio Vallenari)

Over the following centuries, further exploration and colonization saw these masonry techniques spread far and wide. In colonial America, early masons began employing locally sourced materials such as granite and limestone, creating architecture that can be traced back through the years to the first traces of dry stone construction from early humans. Modern construction and masonry that we utilize today began during the Industrial Revolution, which introduced new materials and methods that reshaped the sector. Steel and reinforced concrete offer an alternative to traditional stone construction, yet despite this, masonry continues to be the preferred choice for durability, aesthetic appeal, and architectural heritage. 

Fun Facts On Ancient Masonry 

With masonry playing an important role for thousands of years, there are lots of fun facts to remember, including:

Leaning Tower of Pisa (Credit: samvaltenbergs)
  1. Brick is the oldest manufactured product in the world! 
  2. As the ancient pyramids show, masonry structures can last for thousands of years.
  3. The mortar used by ancient Egyptians was created using sand and burned gypsum. 
  4. The ancient Egyptians used horses and carriages to transport stones and materials long distances and scaffolding and pulleys to raise them to great heights. 
  5. The Great Pyramid of Giza, which was constructed over 5,000 years ago, stood at 481 feet at its peak and was built from over 2.3 million blocks of stone. 
  6. The sides of the Great Pyramid are perfectly aligned with the cardinal points of the compass.
  7. The ancient Inca civilization utilized a technique known as Ashlar, which saw stones cut in such a way that mortar was not necessary. In constructions such as Machu Picchu, they were so precise in fact that a blade of grass could not be placed between the stones! 
  8. The ancient Greek architects used a subtle technique known as entasis when creating their beautiful columns. This means the columns are slightly curved and tapered to compensate for the natural distortion in our eyes, creating an optical illusion that makes them appear perfectly straight.
  9. Roman concrete was made from a mix of volcanic ash, lime, and aggregate, which allowed them to create a very strong and durable construction. 
  10. Sometimes, masonry mistakes can lead to oddities! One of the most famous of these is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is known for its tilt to the side. This is due to the foundation being laid on unsuitably soft soil and the weight of the tower causing it to sink on one side. 


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