Home > Uncategorized > Petrify! The great stone mystery

Petrify! The great stone mystery

It seems obvious, today, when every serious building that predates concrete and brick is made of cut stone, but it’s not. There are plenty of ways of building things without excavating the planet’s hardest, deadest, most presenceful material, cutting it into squares, transporting it to a building site and putting it all together. The proof of this is that some societies have barely done it all: countless non-urban cultures, of course; but also the Chinese, who primarily used cut stone to shore up earthen platforms (Great Wall, anyone), leaving their buildings predominantly timber framed; or the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia (baked brick) and the Americas, the latter of whom did serious architecture for a millennium or more before turning to stone.

And then, to prove my point that this is a Significant Thing to Do, creating an unnerring architecture of cut stone without possessing a single metal tool to cut it with.

The reason for my interest, of course, is that there seems to be a particularly strong link between the origins of cut stone buildings and religious architecture. Indeed in most early socieities that developed the technique — from India to Egypt – stone was reserved for temple buildings and burial places and nothing else.


So it’s worth emphasising: at its point of origin, this is not an obvious thing to do. It’s an imaginative leap, requiring some level of explanation.

Egypt and India are cases in point. Indeed India, under the pharaoh Djoser and the architecture Imhotep in the third millennium BCE, seems to be effectively where it starts chronologically, though the resulting tomb/temple/pyramid complex seems to see all the possibilities of the technique in a single glimpse, even as it petrifies existing motifs from a lost (as standing buildings), but mature, architecture of timber and mud-brick. The entire complex seems to have been designed as a kind of palace for the spirit of the dead pharaoh to inhabit, and this thinking, relating to the fixing of things for eternity, surely drives its creation.

Much the same could be said of the Hindu temple, whose fascinating origin in the C5CE comes after a millennium in which Indians experimented in illuminating ways with sculpting existing timber religious spaces into stone, in the form of cave-temples; many early Hindu temples are then sculpted out of living rock, a technique seen everywhere from south-east asia to Ethiopia to the Maya, but nowhere as developed as it was in India. Scholars have speculated that, again, there is some conscious, almost theological process at work here, a thinking about permanency and creation, reflected in a stone architecture that started as life-size sculpture of temporary buildings/highly designed man-made caves before it became standalone temples.

Certainly these structures set off various lines of enquiry: about the simple act of moving and shaping stone, vividly illustrated by the great prehistoric stone settings of north-west Europe; about the ways in which ancient Mesopotamians and Greeks made models of themselves as thank-offerings to leave in and around temples, the Greeks doing so as precisely the time — the C8-C5BCE – when they were transforming an architecture of brick and timber to an architecture of stone, and inventing the naked standing statues as a result. About making the impermanent permanent, then, and expressing or channelling some kind of creative power, even as one offers thanks to a greater one; and other lines, in which these spaces are inspired by nature’s own permanent architectonic places, the caves and the mountains that remained sacred in many traditions.   

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Dave
    May 25, 2013 at 10:55 am

    I think I remember you saying the origins of Greek triglyphs were wooden joist ends later modelled in stone…

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