Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Temple Engineering

When we think about the ruins of Greece, we most often see the remnants of the famous temples – the Parthenon for example. The first temples were made out of wood, but the transition to stone began in the late seventh century B.C. Limestone was used first and then marble.

How were these stone temples built?

Primary sources for limestone and marble were Naxos and Paros; islands in the Aegean with quarries close to the sea. In the late sixth century, the Greeks began to work a marble quarry at Mt. Pentelikos. The map below shows the location of these quarries.

Blocks of stone were transported by boat and when the situation required, ox cart. To avoid the risk of damage the blocks would be trimmed to rough size and finished at the site. Stone shavings, resulting from the finish work, have been excavated from these sites.

Believe it or not, limestone columns were turned on a lathe as a single monolithic block. The last columns made this way were used in the temple of Aphaia on the island of Aigina in the early fifth century B.C. The monolithic column was then replaced with those built in sections called drums. The drums were held together with wooden dowels.

Stone pieces were finished at the building site with a claw chisel and hammer. They were then rubbed and polished to a smooth finish. Blocks were lifted into place using a block and tackle to get them close to a final position and then moved to final position with crowbars.

Surprisingly, Greek temple architecture was not innovative – meaning it was not able to adapt designs to new materials and overcome structural limitations. The basic temple design was vertical support of horizontal beams. Architrave blocks were supported at their ends by columns and the roofs were supported by wooden beams resting on the entablature. Column spacing could only be as large as the largest block on the architrave (4.5 meters in the Parthenon). Equally restricting are the wood beams which were limited by available timbers to about 12 meters.