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Technology and Civilization

The Rise of Monumental Architecture

In this technological age it seems natural to believe that great changes in society, let alone in society's artifacts, result from changes in technology. The record of the earliest civilizations shows that it was not always so. People in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Andes, and the Indus Valley chose to start building monumental architecture, all for different reasons. They used varying techniques and technologies to build their structures, but in no case did a technological breakthrough spark or result from the creation of monuments that can still be seen today, almost 5,000 years later. On the contrary, religious, social, economic, and political reasons came together in various ways to convince people to try to build vast structures. They used the technologies and techniques already available, however arduous, to accomplish the tasks they had set themselves.

The pace of technological change was initially slow. The Paleolithic, or Old Stone, age, which was based on a technology of hunting, gathering, and fishing with tools of stone and bone, lasted for tens of thousands of years. Next came the Neolithic, or New Stone, age, with better stone tools, agriculture, domesticated animals, and pottery (see Chapter 1). The stone ages, in turn, were followed - in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Ganges, and Yellow rivers - by the Bronze and Iron ages. Each age takes its name from the material used for the construction of its tools. As technology advanced, human wealth increased, populations became more densely settled, cities appeared, systems of writing developed, and classes emerged, with powerful figures controlling the distribution of wealth for their own benefit.

Before cities arose the people of the fertile river valleys where civilization first emerged lived in small villages. The beginnings of sedentary agriculture in the Neolithic period gave rise to these villages. For the first time families were tied to the land they farmed. This type of settlement lasted for at least a thousand years before cities emerged. Although we might expect to see slowly evolving changes in human settlement leading to the gradual development of cities, archaeological evidence suggests that cities appeared suddenly and rapidly. Archaeologists recognize cities when they find evidence of two things: an increase in population and in population density, and the presence of public buildings or monumental architecture.

The emergence of large public buildings tells us that the socioeconomic organization of a community has changed. Simple family dwellings and storage facilities, the earliest buildings in settled agricultural civilizations, fulfilled the community's needs for food and shelter. In this early subsistence level economy, all members of the community worked to produce or gather food. Monumental architecture indicates that the economy has passed the subsistence level, because surplus labor would have to be available for large construction projects. Public architecture also fulfills broad community needs. The first public buildings were often temples, indicating that the community shared organized religious rituals. The temples also show that the inhabitants of a community thought that their welfare - both physically and spiritually - depended on the welfare of the group as a whole. Monumental architecture also enhanced the status of a community in the eyes of its neighbors.

The magnificent and massive religious monuments such as the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the temples of the Andes, and the pyramids of Egypt are all the more remarkable for their sudden appearance in the archaeological record. Did new developments in technology lead to the rapid rise of cities, permitting the types of construction that characterized the new settlements? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Although the earliest river-valley civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Peru, and the Indus Valley all produced monumental architecture for various reasons, they used building techniques and technologies that had been well established for centuries. In the earliest civilizations, technology was a tool, not the driving force for change.

Early Mesopotamia

The early builders of Southern Mesopotamia had neither stone nor timber. Instead, they made their houses from the reeds that grew in the marshy terrain. In the drier alluvial plain of Northern Mesopotamia, Neolithic settlers built their dwellings from pressed mud.

The earliest buildings emerged at the same time as settled agriculture. At all the northern Mesopotamian sites of this period the primary building material was pressed mud and the primary purpose was residential. At one early site, the small rooms surrounded a courtyard, which contained grain bins and ovens. Each dwelling shared walls with the next. At another site, inhabitants covered their walls with plaster and decorated them with paint or frescoes. The societies at Tell es-Sawwan and Choga Mami had more developed socioeconomic and religious institutions, reflected both in small finds, such as pottery and figurines, and in their architecture. Buildings at these sites were constructed from sun-dried bricks, which are more durable than simple mud-bricks. The stronger material permitted the construction of larger structures, which were further supported by buttresses at the outside corners. These two communities also surrounded their village with sophisticated defensive ditches and walls. Most agricultural villages in Mesopotamia in the Neolithic period probably resembled one of these sites. The villages seem to have remained at a fairly static level of social, economic, political, and religious organization for a long time. The changes that encouraged people to construct the first monumental buildings seem to have occurred suddenly.

The first monumental buildings in Mesopotamia were temples. The earliest temple known to us, Eridu (from the 'Ubaid period, 5300-3600 b.c.e.), was raised around a place that was already being used for religious purposes. Originally a square building containing an altar and an offering table, over time, the layout and construction of the temple became more complicated. The temple was built on raised platforms, and buttresses were regularly used to support thinner walls. For all its complexity and massiveness, the monumental temple at Eridu shows no new building technologies. All structures were mud brick, known to the first sedentary Northern Mesopotamian cultures. Even the more impressive temples and ziggurats of the Jemdet Nasr period (3200-2900 b.c.e.) still used mud brick.

These later shrines and precincts show more complex layouts, which would have required more elaborate design planning. They also were more ornately decorated, both with geometric mosaic designs on the façade and with decorative (rather than supportive) half columns. But the greater architectural complexity of the early Mesopotamian temples does not reflect any improvement in materials technology. Nor is there archaeological evidence that new construction tools permitted the erection of larger and more complicated structures. Instead, monumental public buildings indicate that a change in the social and economic organization of Mesopotamian society had occurred. More than anything else, building temples required manpower to shape, place, and stack the bricks that formed the massive structures. Over time, as temples grew larger and more ornate, construction required architects to plan the structures and artists to decorate them, as well as a larger unskilled labor force. Probably, a temple elite recruited and organized such a labor force. The increasing monumentality of the buildings indicates that this elite was growing more powerful and could mobilize the population more effectively. The availability of this labor force implies that the population did not need to devote itself exclusively to agricultural production. These socioeconomic changes, then, rather than technological developments, facilitated the appearance of monumental architecture in Mesopotamia.

Ancient Coastal Peru

The first public buildings in the Andes were temples, just as their Mesopotamian counterparts, and date between 3000-2000 b.c.e. They also appear suddenly in the archaeological record, and they are not linked with significant technological changes. The thick, plaster-covered walls of the different temple units at El Paraso, on the Peruvian coast, were formed from trimmed stones set in clay mortar. Small fiber bags preserved at the site helped people to carry stone fill, with which they filled rooms defined by these walls and thus raised the height of the structure. A similar structure at Aspero, a coastal settlement to the north, was built from stone and clay, basaltic blocks set in mud mortar, and quarried stone fill. The fill is characteristic only of monumental architecture, and not of domestic structures, and so appears to be one of the few new architectural techniques that assisted in construction. Both of these sites have ritual remains, such as burnt clay and cloth offerings, indicating their religious function.

Monuments on the Peruvian coast are all the more remarkable because they predate settled agriculture. The first Andean peoples to build public structures gathered their food from the rivers and oceans nearby. Early monumental architecture in the Andes did not, therefore, result from socioeconomic changes such as specialization of labor, but from the desire of early peoples to worship the gods more effectively by building impressive facilities to house their worship. The ancient Peruvians may have believed the new temples would attract and please the gods. The centrality of the shared religion to the community as a whole, then, would have motivated people to devote energy to building projects.

Early Egypt

Nowhere is ancient monumental architecture more impressive than in Egypt, with its famous obelisks and legendary pyramids. In Egypt, as in Mesopotamia, social, economic, and political developments, rather than technological innovations, permitted the construction of pyramids. Unlike the temples of Mesopotamia and Peru, in which inhabitants might participate in ritual worship, the pyramids had no direct public function. Instead, they provided deceased Egyptian kings with a suitable dwelling on earth for their afterlife and a physical stairway to the gods, with whom they were supposed to spend time every day. The kings, then, were the ultimate organizers and beneficiaries of these structures. They provided the labor and the capital required for construction.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the pyramid builders used materials far different from those used to construct dwellings. Private homes in Egypt, as in Northern Mesopotamia, consisted of mud bricks, perhaps made stronger with straw. During the First and Second Dynasties (3100 to 2700 b.c.e.) even tombs and temples used this readily available material. By the First Dynasty, however, Egyptians were well acquainted with stone work and used it occasionally for lining and roofing parts of royal tombs. By the time of the pyramids the Egyptians had been building with stone for hundreds of years and had developed a high degree of sophistication in such construction. It was appropriate to build pyramids of stone, rather than mud brick, because stone provided the structural permanence that the Egyptian idea of an afterlife required, since the corpse had to remain undisturbed and uncorroded for all time.

The ability to quarry a vast quantity of stone, then, was a necessary prerequisite of pyramid building. Archaeologists disagree about precisely how this may have been done. The exterior layer of stonework in a pyramid consisted of limestone, which was relatively easy to quarry. Trenches could be cut in limestone in order to define a slab, which could then be released from the bottom by means of wooden wedges that were soaked with water to expand under the block. This technique, however, would not have worked with the harder granite that forms the interior of the pyramids. To cut the granite, quarriers may have used drills or other boring tools, chisels with bits made from gemstones, or abrasive powders made from emery, pumice, or ground quartz. These abrasive powders could have reinforced the cutting power of flint drill bits or stone chisel points, or could have sufficiently hardened copper saws to permit them to cut the hard stone. Copper itself, the only form of metal known to the early Egyptians, is too soft to cut granite on its own. Archaeological remains do show the existence of drills, and traces of abrasive powder appear in some drill holes.

These technological developments did not produce a sudden flurry of pyramid building, however. Egyptians were quarrying stone for approximately five hundred years before the construction of the first pyramid. Equally as important as these technological issues was the availability of a vast body of labor experienced at quarrying and a class of experts in the designing and building of stone structures. A master architect must have overseen the design and construction of the pyramid, and the name of the first such architect, Imhotep, has been preserved both in legend and in an inscription outside his creation. A sketch of a roof, drawn on limestone, has been found inside the step pyramid enclosure, complete with measurements in cubits; this was most likely an architectural plan. Indeed, the building of the later, true pyramids assumes a knowledge both of measurement and of some astronomy. The Great Pyramid was correctly oriented to true north, south, east, and west.

The first pyramid, the tomb of the Third Dynasty (which began in roughly 2700 b.c.e.) king Zoser, was 204 feet high, 411 feet from east to west, and 358 feet from north to south. It was not a true pyramid, but instead had stepped sides. The core of the monument was a 26-foot-high box, similar to a mastaba, the earlier type of royal tomb. A four-step pyramid was constructed around this mastaba. Eventually, this pyramid was enlarged along its north and west sides to create a larger, six-step structure. The pyramid had an extensive substructure, consisting of a deep shaft, ramps, corridors, and rooms where the dead would rest.

How did the Egyptians move and raise the stones that comprised such a massive and tall structure? They did not have effective pulleys or other lifting devices. Instead, the builders of the step pyramids constructed brick and earth ramps along each of the four faces of the structure. The steps of the pyramid helped to support the ramp, which was extended to reach the next tier when the one below was completed. Workmen dragged or pushed the quarried stones up the ramp to lay each level of the pyramid. After the pyramid was complete, the ramps were destroyed. True pyramids, which have no external steps to support ramps, required different, ramp-based, techniques–but archaeologists vehemently disagree about how and where these ramps were constructed.

The construction of pyramids was certainly an architectural triumph for ancient builders, but it neither sprung directly from nor gave rise to new technologies. It harnessed five hundred years of experimentation with quarrying stone, it eventually made use of (but did not require) independently developed sciences such as mathematics and astronomy, and it generated no mechanical devices for lifting. Instead, the construction of pyramids reflects the vision of a king and an architect about the best way for the former to dwell comfortably and eternally in his afterlife. Pyramids probably required the labor of 100,000 men every year to transport the quarried stone on sledges–wheels were unknown and unhelpful on the oily clay or sandy ground. Several thousand skilled men and unskilled laborers worked year round on construction for many years. The god-king of Egypt exerted extraordinarily powerful control of his subjects to compel them to contribute manpower and resources to such a project.

The Indus Valley

Public building in the early Indus River Valley had a different purpose from the monumental religious architecture found in early Mesopotamia and Egypt. The extent and function of such building is best illustrated by the well preserved site at Mohenjo-Daro. Archaeologists have not been able to locate any shrine there, although further excavation may reveal that a few smaller buildings with monumental entrances are, in fact, temples. The remarkable Great Bath may possibly have been used for ritual purification. Most major structures, however, clearly have civic purposes: a wall and citadel for defense, a large granary, an assembly hall, and the Great Bath for public use. The same materials comprised both the public and the typical domestic structures. Residences within the city were constructed of mud brick, but unlike the bricks used in Mesopotamia or Peru, these were baked in a hot oven, which improved their durability. Unbaked brick and mud plaster supplemented these materials. The citadel stood atop an artificial mound of mud brick or mud. Towers were supported by burnt brick foundations. Unlike the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro had access to timber, beams of which further supported the brickwork of the towers. Unfortunately, although timber may support mud-bricks, when it decays it undermines the baked bricks, and so the towers had to be patched over time. The bath was also constructed of brick, although the floors were coated with bitumen to make them waterproof. As the evidence from Egypt and Mesopotamia has shown, the laying of mud bricks, fired or not, did not require technological breakthroughs, but manpower resources. The political organization of the Indus River Valley civilization is barely known. It would seem on the basis of the archaeological remains that it was less authoritarian than Egyptian civilization. It is certainly easier to imagine inhabitants willingly constructing fortifications, assembly places, and baths, all of which would benefit the inhabitants, than pyramids, which benefited only the royal family.

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