CLASSIFYING STONE STRUCTURES: Man's Ancient Need to Build Something That Lasts!

Civilized man's seemingly insatiable desire to create stone monuments to his gods or to himself is as enduring as our earliest advanced cultures.  In the last thirteen months this writer has been fortunate to visit  Egypt,  Peru, and Yucatan, the source of some of the greatest and oldest monumental architecture on our planet.  As someone who has spent much of his adult life involved in ancient stonework in one fashion or another, visiting these important sites has often posed as many questions and riddles as they have answered.  Having just returned from Peru and seen the fantastic and often inexplicable stone works of the Inca, and to a lesser extent, their predecessors, I believe it is a good time to set down some of my own thoughts about this often enigmatic behavior to which our ancient forbears time and again devoted so much of their limited energy and resources to accomplish.  Trying to draw too many similarities in such building practices across vast spaces of time and distance can often lead to speculation of the wildest and most exaggerated kind (still, you will find no space alien explanations here), and can be risky for even experienced archeologists and readers of our human past.  However, placing one's hands on these amazing structures seems to bring out the need to try to make some sense of what at times can seem beyond any rational logic or scientific explanation.  Let's start by trying to classify some of these amazing rock piles that seem to fascinate us so.


Building in stone would seem to be a near universal, and early, human trait in those areas where useful stone is available and reasonably accessible.  However, early peoples built for different reasons, or so it appears, and not always for the obvious ones, as we are beginning to understand.  In order to classify different types of structures, and for purposes of this discussion, I will confine myself to those remains that required large labor inputs over an extended period of time. 

The first type of large stone building I would call Monumental/Functional.  This would include such structures as fortifications and walls, large or individual burial sites or complexes, occupied temples or palaces, or other such useful (even if only a one time use such as a pyramid) and deliberate stoneworks.  The sites for these structures may or may not be randomly chosen (a city wall, for example, as in the case of the great land wall of Istanbul/Constantinople), but in most cases--and this is critical, I feel--they are in close proximity to a quarrying site.  This would exclude city walls and other such large structures that are built of mud brick, but would include those citadels (Mycenae, Athens, Sacsahuaman in Cuzco, and other hilltop fortresses in various places) built atop or near to existing outcrops of readily available stone.  Others, such as The Great Wall of China, are built where good building stones were both close by or readily transportable.  These structures may intrigue us as to the methods of their building or how such stones were quarried and transported, but their purposes for having been built are usually readily apparent and easily explainable.

A second type of massive stoneworks could be called Ceremonial/Fixed.  These structures would include step pyramids of the Maya, Aztec, and others, as well as great residential palaces (such as those of the Inca) designed for extended or even continuous use.  The sites for these structures may be chosen for different reasons, but nearness of quarry sites can be only one necessity, even a lesser one.  This may help determine the overall size of a particular structure but does not seem to be as much of a limiting factor. If locations is paramount and stone is limited, elevated earthen platforms or knocked down elevations are also utilized.  The key element here is that these structures are built not only for specific purposes but also for repeated use (unlike burial pyramids, for example).  They are situated where their builders deem them to be most useful for whatever purposes they require. If they just happen to be on a piece of high ground with existing and accessible natural stone outcrops--The Acropolis in Athens, for example--then so much the better.  Indeed, these structures are as often as not built with the express purpose of creating a piece of high ground where none might have existed.  This is certainly true in the case of most of the Mayan pyramids.  In the absence of such, the same men will often build in mud brick or some other stone substitute to suit their purposes of choice of location or to extend an existing natural feature to make it higher (Sacsahuaman in Peru is an example here also.).

A third type of monumental stone architecture I would call the Ceremonial/Purposeful.  This would include large stone works whose location is the primary purpose for their very existence, meaning their construction site is deliberately chosen for a specific reason (celestial alignments, origin myths, etc.) and they have to be built where they are regardless of stone availability.  These sites are the ones that puzzle us the most; for frequently the quarry sites are some distance away and involve major labor investments in moving stones of almost unimaginable size in some cases.  Examples would be the sarsen and blue stones of Stonehenge, some of which were moved nearly one hundred miles, many of the great stones of Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Qoricancha, and other large Inca stoneworks, and many of the megalithic and monolithic stones of Neolithic Europe.  Such stones were often moved great distances at incredible labor investment to satisfy an exact ceremonial function in a specific and specially chosen spot of ground.  Some of these places, such as Stonehenge and Machu Picchu, we have learned exhibit important solar, lunar, and other celestial alignments that are not only very complex but incredibly site specific in ways that almost defy belief, given the overall technological skill of their builders and the sometimes multi-generational timeframe required to build them. Generations of speculation has centered on the location and alignment of the great pyramids of the Giza Plateau, indications that these enormous structures were situated not just as primary burial chambers but as structures with many as yet clearly defined purposes--including celestial alignments.  Should we be that surprised at this, however?  Did not our own European ancestors build the great stone cathedrals of the Middle Ages over hundreds of years in some cases, and with tools and mostly illiterate laborers not unlike more ancient builders?  Given a master plan, regardless of by whom or from where that plan might have originated, should we not accept that these ancient peoples were fully as capable of executing that master plan--even to the point of moving massive stones over great distances--as were our own ancestors?

In the books of The People of the Stone saga this writer has frequently explored the role of the unique or charismatic individual who has frequently changed the direction of prehistory, but remains nameless to those who came after.  Having only just witnessed, and even touched, the great stoneworks of the Inca, one is immediately struck by the thought that incredibly skilled master planners were at work there.  The great, probably multi-purpose site of Sacsahuaman, standing above the sacred temples of Cuzco, may be the most unique and impressive--as well as the most inexplicable--pile of stones anywhere in the entire world.  Was it built, as some suggest, merely to show the skill and power of the most brilliant and important of all the Inca rulers, Pachacuti?  These hundred ton plus stones were moved at least three miles and then fitted with a precision that has to be seen to be "almost" believed.  Why are they where they are and was it, as some would have us believe, merely an exercise in power and "showing off"? Is what might very well be the world's largest rock pile simply just that?  A lifetime of looking and working with ancient stone leads me to doubt such a facile explanation.  After all, stonework is difficult at every level, and forced labor was used in only a few locations (Egypt or China) where great works are found.  Others just as often contributed their labors willingly to these massive "public works projects" for the good of the state or its ruler.

Ancient North America, seemingly, is one locale where, despite an abundance of building stones and the high places or the desire to build high places artificially, we find that unlike other locations where large stone structures were built  few evidences of early stone building exist.  Yes, we have the great earthen mounds, as well as the large adobe and stone brick buildings of the southwest, most notably at Chaco Canyon, which in some cases might fulfill all three of the classifications mentioned above.  But these, as we have seen, are subject to the whims of nature and the men who come after and are quite frequently the first things to be removed from the landscape by their ancient builder's cultural successors.  However, in such dry climates as the Southwest, or in much of Peru or even Egypt or the Indus Valley, large structures of mud brick are not uncommon.  It is in these locations, I believe, that more attention needs to be paid to the location of such sites and their possible hidden functions, since the builders of them had the luxury of being totally site specific and no such location choice should be viewed as "random", I believe.

One exception, however, is the stone serpent mound of eastern Kentucky (see previous blog entry on this webpage "Mystery of the Stone Mounds" for more on this neglected site).  The initial discovery of this site revealed the body of a serpent winding across a ridge top in excess of five hundred feet in length, constructed of various sized limestone blocks quarried in the immediate vicinity. (And they were quarried stones, not randomly broken or transported small stones also readily available in the area or nearby).  It was not for sometime after its initial discovery that this particular rock pile and the large serpent head at its most visible point was clearly shown to have a definite solstice alignment that this obscure stonework began to receive some attention by archeologists, even if only locally at the time. However, the true impetus for this particular stone structure--built by peoples who usually worked mainly in dirt--remains unclear. Stones of all sizes were usually moved for a specific purpose by ancient peoples, I am certain, and sometimes we researchers of today have simply not yet identified or explained that purpose.  In some cases we may never know.  A site like Sacsahuaman in Peru may baffle us forever; and perhaps, that might even have been its master planner's original intent, after all.  Others, such as Stonehenge, have generated hundreds of years and thousands of pages of speculation.  Yet, new information and interpretations are continually being revealed at many important stone sites all over the world.  Important new stone structures, Mirador in Guatemala, for example, are still being revealed and demanding integration into the growing body of knowledge about such mysterious structures built by our ancestors all over the ancient world.

As this writer continues to tell the stories of these amazing and forgotten peoples, who lived in a world of stone we can only imagine, it will be an on-going challenge to see into their heads as well as their hearts to find the stories revealed there.  The stone, however, will always be at the core of that process for me.  Last year it was the Pyramids of Egypt I managed to see and touch.  This year it was the great and enigmatic stones of Peru and the temple mounds of Yucatan.  Next year I hope it will be Stonehenge and some of the other megalithic monuments that I can personally visit and get a truer feeling for the people who built these amazing places and for the forgotten lives partially revealed in these great rock piles of the world.

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