The earliest buildings were practical shelters, meant to protect human beings (and their hominid ancestors) from the dangers of the natural world.
In time, these hunter-gatherer tribes began to develop more sophisticated social systems, and began to live sedentary lives. Together, these two developments led to a rise in monumental, sacred, or communal architecture, meant to serve a purpose that went beyond mere protection and shelter. Five such ancient buildings were Stonehenge, Zoser’s pyramid, the Palace of Minos, Mycenae, and the Acropolis.
Stonehenge is a Neolithic site, developed over several millennia in three distinct phases, composed of a series of stone structures, namely monoliths and trilithons. Unlike the other four examples this essay concerns itself with, Stonehenge’s function, or functions, is subject to much debate and theorizing.
Some say it is a religious building; some suggest it concerns itself with death; and some, in the past, have even sewn it into later Arthurian legend. However, the academic consensus seems to be that it probably served some sort of astronomical purpose, ritualized or scientific or both. The way the stones are lined up allows for observations with regards to constellations, the movement of the celestial spheres and other astronomical phenomena, and the alignment of the summer solstice, as it would have been 4,000 years ago.
Regardless of its function, or functions, Stonehenge tells us something about its Neolithic builders. It tells us that they had a highly evolved social system that allowed for the transport of massive stone monoliths, hundreds of miles from their quarries, to their site at Salisbury, and that allowed for the teamwork and engineering that would be necessary to raise the stones once there.
Zoser’s Step Pyramid
The Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Zoser, the first pyramid in Egypt, built for him by his chief architect Imhoteph, has a clearer function than that of Stonehenge. It, at its core, is a highly-ritualized gravesite, or tomb. It was built to protect the body of the Pharaoh after his death, and to see him to the afterlife safely.
Mesopotamian ziggurats could have inspired the building, but this is speculation on the part of modern scholars, and there is no sure evidence as to how the design came about. Surely, the ziggurat-format is structurally stable and logical, and developed on its own in the New World, so why not in Egypt? Either way, the building would have required the labor of thousands, which points to highly sophisticated infrastructure and engineering on the part of the ancient Egyptians, of which there is plenty of other evidence to corroborate this. The design was picked up and adapted by later dynastic rulers, and tells us of the symbolic importance of the Pharaoh and death in Egyptian culture and society.
The Palace of Minos
The Palace of Minos at Gnossos was neither for astronomy nor for burial, but for living. It was a fantastic palace built for the first time as early as 2,000 BCE, but destroyed in an earthquake and rebuilt later. It had storerooms and courtyards, living spaces and religious shrines and more, and was about 5.4 acres in size. Its labyrinthine corridors may have given rise to the Greek myth of the minotaur and the Labyrinth, but as far as form goes, it was more concerned with columns and frescoes than with underground dungeons.
Of its builders, the Palace of Minos at Gnossos tells us that the ancient Minoan civilization was one of wealth and power, and although we know little of the civilization historically, compared to the later Greek civilization in the region, archaeological excavations like those at Gnossos have helped ancient historians further their understanding of these people and their buildings.
Mycenae, compared to the other buildings, is more town than single building. It was one of the major centers of Greek civilization during the Mycenaean Age. It began as a fortified hill with buildings surrounding it, but rose to become one of the most powerful cities in Ancient Greece, with numerous palaces and temples, and it even won mentions in sources as far away as Egypt.
If it can tell us anything of the builders, it is that they were capable of dominating their region, culturally and militarily, and that were able to develop a thriving civilization and city from the end of the late Bronze Age up to their decline in about the 12th century, BCE.
The Acropolis of Athens
Finally, we get to the Acropolis of Athens. Although acropolis literally means “high city,” and there were many throughout Greece, Athens’ acropolis is the best-known example. The Acropolis rises from the plain of Attica and is composed of a series of very important buildings, mostly temples. The most famous of the buildings atop the Acropolis is, without a doubt, the Parthenon.
Of the ancient Athenians, its site layout tells us of the importance of religious deities to ancient Athens, namely their namesake goddess Athena, and the cultural significance of their religion and the religious ceremonies performed there. Architecturally, the Parthenon is one of the greatest buildings of ancient architecture, and certainly of ancient Greece, and thus bears much importance.
Overall, these five sites all serve as examples of what the civilizations that erected them valued; and even though each serves a different, albeit sometimes interrelated, function, they ultimately are testaments to the people and the times from whence they came.
- Leland M. Roth. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning (Second Edition). Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 2007.