Recent research shows that ancient Greeks used a primitive type of lifting machine to move heavy stones before they began using cranes 2,500 years ago.
It is commonly believed that the foremost discovery of the ancient Greeks in building technology is the crane. Yet, enormous stone structures were known to have been built in Greece at least 150 years before the use of cranes themselves.
Cranes first appeared in the late sixth century BC, according to research published in the Annual of the British School at Athens, but their mechanical forerunners were used in buildings such as the Temples of Isthmia and Corinth at least 150 years before that, around the middle of the seventh century BC.
The researchers say that ancient Greeks were likely to have first used ramps made of earth or mudbrick to lift the heavy stone blocks used in major construction. The lifting devices are thought to have been similar to the ones used by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians centuries earlier.
The precursor of the crane lifting machine
The paper, written by Alessandro Pierattini, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, argues that a kind of lifting machine used by the ancient Greeks was the next precursor to the crane, one which was capable of lifting ashlar blocks weighing over 200 to 400 kilograms (440 to 880 pounds).
The lifting machine was originally invented by the Corinthians, who used it to build ships and for lowering heavy sarcophagi into narrow, deep burial pits. It was not a crane, since it did not use winches or hoists. Instead, the builders redirected the force of the weight by using a rope passed over a frame.
“This kind of masonry represents a crucial step in the development of Greek monumental stone architecture, marking a departure both from mudbrick construction, which had been the norm for most Greek buildings, and from previous experiments with stone construction,” Pierattini writes.
The first documented use of the lever in Greek temples
Evidence of the device is considered to be grooves etched onto the bottom of stones used to construct the Corinth and Isthmia temples. These grooves are familiar to historians, but until now, it had been unknown if the grooves had occurred as a result of lifting the blocks during the building process or from moving them around in quarries.
For the study, Pierattini studied stone blocks used in early Greek temples while he also engaged in some hands-on experimental archaeology. He studied the blocks from the mid-seventh-century temples at Corinth and Isthmia and their peculiar markings—two parallel rope-grooves cut into their undersides which turned up on one end.
Using actual stones and ropes, Pierattini found that the grooves could have served a dual function, allowing builders to both lift the blocks and position them tightly against their neighbors along the walls of buildings.
“With heavy stone blocks and high friction between stone surfaces, this was a highly problematic step of construction that in later times would require sets of purpose-made holes for using metal levers,” said Pierattini.
“Μy paper demonstrates that the builders of the early temples at Corinth and Isthmia were already using levers for the final setting of the blocks. This represents the first documented use of the lever in Greek architecture,” the professor explained to Gizmodo.