Published on July 16, 2016
People have constructed buildings and other structures since prehistory, including bridges, amphitheatres, dams, roads and canals. Building materials in present use have a long history and some of the structures built thousands of years ago are regarded as remarkable. The history of construction overlaps that of structural engineering and many other fields. To understand why things were constructed the way they were in prehistory, we also need to rely on archaeology to record the form of the parts that survive and the tools used, and other branches of history and architecture to investigate how the builders lived and recorded their accomplishments.
The history of building is marked by a number of trends. One is the increasing durability of the materials used. Early building materials were perishable, such as leaves, branches, and animal hides. Later, more durable natural materials such as clay, stone, and timber, and, finally, synthetic materials, such as brick, concrete, metals, and plastics were used. Another is a quest for buildings of ever greater height and span; this was made possible by the development of stronger materials and by knowledge of how materials behave and how to exploit them to greater advantage. A third major trend involves the degree of control exercised over the interior environment of buildings: increasingly precise regulation of air temperature, light and sound levels, humidity, odours, air speed, and other factors that affect human comfort has been possible. Yet another trend is the change in energy available to the construction process, starting with human muscle power and developing toward the powerful machinery used today.
A copy of a wall painting in the tomb of Rekhmire between 1550 and 1292 BC.
As opposed to the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia which built in brick, the pharaohs of Egypt built huge structures in stone. The arid climate has preserved much of the ancient buildings.
Adobe (sun-baked mud brick) construction was used for ancillary buildings and normal houses in ancient times and is still commonly used in rural Egypt. The hot, dry climate was ideal for mud-brick, which tends to wash away in the rain. The Ramesseum in Thebes, Egypt (Luxor) provides one of the finest examples of mud brick construction. Extensive storehouses with mud-brick vaults also survive, all constructed with sloping courses to avoid the need for formwork.
The grandest buildings were constructed in stone, often from massive masonry blocks. The techniques used to move massive blocks used in pyramids and temples have been subject to extensive debate. Some authors have suggested that the larger may not be cut stone but fabricated with concrete.
Main article: Ancient Egyptian technology
Although the Egyptians achieved extraordinary feats of engineering, they appear to have done so with relatively primitive technology. As far as is known they did not use wheels or pulleys. They transported massive stones over great distances using rollers, ropes and sledges hauled by large numbers of workers. The ancient Egyptians are credited with inventing the ramp, lever, lathe, oven, ship, paper, irrigation system, window awning, door, glass, a form of plaster of Paris, the bath, lock, shadoof, weaving, a standardized measurement system, geometry, silo, a method of drilling stone, saw, steam power, proportional scale drawings, enameling, veneer, plywood, rope truss, and more. There are no surviving Egyptian manuals so there has been considerable speculation on how stones were lifted to great heights and obelisks erected. Most theories centre on the use of ramps.
Imhotep, who lived circa 2650–2600 BC, is credited with being the first recorded architect and engineer.
The pyramids are chiefly impressive for their enormous size and the staggering manpower that must have been employed in their construction. The largest is the Great Pyramid of Giza which remained the tallest structure in the world for 3800 years (see List of tallest freestanding structures in the world). The engineering problems involved were chiefly to do with the transport of blocks, sometimes over long distances, their movement into location and exact alignment. It is now generally agreed that the skilled building workers were respected and well treated, but undoubtedly very large numbers of labourers were necessary to provide the brute force.
The methods used in the construction of the pyramids have been the subject of considerable research and discussion (see: Egyptian pyramid construction techniques).