History of construction: ancient Greeks’ technologies are still used

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History of construction: ancient Greeks’ technologies are still used
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How did the Greeks living on the Black Sea coast build their houses two thousand years ago?

The “Gorgippia” archeological park located at the coastal resort city of Anapa, by the Black Sea, is 40 this year.

Traces of an ancient city have been left untouched in an area of 2 hectares along the sea coast. Part of a fortress wall, foundations and cellars of houses, and paved streets can be seen there. Local archeologists spoke about the technologies which were used in the construction in the eastern part of the Bosporan kingdom about 2,000 years ago.

The open-air museum includes a small city quarter: the Northern and Wide streets, as they were called by archeologists. They are the outskirts of a settlement where the houses were situated near the fort wall at the gateway. The people who lived there were probably middle class, such as trades-folk and craftsmen, judging by the findings.

The houses were united into estates owned either by relatives or by different families. There was also a property qualification and anybody who owned real estate had a right to govern the life of the polis and had the rights of a citizen. 

A book by Ekaterina Alekseeva, “The Antique Town of Gorgippia”, recommended to us at the museum, says that the area of land plots, or a cadaster map as it is presently called, had been kept unchanged for ages.

History of construction: ancient Greeks’ technologies are still used

Made of what is at hand

The ancient Greeks were very rational, meaning that the houses were erected of whatever was found in the locality - stone and clay. A rock is a steady platform. A pit was dug in the topsoil until they reached the layer of rock which they then built the foundations and walls on. More than half of the buildings are like this. Stone was scabbed and put on a clay mortar. There are also buildings where a strip foundation was used.

“Everything is according to Vitruvius, just open and read his book,” says the head of the archeology department of the museum, Victor Bondarenko, referring to the tractatus by the famous Roman architect Mark Vitruvius Pollion (1 cent BC). The only antique architecture book that has survived until the present time, it was constantly re-edited in the USSR and Russia, with the latest edition being published in the 2000s.

Vitruvius, who had inspired Leonardo da Vinci to depict the famous “Vitruvian man”, paid much attention to proportions and ergonomics.

“The steps on the façade should be installed in the way that their number was odd, as people start walking up the first step with their right foot – the same foot should stand on the upper step of the temple”, he wrote.  This rule is actually not only for churches but also used by modern designers. As an example, perhaps, there are stairs in the museum leading to a cellar where there are five steps.

Brick by brick

Standard for that time bricks were found at the dig. Their size was almost like contemporary ones, 12.5х24 cm but three times as thin, in order to make burning easier. However, few bricks were produced and the main material was fine-chopped straw with clay (a hand-formed brick).

Several types of hand-formed brick were known: 42х42х7 cm, 34х25х12 cm, 30х15х7 cm and 17х7х4 cm. The masonry work of the buildings’ foundations under the outer walls was 0.8 m wide. Two rows of large bricks were laid on it. The thickness of the foundation under the interior walls was 0.6 m.

Scientists suppose that ancient builders combined large and small blocks, and that interior partitions of about 20 cm thick were made of clayed cane. A finished building was also clad in clay to protect it against rainfall.

The ceilings in such buildings were up to 2.5 m high. The cellars used as a housekeeping area were slightly lower, but people could stand there. 

There is little information about the interior decoration of houses in Gorgippia. In one of the cellars traces of red painted dry mortar were found. The walls were also clad in clay on the inside

There is no volcanic ash on the Black Sea coast, and this was an important component of ancient concrete. As an alternative, ancient builders mixed sand with lime, then added ground brick as a binder before getting mortar.

Its advantage was that it did not leak. We may see surfaces finished with this mixture in a winery found by archeologists in the estates.

History of construction: ancient Greeks’ technologies are still used

Houses were covered with ceramic tiles. A lot of them were found during the archeological research. These products were rather heavy, so the roof was supported by one of the load-bearing walls which rose to the highest point of a building. There are many foundations for structures known as a five-walled house: this was a house divided into two parts, with a load-bearing wall supporting a double-pitch roof.

We can only guess how comfortable those houses were, as everything depended on the climate. Mediterranean Greeks thought it was cold in Pontic colonies (located on the Black Sea coast).

Sometimes, fires and other serious catastrophes occurred in Gorgippia, but the city was reconstructed several times until the III century AD.

Meanwhile, some technologies from ancient construction continue to be used without major changes.

Alexander REBEKO

Anapa – Moscow