The Medieval Review 11.03.07

Wright, G.R.H. Ancient Building Technology, vol. 3, Construction; Part 1 - Text/Part 2 - Illustrations. Technology and Change in History: vol 12.1/12.2. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xxxvii, 325/288. 272.00 ISBN 978 90 04 17745 1. .

Reviewed by:

Sarah Thompson
Rochester Institute of Technology

Wright's latest publication follows two prior volumes, the first (Ancient Building Technology, Volume 1: Historical Background) appearing in 2000, and the second (Ancient Building Technology, Volume 2: Materials) appearing in 2005. This third volume focuses on practical aspects of construction in the Neolithic era, the ancient Near East, ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, with occasional descriptions of Sassanian and Byzantine construction. Wright fulfills his stated goal of providing a ready reference, as his book compiles existing information about construction techniques in the ancient world in a convenient format that makes it easy for the reader to locate a specific subject of interest. The volume is relentlessly organized: the table of contents provides a lengthy summary of the chapters, while each chapter begins with an outline that corresponds to the headings and subheadings of the text and ends with a subject-specific bibliography. Wright begins with a chapter on preparatory measures, namely drawings, directions, and quantity surveying, followed by a chapter on setting out. Building site development is treated in great detail in the third chapter. The last four chapters each cover construction in a specific material: wood, stone, brick, and concrete.

Many of the issues covered by Wright have received relatively little sustained attention in relation to the large body of scholarship on ancient architecture; the extended chapter on building site development, which discusses the transport and placement of materials, as well as the use of earthworks and machines, is particularly welcome in this respect. The nature of the book means that no overarching theory is presented, but Wright does state his position in relation to particular issues in the history of construction; for example, in the opening chapter he counters the idea that Greek builders created temple plans through mental arrangement with an argument in support of the use of ground plans, although he suggests that details of elevation could have been determined during the process of construction. He is also careful to emphasize major turning points, including the change to Pharaonic masonry in Egypt and the use of clean lifting in Greek masonry construction; in fact, the conclusion of the book, which highlights each of these turning points and underscores Wright's aim of compiling information, might have served as an introduction. At times, it seems that the scope of the bibliography should have been expanded. While he devotes six pages to the construction of the Pantheon, Wright provides few references to the extensive literature on the Pantheon in the bibliography for that chapter. He discusses the change in the height of the Pantheon's porch, indicating that the builders discovered too late that they would not have space required to use a tilter to erect the planned 50' columns and hence shortened them to 40'; he does not mention the theory that the change resulted from an inability to secure monolithic columns at the planned height (Paul Davies, David Hemsoll, and Mark Wilson Jones, "The Pantheon: Triumph of Rome or Triumph of Compromise?" Architectural History 10 [1987]: 133-153).

Construction is treated purely in terms of practical concerns. For example, in the chapter on setting out, Wright briefly refers to the possibility of geometric symbolism in Late Antique church plans, but relegates this discussion to the world of design--something he does not discuss in this book. The tight focus on construction techniques means that significant related issues are omitted. The question of labor, intrinsic to the subject of construction, is not raised here. Wright refers generally to a labor force and to particular positions such as master builders and surveyors, but does not analyze in any extended way the hierarchy or organization of those who carried out the construction he describes. References to a fourth volume indicate that the subject may be dealt with in the future, but the separation of the topics of construction and labor seems artificially imposed. As an example, Wright lists the qualities that a master builder of a megalithic site must have possessed, but without supporting the assumption that such sites had a single controller. Similarly, the discussion of the construction methods associated with specific materials has been divorced somewhat awkwardly from a discussion of the nature of those materials, found in a previous volume in this series. Analysis of the structural behavior of materials and forms is uneven, absent from the chapters on wood and stone but present in relation to concrete domes. Necessary accompaniments to construction, such as tools, are mentioned but not made a subject of inquiry, an absence Wright explains by noting that very little has been published in this area, further emphasizing that this book is not intended to present new research.

The reading experience is occasionally jarred by errors in spelling and syntax. All the illustrations are bound in a separate volume, and they are referred to by image number only in the gutter of the text, making it an interruption for the reader to find the images that correspond to particular concepts. The images are also relatively small-scale and in black and white; the size and contrast of the photographs can at times give the reader difficulty in understanding evidence of particular techniques. However, these issues aside, Wright's book succeeds in conveniently assembling a vast amount of material on a topic that is often marginally treated within the history of architecture, and should be a helpful resource to anyone interested in how buildings were made as opposed to what they meant.