Online Review: Book

Lydian Architecture: Ashlar Masonry Structures at Sardis

Christopher Ratté


Reviewed by Barbara A. Barletta

Archaeological Exploration of Sardis Report 5. Pp. xvii + 292, figs. 286. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2011. $85. ISBN 978-0-674-06060-9 (cloth).

This volume presents the monumental architecture of Sardis during the Lydian and Persian periods. It focuses on ashlar construction, which began in the early sixth century B.C.E. The study is divided into two parts. The first is a text that introduces the monuments (ch. 1), discusses building materials and methods (chs. 2, 3, respectively), reviews the evidence for chronology (ch. 4), and traces the origins and later impact of Lydian ashlar masonry (ch. 5). Part 2 is a catalogue of the monuments under consideration, that is, all ashlar constructions explored by the Sardis Expedition at Sardis and Bin Tepe from 1958 to 2009. It discusses the investigations, with previous bibliography, and offers considerable detail on each monument, referring the reader to relevant discussions in the text. The catalogue is followed by four appendices on reused pieces and specific monuments as well as the geological analysis and sources of building stones. The book concludes with a large number of drawings and photographs.

As the survey of the monuments demonstrates, ashlar masonry in Lydian and Persian Sardis was limited to certain types of structures—primarily tombs (chamber and crepis), terraces, platforms, and parts of fortifications. No freestanding ashlar wall has been found, and it appears that this construction technique was instead employed only as facing. Even the faceted "wall-base" moldings assigned to a gate on the acropolis may have actually crowned a socle. The structures rising above the socle or resting on the terrace wall were probably of mudbrick. Excavations did, however, uncover some stone architectural ornaments, including a threshold block, volutes and carved moldings assigned to altars, and molded blocks likely from votive supports, as well as the carved decoration of funerary monuments, all of which suggest an awareness of, and in some cases contemporaneity with, stone architecture in Greece. Yet the fully stone construction and characteristic building forms of the Greek world were not present here before the mid fifth century.

Ratté's discussion of materials offers some interesting information. Marble, limestone, and sandstone were all used in ashlar construction, but in differing quantities. Marble was the rarest of the three, and sandstone, which was often employed in rubble walls, was less common for ashlar masonry than limestone. The marble found in the chamber of the Tomb of Alyattes remains the only certain pre-Persian example.

Studies have attempted to locate the source of marble by comparing samples from three monuments at Bin Tepe, including Alyattes' tomb, with those from two known nearby quarries (at Mağara Deresi and Gölmarmara). While that used in the monuments may have come from a single quarry, it does not seem to be either of those tested. Ratté thus concludes that there probably existed other sources, perhaps even closer to the site, which are still unidentified or now fully exhausted (19; see also 130–32). By contrast, the origin of Sardis' limestone at Bin Tepe, long suspected by visible outcroppings and evidence of quarrying, is confirmed by recent scientific analysis. This further suggests that specific quarries were used at different times. Although no sandstone quarries have been securely identified, that material was widely available in the area and was probably exploited locally.

Lydian masons apparently used the same set of tools as their Greek counterparts. They also employed clamps (of wood or metal), pry holes, handling bosses, and banded joints (usually less exact than Greek anathyrosis), but not dowels. The lack of cuttings for lifting suggests that blocks were raised by means of ramps, as also in early Greek architecture.

Ratté carefully describes and illustrates the evidence for construction techniques. Lydian terrace walls and other outer facings were built in rusticated masonry with chisel-drafted margins, the latter serving to define the surface in carving and to align the blocks during construction. The interior of tomb chambers was, in contrast, generally dressed smooth. In all cases, only the bottom of a block was fully dressed before construction, while the front, sides, and top were worked later. Some blocks received beveled edges on the bottoms and the front of one side, apparently to avoid damage during assembly and to disguise imperfections. Importantly, the location of the lateral bevels can be used to reconstruct the order of construction.

Dates are offered for the various monuments on the basis of technical, and historical and other archaeological, evidence, as set out in a table on page 114 (not 116 as cited on p. 48). The former is, however, not very definitive. While the butterfly clamp is the earliest, appearing in works datable to the first half of the sixth century, it may have been optional. Additionally, clamps are rare in terrace walls. Thus, chronology may not fully explain the absence of clamps in some tombs. Similarly problematic, the claw chisel is found in both Greek and Lydian sculpture—and now also in Greek architecture (G. Gruben, "Naxos und Delos: Studien zur archaischen Architektur der Kykladen," JdI 112 [1997] 338 n. 206)—ca. 560–550 B.C.E., but it can only be confirmed in Lydian constructions at the end of the century. While anathyrosis may be somewhat later in Lydia than in Greece, in both areas it becomes more refined over time, making a specific chronology difficult. Nevertheless, the evidence overall allows for a general assignment of the monuments and thus a reconstruction of the development of Lydian ashlar architecture in the final chapter.

For this reconstruction, Ratté employs typology as well as technical and historical factors. This leads to the important observation that the earliest dated use in Lydia of ashlar masonry (the Tomb of Alyattes) is also its first tumulus tomb (53). A link between kingship and this tomb type, as well as the use of ashlar masonry in monumental terraces and at significant locations in fortifications, is attested elsewhere in Anatolia and the Near East. Yet large-stone construction, drafted margins, and decorative rustication are traits shared with East Greece, and historical factors point to Greeks as transmitters of the ashlar tradition. Ratté demonstrates that this mixed tradition continues in Lydia in the post-Persian period and is even transferred to Persia itself.

Although focused on Lydia, Ratté's thorough research, detailed documentation, and comparative analyses make this book useful to those interested in techniques and motivations of construction in several ancient cultures.

Barbara A. Barletta
School of Art and Art History
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida 32611


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