by Frederike Berg
Scaffolding through the ages: scaffolding in antiquity
Especially when you consider that thousands of years ago people were already able to complete structures of monumental size and complexity without the building technology we have today, you have to wonder how they could have done it at all. The answer is quite simple: with scaffolding.
What is scaffolding?
Before we start, we need to ask ourselves a very mundane question: what was scaffolding in ancient times? Because, of course, ancient scaffolding techniques were very different from those we know today. However, the definitions of what can actually be described as scaffolding in the ancient world are hardly any different from those of today.
Scaffolding was and still is a temporary framework or structure erected to provide support and access during the construction, maintenance, or repair of buildings, and other structures. For thousands of years, scaffolding has been used to safely climb to great heights, transport materials and precisely execute complex architectural designs. Typically made from wood, bamboo, or later metal, scaffolding has evolved over the centuries, but its purpose remains unchanged - to facilitate the construction process and ensure the safety of those working at elevated heights.
What types of scaffolds were used thousands of years ago?
Greece without its famous Acropolis? Egypt without the pyramids? Or Rome without the Colosseum? Hard to imagine. But without scaffolding, the construction of these and many other iconic buildings of antiquity would hardly have been possible. With the building boom that accompanied the emergence of the first metropolises, and the increasingly complex architecture that went with it, more and more types of scaffolding and scaffolding techniques were developed.
Scaffolding was an exception in Ancient Egypt
More than 3,500-year-old depictions on tombs and reliefs show how the ancient Egyptians used simple knots of thin willow branches, papyrus or sisal to tie together wooden beams and planks to build scaffolds for the construction of their most iconic buildings. Before they could start erecting the scaffolding, the willow branches had to be soaked in water for several days to make them flexible. Scaffolding was therefore very labour-intensive and time-consuming. On top of that, wood was a scarce commodity in ancient Egypt and usually too expensive for simple craftsmen. Instead, they used ladders to reach greater heights on their construction sites. That’s why scaffolding was only used for important temples and statues, such as those we know today at Luxor. It’s also thought that wooden scaffold-like structures were used to build the famous pyramids of Giza.
Wooden scaffolding was used to build the Acropolis
With the emergence and rapid development of metropolises such as Athens, the need for larger buildings grew. Archaeological finds show that more sophisticated wooden scaffolding was used on building sites in ancient Greece. Lifting machines, some of which used scaffolding as a supporting structure, have also been recorded.
The construction of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens in the 5th century BCE saw the use of various types of scaffolding, including crane scaffolding, consisting of cranes and ramps, and support scaffolding, consisting of wooden posts and beams.
Roman temples, amphitheatres and aqueducts were only possible with scaffolding
During the Roman Empire, wooden scaffolding was further developed and improved. Trestle scaffolding, cantilever scaffolding and wooden pole scaffolding must have been commonplace, especially in the rapidly growing metropolis of Rome.
Although concrete records of Roman scaffolding are rather scarce, the buildings constructed with the help of scaffolding speak their own language. For example, some Roman buildings have scaffolding holes in the masonry, indicating the use of scaffolding. But even where there is no visible evidence of scaffolding, the sheer size and complexity of Roman temples, theatres and aqueducts suggests that scaffolding was used extensively. For example, it is thought that trestle scaffolding was used in the construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre, known today as the Colosseum.
Ancient Roman scaffolding also left its mark on the Pont du Gard aqueduct in what is now southern France. Stones protrude at irregular intervals from the masonry to which the scaffolding and falsework were anchored during the construction of the three-level bridge. In addition to the corbels, there are numerous holes in the ashlars, which were probably used to fasten the scaffolds.
Increasingly complex structures demanded ever more sophisticated scaffolding. Over time, wooden scaffolding became safer, more stable, stronger and more flexible - until it was finally replaced in the 20th century by steel scaffolding as we know it today.
Want to know more about the history of scaffolding? Then read our other scaffolding articles on the subject.
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