Cyclopean Masonry: A Mystery of the Ancient World


A part of the rock wall at Cuzco, Peru

A part of the rock wall at Cuzco, Peru

They don’t make things like they used to, and that is, in some cases, a monumental understatement.  Silly wordplay notwithstanding, there is something to be said for the construction techniques of the old world.  Where modern buildings are designed to withstand the elements; wind, temperature extremes, earthquakes and floods, today’s engineers have to strike a balance between economics and robust design.  They do a good job, for the most part, but modern building techniques pale in comparison to the construction practices of ancient cultures.

The very fact that ancient monuments still stand is a testament to their expertise.  Ancient city ruins, pyramids, rock walls and pillars, they were all built to stand the test of time, and in many cases, they passed that test with flying colours.  This may be partly due to the materials they used.  Stone has an inherent durability, and the goal of longevity is only furthered by its use in construction.  Unlike its artificial counterparts – cement, concrete, asphalt, etc. – many types of stone have lifecycles counted in the millions of years, and if a stone monument, whether that be a wall, an archway, a pyramid or any other structure, is built using certain techniques, it’s certain to last eons into the future.

Part of the entrance tunnel to the Khafre Valley Temple, Egypt

Part of the entrance tunnel to the Khafre Valley Temple, Egypt

It seems our ancestors were well aware of this, and one of their most successful stone construction techniques is unparalleled in today’s world.  That technique is polygonal wall construction.  The only truly earthquake proof construction technique, polygonal wall construction, or as it’s more popularly known, cyclopean masonry, is one of the oldest forms of stone masonry known to man.  It’s also the sturdiest.

The earliest examples of cyclopean masonry are found in Egypt, in the Khafre pyramid complex at Giza, specifically in the valley temple, which is the oldest part of the pyramid complex, dating to the fourth dynasty of the old kingdom (c.2520-2494 BCE).  Most experts however, exclude the Khafre valley temple from listings of cyclopean masonry, as the term itself is derived from the early Mycenaean culture of ancient Greece, which developed at least 1000 years later.

Cyclopean masonry at Delphi, Greece

Cyclopean masonry at Delphi, Greece

The oldest Mycenaean structures to use the cyclopean masonry technique, dating from 1500 to 1100 BC, are found in the fortified walls of Mycenea and Tiryns (modern day Athens and the Peloponnese area), and are characterized by huge irregular shaped blocks of limestone, often unworked, and stacked to form a wall.  The blocks usually fit closely together with little space in the joints and no mortar.  As a result of the varying size and shape of the stones and the manner of their fit, they form a highly stable structure, capable of withstanding high magnitude earthquakes, as are common to the Mediterranean area.

Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia (AD 77-79), attributed the name Cyclopean Masonry to Aristotle, claiming that it was he who believed that only the mythical race of giant Cyclops were strong enough to have moved such huge boulders and set them in place.  Most examples of this type of construction are today called Cyclopean, though the technique is found throughout the world in many different cultures.

Easter Island

Easter Island

Some of the most famous examples of Cyclopean construction are found in Mexico and Mesoamerica.  Sites such as Pumapunku at Tiwanaku, Bolivia, and the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and Ollantaytombo.  The technique is used though, as mentioned, all over the world, with examples found in places like:  Italy, Turkey, Japan, and the Polynesian Islands like Rapa Nui (Easter Island), just to name a few.

Those examples found in Bolivia and Peru do provide some opportunities for head scratching though.  In those cases, as has been made famous by Ancient Alien proponents such as David Childress, Eric von Danikën, and the late Phillip Coppens, the technique has been used so expertly that it opens up questions about just exactly how it was done.

Perhaps the most impressive site where Cyclopean or polygonal masonry was used is Saksaywaman in Cuzco, Peru.  This site was once the capitol of the Incan Empire and was built somewhere around 1100 CE by the Kilike culture prior to the Incan takeover of the region in the 13th century.  The stones used are some of the largest ever quarried in pre-Columbian / pre-Hispanic America, the largest tipping the scales at 200 tonnes.

Edo Castle, Japan

Edo Castle, Japan

The stones in question were typically andesite, which is a relatively hard igneous, volcanic rock, similar to basalt with a high silica content.  It is abundant in the region, and actually gets its name from the Andes Mountains.

What makes this site so incredible is both the size of the stones used and the precision by which they were placed.  The non-mortar joints are so tight that a slip of paper cannot be fitted between them.  Ancient Alien proponents, of course, claim this is evidence of out of place technology, perhaps provided by aliens, but modern science has a fairly good grasp on the process used.

UC-Berkley Professor of Architecture Jean-Pierre Protzen suggests, and has amply demonstrated, that large rotating workforces, impressively massive ropes, and ramps were used to quarry and drag similar stones to the site of Ollantaytambo, where they were then worked with hammers and chisels to precisely fit with their counterparts.[1]  He says they were then lifted into place by the use of ropes and pulleys.  He believes, and most archaeologists agree with him, that all of the American examples of Cyclopean masonry were constructed using this technique and required no more than the so-called primitive tools that were available to the Kilike and Incan peoples at the time.

The Ancient Alien mythos claims that the ruins at these sites cannot be the product of natural human ingenuity, pointing to the precision at Saksaywaman and Puma Punku and proclaiming that modern techniques could scarcely achieve such perfection, but as with most of their claims, it simply isn’t necessary to invoke alien intervention to explain the achievements of our ancestors.  Yes, these Incan sites are spectacular examples of Cyclopean masonry, but they are not unique among old world cultures.

As with other megalithic construction, the techniques used often turn out to be fairly simple, yet elegant solutions to the problems faced by the master architects of our past.  However satisfying and seemingly logical the alternative schools of thought on these issues tend to be, the truth is always better than a credulous fantasy.

At any rate, if one intends to dismiss the accepted wisdom of a subject, one had better first know just what is that accepted wisdom.

[1] Protzen, Jean-Pierre. Inca Architecture and Construction at Ollantaytambo. Oxford University Press 1993 ISBN-10: 0195070690

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Martin J. Clemens

I also blog at at Mysterious Universe!
Writer, Canadian, Fortean Addict...and lover of science and history. "As for me...I know only, that I know nothing..."
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7 Responses

  1. Thomas van Andel says:

    Thanks Martin !

  2. Dina says:

    If you read Jean-Pierre Protzen’s papers he notes that he does NOT know how it all was done and the dates given above are in question. He does show how it could have been done on SOME smaller structures. He notes that the quarries have been in use too long to know for certain.
    There are distinctly different styles of construction at the same locations in each of these places;Peru, Egypt and Greece. Ergo they may have been built at different times and by different cultures. The similarities are too many to be random. The fact remains that these constructions are fairly consistent through out the world. An overlooked ancient global civilization once existed.

  3. john cope says:

    I agree that there must have been a common-cure culture, or at least influence, upon later civilizations. The author’s dismissal of alternative explanations of how some of these structures were built (“credulous fantasy”) seems rather condescending. Until a team of scientists can actually replicate the awe-inspiring structures near Cuzco, Peru (using no modern technology), I will continue to entertain my credulous fantasy.

  4. Joel Smith says:

    Why is it so hard to imagine a different world wide civilization that existed just 10t o 20K more than we thought? Why not 100K; it is only a blink in the long slog of time since the earth formed. More and more areas are being discovered that push the beginning of civ further back. Ancient structures built with immense stones all around the globe.You have to look at the big picture and not each individual place by itself. And if there was advanced civ like today is it not a stretch to imagine a few surviving global catastrophes? Underground in turkey? lol. There is more than we want to let on I believe …but the question you should ask is why on earth would it matter if we believed history started 4000 B.C.or 10,000 to 100,000 …

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