Sunday, February 5, 2012


Christopher Ratté, Lydian Architecture: Ashlar Masonry Structures at Sardis, Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, Report 5. Cambridge, MA; London: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, 2011. Pp. xvii, 292. ISBN 9780674060609. $85.00.

Reviewed by Gloria R. Hunt, Syracuse University (

Version at BMCR home site

In this volume Christopher Ratté presents the evidence for the distinctive Lydian tradition of ashlar masonry at Sardis and nearby sites, beginning with its first appearance during the reign of Alyattes in the 1st quarter of the 6th century B.C. and ending several generations after the Persian invasion of Lydia in 547. Originally Ratté's dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley (1989), this volume is the fifth in the series Reports on the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis.

Ratté's narrow focus on the production and use of squared and carefully fitted stone blocks allows him to scrutinize a hallmark of the city's cultural legacy, one born from the imperial ambitions of the Mermnad dynasty in the 6th century, when architectural canons were formed and cemented in western Asia Minor as well as in Greece.1 In cataloging the typological distribution and techniques of stone architecture in Lydia, this volume sheds much light on the introduction of stone working—and of monumentality itself—into the building traditions of the ancient Mediterranean.

Following an introduction that briefly recounts the history of archaeological exploration at Sardis, the volume is divided into two parts: text and catalogue.

The first chapter of the text, "Survey of the Monuments," gives a brief account of the structures that inform this study. They are limited to those investigated by the Harvard-Cornell Expedition at Sardis and include built tombs and associated crepis walls (both within Sardis and at Bin Tepe), terrace walls, architectural foundations, stretches of the fortification systems, and architectural fragments, all of which are fully described later in the catalogue in Part II. These monuments give the appearance of "typical" Lydian ashlar masonry, that is, large quadrangular blocks laid in regular courses with tightly-fitted joints. With the exception of tomb interiors, which were smoothly dressed, Lydian ashlar masonry is perhaps best known for its exterior rustication, in which the exterior block faces display an intentionally roughly-dressed central panel surrounded by finely-dressed drafted margins. In many examples, a fine beveled edge appears along the vertical joints.

Ample illustrations of each monument include sharply-focused photographs and drawn plans, elevations, sections, and isometric views, as well as two helpful reconstruction sketches of the fortification gate in sector MMS/N and of the Pyramid Tomb at Sardis. The drawn illustrations recreate for the viewer the appearance of tool marks and other cuttings, evidence which informs some of Ratté's most insightful observations in Chapter 3.

In Chapter 2, "Materials," Ratté describes the kinds of stone used in Lydian architecture, including limestone, and, less frequently, sandstone and marble. Using the results of a geological study undertaken by Michael Ramage and Robert Tykot (presented fully in Appendix 4), Ratté concludes that all stones were likely locally available and therefore transported over short distances, though the specific marble and standstone quarries used in Lydian architecture have yet to be identified.

Chapter 3, "Techniques of Construction," provides an outstanding example of the observation and analysis of stone architecture. In a meticulous and well-illustrated exposition of tool marks, masons' marks, and other cuttings, Ratté discusses the likely types and sizes of tools used in squaring and finishing ashlar blocks and, using evidence from unfinished blocks, suggests a plausible sequence for each step.

Among the fruits of Ratté's careful observations is the recognition that Lydian rustication, a "style" that would come to be standard for some types of Lydian architecture, was a by-product of the quarrying process and therefore born largely from economy rather than aesthetics. Drafted margins would have helped to square the stone at the quarry site without having to laboriously finish the central panels. Similarly, thin bevels that often appear on the vertical joints would have helped mask masked any chipping that might occur during shifting and positioning of the block.

Ratté's careful study of the orientation of lifting holes, pry holes, and joint bevels in a given course indicates how and in what order the blocks might have been laid, suggesting a likely division of labor among masons. Distinctive "starting" blocks could be placed in the middle of the course, for example, and two teams of masons might work outward from there. The distribution of masons' marks seems to corroborate this model.

In Chapter 4 "Chronology" Ratté places the securely-identified Tomb of Alyattes (whose death c. 560 gives a terminus ante quem) among the first datable examples of ashlar masonry in Lydia. As in Greek architecture, a typology of clamps proves useful in establishing a relative chronological sequence in Lydian masonry techniques, with the butterfly, or dove-tail, clamp appearing first. Other features that help to establish relative chronology among the monuments are the appearance of Greek-style anathyrosis and the use of the claw-chisel, apparently also adopted from Greece after the middle of the 6th century. Ratté concludes that the use of ashlar masonry began with the Alyattes' reign and continued, albeit on a smaller scale, after Persian rule, when more distinctively Greek methods replaced earlier Lydian ones.

Ashlar masonry therefore appeared somewhat suddenly in Lydia in the first half of the 6th century BC.

In Chapter 5, "History of the Lydian Building Tradition," Ratté explores the extent to which Lydian affinities with Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek architectural traditions further suggest that ashlar masonry was not an indigenous Lydian invention. Here Ratté attempts to identify the cultural influences that led to the adoption, adaptation, and transmission of ashlar masonry and investigates the possible origins and meaning of this style of construction.

Although a full treatment of "influences" upon Lydian culture that might have shaped the trajectory of architectural developments is quite beyond the scope of this short chapter, Ratté addresses key points arising from his presentation of the ashlar monuments. He notes first that the kinds of structures built with ashlars have closest parallels in Anatolia and the Near East. Tomb chambers buried deep within earthen tumuli have Phrygian and Cypriot precedents, while terrace walls and fortifications may recall Assyrian building types. Also pointing to Anatolia and the Near East is the fact that ashlar masonry in Lydia typically supports a core or superstructure of mudbrick and rubble, quite unlike the freestanding stone temples of Greece and Egypt.

Following his chronological conclusions in Chapter 4, Ratté posits that the adoption of ashlar masonry in these kinds of structures served to heighten prestige among the early Mermnad kings by following "royal" building types, especially monumental tombs and stone-faced fortification walls. The role of patronage in Lydian early stone architecture is a critical point of inquiry in understanding not only how, but why ashlar masonry enjoyed a period of flowering in 6th-century Lydia (as well as in the Aegean), a consideration that has not received due attention in phenomenological studies of architecture. Ratté's brief consideration of the role of architectural patronage here is therefore most welcome and invites further study.

While ashlar masonry appears in monuments designed to express Lydia's growing imperial authority within the context of Near Eastern kingship, the technical details of Lydian stone construction are very closely related to eastern Greek masonry. The use of large blocks with drafted margins, point-dressed central panels, beveled edges, smoothed band anathyrosis, and (in tomb chambers) smoothly-faced walls all appear in the (better-established) building tradition of east Greece.

Ratté reminds us of the closeness of east Greek and Lydian cultures during the archaic period, although, as he makes clear, they were far from identical, especially in the kinds of buildings constructed. Still, the relationship between Lydia and east Greece no doubt played a vital role in the developing monumental stone architecture in western Asia Minor. Ratté suggests that the more outward-looking Greeks may have been responsible for the introduction of masonry techniques to Lydia rather than the other way around, citing Greek nodes of interaction with the eastern Mediterranean, at Naukratis, Al Mina, and Phoenician settlements in the Aegean.

Whatever its origins, Ratté concludes that ashlar masonry in Lydia became firmly established under the Mermnad dynasty, and adopted kingly associations that assured its continued use, though on a lesser scale, after the Persian invasion of western Asia Minor. This prestigious method of building, both at Sardis and in east Greek cities, demonstrably influenced Persian monuments at Persepolis, Pasargadae, and Susa, where Darius's Foundation Charter declared that both Sardian and Ionian masons were employed.

In Part II, "Catalogue of Monuments," Ratté presents a brief history of exploration for each monument along with a thorough description, a list of associated finds, proposed date, and bibliography.

There are four appendices. Appendix 1 is a discussion of architectural membra disiecta of possible Lydian date that were reused in later structures. Appendix 2 is a discussion of the crepis, or "base of large stones" identified by Herodotus (1.93) around the tumulus of Alyattes (already discussed in Chapter 1 and in the Catalogue). Appendix 3 discusses the so-called altar of Artemis which, though built with ashlars, is anomalous among other Lydian structures in both technique and material. Appendix 4, written by Michael Ramage and Robert Tykot, includes a geological survey of the area, the distilled results of which are presented in Chapter 3.

Overall, Ratté's clear and well-illustrated presentation of Lydian ashlar masonry and insightful analysis of its features are significant contributions to architectural studies well beyond the physical and temporal limits of the Lydian kingdom. One leaves this volume wishing for an expanded consideration of the historical context of Lydian stone architecture (only very briefly laid out in Chapter 5), especially where and how it intersects with the east Greek tradition.2 Any such future study, however, will surely rely heavily on the evidence and conclusions laid out in this important monograph.


1.   Rubble and mudbrick construction are discussed elsewhere in the series.
2.   Noticeably absent in the bibliography are Walter Burkert's many influential studies concerning the transmission of Near Eastern culture. Other, more recent sources might include: G. Kopcke, 1992. "What Role for the Phoenicians?" In Kopcke, G. and I. Tokumaru, eds., Greece between East and West 10th-8th Centuries BC: Papers of the Meeting at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, March 15-16th, 1990, 103-13. Mainz: P. von Zabern and G. Hoffman, 1997. Imports and Immigrants: Near Eastern Contacts with Iron Age Crete. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (especially Chapter 3).

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