5,000 years is a long time. It’s so long that we have trouble comprehending it. But monuments built of natural stone more than 5,000 years ago are still standing today, which is a testament to natural stone’s enduring beauty and strength.
The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to extensively quarry and build with natural stone. They built most of their monuments of granite and limestone. The Great Pyramid of Cheops, the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, was built of massive limestone blocks around 2560 BC. Visitors to the pyramid today marvel at its size, but recognize that it appears blocky and rough. Even the ancients were concerned with aesthetics, though, and the pyramid was once lined with perfectly smooth casing stones, which were stolen over the years to build homes and temples. The interior burial chamber for the pharaoh is built of granite blocks hewn so perfectly that a piece of paper cannot be slid between them, even today. The ancient Egyptians likely harbored many astounding secrets about stonework.
Then the Greek empire rose and took the use of natural stone to new heights. With marble, they built the Temple of Artemis, another of the ancient wonders of the world. With its 127 marble columns, each 5 stories high, it was certainly the first of the grand structures to be made of marble. It would still be standing today, had it not been intentionally destroyed by conquering civilizations, and only the foundation and a few columns remain.
The Greeks continued to perfect their quarrying and shaping techniques, and built such monumental marble structures as the Parthenon, the Theseum, and the Temple of Zeus. In fact, the marble which was used for these very buildings is still quarried today, under the commercial name Dionyssomarble.
The Greeks were the first to bring natural stone into the home, and ancient Greek literature refers to baths and pools being lined with marble. Many references to the use of Thassos marble in the bathroom occur, and that marble is still commercially quarried today.
Then the Roman empire rose to power around the dawn of the first century AD. The Romans built extensively with both marble and granite. They were, above all, road builders, and they could find no better paving stone than granite. Though quarrying it was difficult work, they lined many of their roads with granite. Public baths were popular, and many were constructed of granite. The Romans also extensively used granite for columns, and ancient ones can be seen today in the Pantheon in Rome.
While the Romans loved granite for its durability and strength, they loved marble above all else because of its beauty. Emperor Augustus once said of conquering a city, “I found a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.” Unlike previous civilizations, the Romans built their structures out of brick and strong mortar, and then lined them with marble slabs. Because they were not dealing with huge blocks of heavy marble for the infrastructure, they were able to build more rapidly. Their technique is still used today in the construction of state buildings, museums, and monuments across the world.
The Romans quarried marble and granite all over their country, but often found that the most beautiful marbles came from Greece. They praised the marble Cipollino of Karystos for its beautiful green color, and that same marble is quarried and distributed today.
During the Renaissance, better quarrying and fabrication techniques allowed the use of marble and granite more extensively in the home, as well as liberally throughout churches, palaces, and monuments. Natural stone continued to dominate the bath and the floor, but didn’t move into the kitchen until “modern times.”