Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Stone is not an easy thing to shape. There were early cultures, notably the Incan, who were able to cut stone to fit like neat puzzle pieces in order to form structures, but by and large the process is slow and laborious. The pyramids, too, were fashioned largely of cut stone, the pieces shaped to be of similar size – but the pyramids are primarily piles of rock, with a clever use of keystones in order to create underground passages. They could not be called ‘fluid’ structures.

The true genius of early masonry was not, in fact, the stone – nor the use of brick, which came into use with the development of pottery and kilns. The genius is in the mortar. Mortar which is flexible, which allows fluid structures to be created from virtually any kind or shape of rock. Mortar enabled the great cities of the Mesopotamian delta to rise above the plain, as temples, as gardens and as fortifications.

Mortar is a mixture of water, sand and ‘quicklime,’ which when mixed together and allowed to dry hardens to the level of a fairly soft rock. However, where the lime combines with existing rock, the hardening of the mortar creates a single cohesive hardness to the entire structure.

Which is probably more than you needed to know.

Still, some cultures were blessed with large deposits of lime, while some were not. Lime is found worldwide, but much of it is of poor value and not suitable for the making of ‘cement’, the powder which is made from burning lime, and which is mixed with sand and water to make mortar.

I am simplifying to some degree, because I don’t want to get bogged down in a lengthy chemical discussion of the specific properties of lime, limestone, gypsum, calcium and fifty other materials used to make cement. Suffice to say, for our purposes, where lime is superior, massive building projects are practical. Where lime is inferior, alternative methods of construction are required. The Incas had no suitable lime deposits. The Egyptians, too, were limited in their supply. The Mesopotamians had lots and lots.

What the Mesopotamians did not have was stone. Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, is a large sandy bowl, which gets muddy where it is watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The combination of bricks made from this mud, plus mortar made from the copious supply of lime, allowed for massive ziggurats. There were many more such ziggurats built in Mesopotamia than pyramids built in Egypt.

In most D&D worlds, this sort of thing is never considered. Elves living in high mountains of course have massive, spired castles reaching hundreds of feet into the air. Dungeons never lack for as much marble as they need, nor for the mortar to fashion miles of hallways made of glittering granite paving stones, driven deep into the earth. Every ancient culture which is overturned by the party will feature sculptured building masses that would have needed whole armies of masons; every lost city is a near perfect mathematical rendition of flawless Gothic design. Heaps and piles of stones are not considered. Now and then a Mayan temple with neatly cut stairs may appear, or something similar to the jungle temple of Angkor Wat. That is because these places are complex, with many hallways and rooms. Whereas the tomb of Cyrus the Great (non-mortared) can be easily explored.

Unless you invent underground passages ... which must be mortared masterpieces in order to justify their withstanding 2500 years of history.

Sociologically, the massive building projects that began in the third millennium BCE were responsible for much of the civic society which we still experience today. Building projects required labour. Labour required overseers, who themselves required greater overseers, leading ultimately to a king. The projects required more than stone – they required food and materials for the workers, which brought about taxes. Since coin did not exist, ‘taxes’ were a portion of goods and foods produced, co-opted by the state as supplies.

Enforcement of labour required more than overseers, it required those who would punish recalcitrant workers and taxpayers – the enforcement of laws. Naturally, when the community was threatened, such law enforcement doubled as soldiers. Most of this is simple textbook reading.

But in places where no massive building structure was done, such social constructions were never devised. The Mongols did not pay taxes, for example, two millennia later – though they did make offerings and though they had a substantially developed and complex society.

What I’m saying is that your world’s cultures should be carefully considered – do these peoples truly need any large structures in order to maintain their local traditions? Yes, I’ve no doubt you’ve divided groups into ‘civilized’ and ‘nomadic’, but consider the hundreds of hybrid societies which fit between. Many northern societies who constructed buildings of wood did not need to thoroughly change all of their nomadic principles in order to live in ‘cities’. The same can be said for Polynesian societies. Whereas the Mesopotamians built cities, the Egyptians built tombs, the Hindus built temples and the Celts built monoliths whose purpose is still debated. The Easter Island inhabitants carved huge heads but left little evidence of their living arrangements. The ancient natives of Ohio built huge mounds of earth, but we know little about their culture.

Before defining the culture by its masonry, instead select masonry according to the culture you imagine. Do not assume that all highly civilized communities will automatically build complex, massive structures. Are the materials available? Would it serve any purpose for that culture if they were? And what purpose? If there were previous dwellers in this land, don’t assume that the ruins they left behind were the highest culture imaginable. They may have left nothing more special than tiny tombs scattered upon the landscape. Or stone posts representing phallic symbols, all of them four feet high and numbering in the thousands.

Be imaginative.


Tim Shorts said...

Great blog. I appreciate the research you put into it. Thank you.

Valandil said...

Wow...that was...enlightning. A great post indeed.