Granite: Ancient Wonders, Middle Ages, to Modern Wonders

You may think that granite is little more than a nice material for making kitchen countertops, and that’s… not wrong at all. But it’s not the whole story. Granite is born in the Earth’s molten mantle and turns up virtually everywhere on the planet. It is hard and durable, so good for building; it can be polished and polished into works of art; it is even technically radioactive.

“More than 40 percent of the extracted dimension stone consists of granite. Crushed granite is used as a sustainable building material in asphalt and concrete used in highway and infrastructure projects,” notes the Minerals Education Coalition.

“It is widely used for architectural facades, building materials, decorative stone and monuments,” they write. “Because it can be flattened to a very high shine, granite is widely used in memorials, tombstones, monuments, carved decorations on buildings, statues and the like.”

Old granite

Thanks to this incredible versatility and strength, granite has been one of humanity’s best friends in construction over the years. And we really mean that year: Drilled and worked granite has existed since as early as the third millennium BC, with buildings built from the raw stone dating back even earlier than that.

If you’ve been to London or New York, you may have seen some of the most famous examples of this ancient granite: Cleopatra’s Needles, originally made in the 15th century.e century BC before finally being donated to the two cities in the 19th century, both are sculpted from granite from the quarries of Aswan – now recognized archaeological sites for their historical importance.

Traditionally this causes some disbelief. How could the makers of Prince Akhet-Hotep’s sarcophagus, for example, have been technologically advanced enough to drill into a rock that was roughly as hard as steel, some seven centuries before the invention of the sarcophagus? real steel?

“Today, quarries cut and cut granite using diamond blade saws and steel chisels. But the ancient Egyptian stonemasons and masons did not have these modern tools,” PBS NOVA explained back in 2000. “How then did they carve and carve such clean lines into their obelisks and other monumental sculptures?”

Luckily, the ancient stonemasons have given us a pretty big clue to their techniques – and when we say “big,” we mean about 130 feet (42 meters) long and almost 1,100 tons (1,200 metric tons) heavy.

It’s called the Unfinished Obelisk, and that’s for two reasons: it’s an obelisk, and it’s unfinished. However, if it had ever been completed, it would easily have been the largest such erection in the ancient world; Even if it remains that way, horizontal in the ground and still attached to the original rock, it is one of the largest monoliths in the world, and the largest known from ancient Egypt.

“Archaeologists know that ancient Egyptians had the skills to forge bronze and copper tools,” noted PBS – but experiments have proven that this level of technology simply wouldn’t be good enough to carve granite. “We’re losing a lot of metal and very little stone is falling off,” noted stonemason Roger Hopkins as he attempted to carve the stone with a copper chisel.

The solution? An ingenious use of a resource that Egypt has always had in abundance: sand. “We’re going to put sand in the groove and we’re going to place the saw on the sand,” explains experimental archaeologist Denys Stocks. “Then we let the sand do the work.”

That sand is polydispersive – that is, composed of grains of many different sizes – and generally consists of at least 40 percent quartz, making it about as hard as granite itself. “The weight of the copper saw rubs the sand crystals […] against the stone. A groove soon appears in the granite,” according to PBS. “It is clear that this technique works well and could have been used by the ancient Egyptians.”

From Egypt to Rome

The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BCE and fell in love with the ancient culture they found there. In addition to Egyptian art, mythologies and ideas, Rome exported more practical things from their new African province: grain, glass, papyrus – and granite.

“Granite was highly prized by the Romans, who exploited it extensively for monolithic columns after the founding of the empire,” said Michael J Waters, assistant professor of art history and archeology at Columbia University, in a 2016 article on Roman architecture.

“The predominant use of large granite columns in Rome, where they were erected by thousands and adorned some of the city’s most spectacular buildings, including the Pantheon, Trajan’s Forum and the Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian, made them a hallmark of the imperial capital,” he wrote.

But what happened to these numerous columns? The thing about history is that only so much of it can fit in one place. So, Waters explained, “when the Roman marble industry declined in the third century AD, the mining of hard stones largely ceased. As a result, from late antiquity onwards, builders in Rome began to reuse old granite columns for the construction of new buildings, a practice that is well known. […] as plunder.”

In other words, if you ever admire one of Rome’s ancient buildings, take a closer look. Chances are you’ll see something that’s even older than you think.

Wonders of the world

Without granite, the planet would be a much less interesting place. Some of the most iconic buildings and structures in the world owe their existence to the rock: the castles and churches of Europe – including France’s Mont-Saint-Michel, Lisbon’s Évora Cathedral or Spain’s Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Basilica – are built of granite; This also applies to classic postcard food such as the Tower Bridge and (parts of) the Great Wall of China.

Photo of Mont Saint Michel reflected on water

Mont Saint Michel.

Image credits: alexseb/

In Scotland, an entire city shines from its rocks: Aberdeen, on the country’s northeastern coast, owes so much of its infrastructure to granite that it is literally nicknamed ‘the Granite City’.

The Brihadisvara Temple in South India is made of granite and truly remarkable in size and construction. It was built at the beginning of the 11th centurye century and is still one of the highest in the region. It is not without reason that the locals call it the ‘Great Temple’: it is 16 stories high and rises more than 60 meters into the air.

However, it was with the Industrial Revolution that the use of granite – along with everything else, let’s face it – really took off. With the development of new, heavy transportation options such as steamships and trains, as well as modernized techniques for working the material, granite grew from a fine local supply to the foundation of Empires.

“Granite has been used for buildings and monuments in Devon and Cornwall since prehistoric times,” wrote Ewan Hyslop and Graham Lott, petrologists and building stone specialists at the British Geological Survey, in a 2007 article for The Building Conservation Directory.

But ‘the introduction of steamships stimulated the granite industry in Cornwall from about 1840, with large quantities being used to build docks throughout southern England,’ they explained, ‘and from that time this granite was used extensively in London for countless monuments, buildings and many others. out of 19e century commercial dock plans and bridges. Examples include Nelson’s Column (Foggintor granite) and […] construction of the Thames Embankment.”

But can granite remain as important as it once was? Well, probably yes – the global market shows no signs of slowing down. Even as concrete leaves granite behind as a building material, and bronze is more popular for sculpture, granite is so incredibly useful to us that it’s unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.

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