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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:1, Spring 2023

Archaeology Argot: Ashlar

The term ashlar denotes both a certain kind of building stone and the masonry that makes use of such stones. There are several types of ashlar masonry, depending on the finish of the exposed face, the arrangement of individual stones, and the size of blocks. In general, ashlars are finely dressed stones cut precisely into a rectangular shape. In the ancient world, such blocks were often incredibly large and heavy.

Ashlar blocks were typically laid in horizontal courses, or layers. Because of their straight and smooth edges, the stones fit together tightly, leaving only thin joints between them and resulting in well-built and imposing structures. Building with ashlars was labor intensive and expensive and thus reserved for only the finest construction projects designed for gods and the wealthy, such as temples, palaces, and tombs.

The oldest known examples come from Egypt, though most ancient and pre-modern civilizations used this type of stone masonry, including the Minoans on Crete, the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, and the Incas of South America. Pictured here is the Western Wall in Jerusalem—a section of the perimeter wall built around the Temple Mount under Herod the Great (first century BCE).

Despite its exotic sound, ashlar is an English word, derived from the Old French aissele “traverse beam,” which originated from the Latin axis, meaning “axle” or “plank.”

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