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Early Architecture

Early Architecture

Author: Ian McConnell

Understand key terms associated with early architecture and people.

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Exploring examples of Neolithic architecture.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about early architecture. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Lesson objectives for today. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms; identify examples of early architecture from England, Malta, and Turkey; explain possible functions for megalithic structures like Stonehenge; and compare and contrast Chatal Huyuk with a modern-day city.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow. First key term is Neolithic, the Stone Age from about 7000 zero to 3000 BC. Post and lintel construction, a simple construction consisting of two vertical beams, or posts, and one horizontal beam, or lintel. Masonry is stonework, simple enough.

Key terms continued. Corbelling is a system of step support elements. Agrarian, farming, or related to land. Megalith, a very large stone.

The big idea for today is that the transition from small, handheld objects to monumental stone structures suggests major societal changes, and the development of agrarian civilizations. Just a side note, this lesson has required artwork, which is always listed in purple.

So to begin, let's take a look at what period of time we're looking at. For a reference point, as always, I've highlighted zero AD, which is not a year, but rather a single point in time. BC is Before Christ. AD is Anno Domini, which means in the year of our Lord. And remember, there's no year zero, so the year 1 AD is exactly one year after 1 BC.

We'll be looking at the time period stretching from around 7400 BC to about 1500 BC. And the yellow bar shows you the approximate range of the ancient Egyptian empire for comparison. This time takes place during the tail end of the Stone Age, called the Neolithic Era, which means new stone or new stone age.

And before we continue, let's look at two of our key words from today, post and lintel, and corbelling. Post and lintel refers to a type of simple construction where a horizontal lintel is supported by two vertical posts. Now, post and lintel can refer to this type of construction with any materials. But we'll be looking at stone construction with large stones called megaliths.

Now, post and lintel construction tends to be very sturdy, as the vertical posts take the majority of the load-bearing weight, while the lintel serves to distribute the overhead weight across its surface. It doesn't lend itself to very tall structures, because the unsupported portions on the middle and ends become the weak spots. Now, corbelling is a way of adding additional supports for these weaker areas, as you can see in this diagram. Now, it wasn't until the invention of the rounded and pointed arches centuries later that architecture was able to reach higher and higher upwards.

OK. Quick geography lesson. Stonehenge is located on the Salisbury Plain in southern England, right here.

So why do we care about Stonehenge? Well, Stonehenge is probably the most famous Neolithic structure in Europe, if not the world. Construction began around 2900 BC and was in use to around 1500 BC. Now, henge refers to a circular arrangement of posts or stones. And these weren't just any stones, but rather megaliths, some from as far away as 150 miles west of Stonehenge's location, which may suggest that its builders migrated from the west and used the stones as a way of connecting to this important place.

Now, there have been many misleading theories that have taken hold in modern times, such as Stonehenge's use as an astrological calendar or as a worshipping site for druids, which were Celtic priests. Now, the most widely accepted purpose for Stonehenge is that it was used as a ceremonial site for death and burials.

So here's a wider view of Stonehenge as it is today. And here you can get a better view of the actual post and lintel construction.

Now, this next image is a 3D artistic rendering of the layout of a completed Stonehenge, with the megalithic structures that we tend to associate with Stonehenge. Those are forming the inner circles, surrounded by smaller stones in expanding concentric circles. On the very outer edge is actually a ditch with edges that are built up on either side.

Next we'll fly over to Malta, which is a teeny-tiny island which lies in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily and Italy, right there. Now, Malta has some of the most extensive and best-preserved remains of Neolithic structures in the world. This particular example shows an entrance to the Tarxien Temple in Malta, which was built around 3000 BC. It is another great example of stone post and lintel construction and is thought to have served as a religious site as evidence of animal sacrificial remains have been found at the site. And here's a-- showing you the post and lintel construction.

Continue east to modern-day Turkey, which is here in red, and the Neolithic site of Chatal Huyuk, right there. Now, Chatal Huyuk is of tremendous importance to our understanding of Neolithic communities and culture. It was constructed around 7400 BC and remained inhabited to around 6200 BC. And during this time, its population fluctuated around 3,000 people.

Now as compared to a modern-day city, there are some staggering differences, apart from just the age, such as no public buildings and a lack of streets. Instead the personal enclosures are built right next to each other. And they're connected via roofway accesses. And the homes themselves were entered in via holes in the roofs and ladders.

Now, the settlement was more than just a shelter. Much of the day-to-day activity occurred within the city itself and was in fact a community was strong spiritual and ancestral connections. There are many preserved examples of elaborate artistic works on the walls depicting what appear to be hunting rituals. And familial and community burials took place within the actual homes, which suggests the possible importance that a continuous ancestral connection may have played a large role in the day-to-day lives of Chatal Huyuk's residents.

Now, Chatal Huyuk has a number of well-preserved sculptures as well. And this example on the right is of a seated mother goddess. Now, there's two interesting things that I'd like to point out about this particular piece, which by the way, is not a required work of art.

The first is its abstract appearance, as well as the grossly exaggerated feminine features, such as the breasts and the belly. Now these are elements found in another example of prehistoric art that precedes this piece by about 18,000 years, and is separated by about 1,300 miles, namely the Venus of Willendorf from Austria. And the second thing is how the size of the sculpture has changed. And as the lifestyle changed from a nomadic to agrarian, we see a corresponding change from portable sculptural figurines like this to larger, more permanent sculptural figures like the sculpture I showed before.

Well, that brings us to the end of the lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms?

Can you identify examples of early architecture from England, Malta, and Turkey? Can you explain possible functions for megalithic structures like Stonehenge? And can you compare and contrast Chatal Huyuk with a modern-day city? Once again, the big idea for today is an important one. The transition from small, handheld objects to monumental stone structures suggests major societal changes, and the development of agrarian civilizations.

Well, there you have it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.


Image of Chatal Huyuk Creative Commons,; Image of Tarxien Temple, Malta, Photo by Berthold Werner,; Image of England Map Creative Commons; Image of Stonehenge Public Domain; Image of Stonehenge Diagram Public Domain; Image of Malta Map Creative Commons; Image of Turkey Map Creative Commons; Image of Turkey Map (closeup) Creative Commons

Terms to Know

Farming or relating to land.


A system of step support elements.




A very large stone.


The Stone Age 7000-3000 BC.

Post and Lintel Construction

A simple construction consisting of two vertical beams, or posts, and one horizontal beam, or lintel.