Ashlar Masonry: Definition, Art History & Types

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever tried to build something with stone? Was it strong? In this lesson, learn about types of ashlar masonry and its history of use in cultures around the world.

What Is Ashlar Masonry?

Stone is a very strong building material. Cultures around the world have known this for centuries. In some places like Egypt and Peru, people made walls from layers of uniformly shaped stones. This building method is called ashlar masonry.

In ashlar masonry, all the stones are cut and dressed, or worked, so they have the same shape, size and surface texture. When stone is first hewn out of a quarry, which is really nothing more than a giant sold rock wall, it's rough and random. Stoneworkers have to use chisels and other tools to refine the stone to a more finished appearance. The stone blocks used in ashlar masonry are very different than random uncut stones, which are sometimes called rubble. In fact, ashlar masonry is sometimes referred to as 'dressed stone'.

Gate in Spain built with ashlar masonry. For contrast, look at the rough stone on the lower wall beside it.
example of ashlar masonry

When building a wall, the ashlar blocks are laid in horizontal courses, or layers. The stones usually have smooth, parallel faces, and they fit together tightly with very little mortar, a substance made of sand, cement and water that fills gaps between bricks or stones in a wall.

Because ashlar masonry stones fit tightly, resulting structures are strong and sturdy. But it takes a long time to prepare the stones and build with them, and the process can be expensive. You'll rarely see ashlar masonry on everyday homes and small buildings. It's usually reserved for large, imposing structures like fortification walls, castles, palaces, and churches.

Art History of Ashlar Masonry

Scholars don't know where and when ashlar masonry was developed, but it's been used for thousands of years. Examples of ashlar masonry have been found on pyramids in ancient Egypt and on structures in classical Greece. Ashlar blocks made of local limestone and sandstone form part of the Knossos Palace in Crete, built by the seafaring Minoan civilization between 2000 and 1500 BC. Later, the Mycenaeans, a trading people who lived in the Aegean (the same region as the ancient Greeks), used ashlar masonry in citadel and wall construction. In the Near East, several cultures including the Phoenicians and Persians used the method as well.

Example of ashlar masonry at remains of the Knossos Palace
Knossos Palace ashlar masonry

And ashlar masonry wasn't only found in the Near East and Asia. In 15th-century South America, expert builders for the Incan civilization used ashlar masonry for structures at Macchu Pichu and Cusco. These walls were so carefully constructed that it must have taken months to complete even one section. But all this time later, despite time and earthquakes, they're still standing.

Example of the ashlar masonry at Macchu Pichu
Macchu Pichu ashlar masonry

One interesting fact about these cultures and their ashlar masonry: In most places, stones were cured in rectangular or cube shapes, but some Egyptian structures used trapezoid shaped stones instead.

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