Characteristics of Ancient Monumental Architecture

The Taj Mahal

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The term "monumental architecture" refers to large human-made structures of stone or earth which are used as public buildings or communal spaces, as opposed to everyday private residences. Examples include pyramids, large tombs, and burial mounds, plazas, platform mounds, temples and churches, palaces and elite residences, astronomical observatories, and erected groups of standing stones.

The defining characteristics of monumental architecture are their relatively large size and their public nature—the fact that the structure or space was built by lots of people for lots of people to look at or share in the use of, whether the labor was coerced or consensual, and whether the interiors of the structures were open to the public or reserved for an elite few. 

Who Built the First Monuments?

Until the late 20th century, scholars believed that monumental architecture could only be constructed by complex societies with rulers who could conscript or otherwise convince the residents into working on large, non-functional structures. However, modern archaeological technology has given us access to the earliest levels of some of the most ancient tells in northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and there, scholars discovered something amazing: monumentally-sized cult buildings were constructed at least 12,000 years ago, by what started out as egalitarian hunters and gatherers.

Before the discoveries in the northern Fertile Crescent, monumentality was considered "costly signaling", a term that means something like "elites using conspicuous consumption to demonstrate their power". Political or religious leaders had public buildings built to indicate that they had the power to do so: they certainly did that. But if hunter-gatherers, who ostensibly didn't have full-time leaders, built monumental structures, why did they that do that?

Why Did They Do That?

One possible driver for why people first started building special structures is climate change. Early Holocene hunter-gatherers living during the cool, arid period known as the Younger Dryas were susceptible to resource fluctuations. People rely on cooperative networks to get them through times of social or environmental stress. The most basic of these cooperative networks is food sharing.

Early evidence for feasting—ritual food sharing—is at Hilazon Tachtit, about 12,000 years ago. As part of a highly organized food-sharing project, a large-scale feast can be a competitive event to advertise community power and prestige. That may have led to the construction of larger structures to accommodate larger numbers of people, and so forth. It is possible that the sharing simply stepped up when the climate deteriorated.

Evidence for the use of monumental architecture as evidence for religion usually involves the presence of sacred objects or images on the wall. However, a recent study by behavioral psychologistsYannick Joye and Siegfried Dewitte (listed in the sources below) has found that tall, large-scale buildings produce measurable feelings of awe in their viewers. When awe-struck, viewers typically experience momentary freezing or stillness. Freezing is one of the main stages of the defense cascade in humans and other animals, giving the awe-struck person a moment of hyper-vigilance toward the perceived threat.

The Earliest Monumental Architecture

The earliest known monumental architecture is dated to the periods in western Asia known as pre-pottery Neolithic A (abbreviated PPNA, dated between 10,000–8,500 calendar years BCE [cal BCE]) and PPNB ( 8,500–7,000 cal BCE). Hunter-gatherers living in communities such as Nevali Çori, Hallan Çemi, Jerf el-Ahmar, D’jade el-Mughara, Çayönü Tepesi, and Tel 'Abr all built communal structures (or public cult buildings) within their settlements.

At Göbekli Tepe, in contrast, is the earliest monumental architecture located outside of a settlement—where it is hypothesized that several hunter-gatherer communities gathered regularly. Because of the pronounced ritual / symbolic elements at Göbekli Tepe, scholars such as Brian Hayden have suggested that the site contains evidence of emergent religious leadership.

Tracing the Development of Monumental Architecture

How cult structures might have evolved into monumental architecture has been documented at Hallan Çemi. Located in southeastern Turkey, Hallan Cemi is one of the oldest settlements in northern Mesopotamia. Cult structures significantly different from regular houses were constructed at Hallan Cemi about 12,000 years ago, and over time became larger and more elaborate in decoration and furniture.

All of the cult buildings described below were located at the center of the settlement and arranged around a central open area about 15 m (50 ft) in diameter. That area contained dense animal bone and fire-cracked rock from hearths, plaster features (probably storage silos), and stone bowls and pestles. A row of three horned sheep skulls was also found, and this evidence together, say the excavators, indicates that the plaza itself was used for feasts, and perhaps rituals associated with them.

  • Building Level 3 (the oldest): three C-shaped buildings made of river pebbles about 2 m (6.5 ft) in diameter and mortared with white plaster
  • Building Level 2: three circular river-pebble buildings with paved floors, two 2 m in diameter and one 4 m (13 ft). The largest had a small plastered basin in the center.
  • Building Level 1: four structures, all constructed of sandstone slabs rather than river pebbles. Two are relatively small (2.5 m, 8 ft in diameter), the other two are between 5-6 m (16-20 ft). Both of the larger structures are fully circular and semi-subterranean (excavated partly into the ground), each with a distinctive semicircular stone bench set against the wall. One had a complete auroch skull which apparently hung on the north wall facing the entrance. The floors had been resurfaced multiple times with a distinctive thin yellow sand and plaster mixture over a relatively sterile fine dirt fill. Few domestic materials were found inside the structures, but there were exotics, including copper ore and obsidian.


Not all monumental architecture was (or is for that matter) built for religious purposes. Some are gathering places: archaeologists consider plazas a form of monumental architecture since they are large open spaces built in the middle of town to be used by everyone. Some are purposeful—water control structures like dams, reservoirs, canal systems, and aqueducts. Sports arenas, government buildings, palaces, and churches: of course, many different large communal projects still exist in modern society, sometimes paid for by taxes.

Some examples from across time and space include Stonehenge in the UK, the Egyptian Giza Pyramids, the Byzantine Hagia Sophia, the Qin Emperor's Tomb, the American Archaic Poverty Point earthworks, India's Taj Mahal, Maya water control systems, and the Chavin culture Chankillo observatory.


Atakuman, Çigdem. "Architectural Discourse and Social Transformation During the Early Neolithic of Southeast Anatolia." Journal of World Prehistory 27.1 (2014): 1-42. Print.

Bradley, Richard. "Houses of Commons, Houses of Lords: Domestic Dwellings and Monumental Architecture in Prehistoric Europe." Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 79 (2013): 1-17. Print.

Finn, Jennifer. "Gods, Kings, Men: Trilingual Inscriptions and Symbolic Visualizations in the Achaemenid Empire." Ars Orientalis 41 (2011): 219-75. Print.

Freeland, Travis, et al. "Automated Feature Extraction for Prospection and Analysis of Monumental Earthworks from Aerial Lidar in the Kingdom of Tonga." Journal of Archaeological Science 69 (2016): 64-74. Print.

Joye, Yannick, and Siegfried Dewitte. "Up Speeds You Down. Awe-Evoking Monumental Buildings Trigger Behavioral and Perceived Freezing." Journal of Environmental Psychology 47.Supplement C (2016): 112-25. Print.

Joye, Yannick, and Jan Verpooten. "An Exploration of the Functions of Religious Monumental Architecture from a Darwinian Perspective." Review of General Psychology 17.1 (2013): 53-68. Print.

McMahon, Augusta. "Space, Sound, and Light: Toward a Sensory Experience of Ancient Monumental Architecture." American Journal of Archaeology 117.2 (2013): 163-79. Print.

Stek, Tesse D. "Monumental Architecture of Non-Urban Cult Places in Roman Italy." A Companion to Roman Architecture. Eds. Ulrich, Roger B. and Caroline K. Quenemoen. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2014. 228-47. Print.

Swenson, Edward. "Moche Ceremonial Architecture as Thirdspace: The Politics of Place-Making in the Ancient Andes." Journal of Social Archaeology 12.1 (2012): 3-28. Print.

Watkins, Trevor. "New Light on Neolithic Revolution in South-West Asia." Antiquity 84.325 (2010): 621–34. Print.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Characteristics of Ancient Monumental Architecture." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hirst, K. Kris. (2023, April 5). Characteristics of Ancient Monumental Architecture. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Characteristics of Ancient Monumental Architecture." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).