Causeways: Ancient Man-Made Ritual and Functional Roads

Connecting People to Temples, and Crossing Boggy Places

Causeway to Saqqara, Egypt, during a Sandstorm
Causeway to Saqqara, Egypt, during a Sandstorm. David Degner / Getty Images

A causeway is a human-constructed functional and/or ceremonial roadway or a set of roadway fragments. In ancient history they are made of earthen or rock structures that typically—but not always—bridged a waterway. Causeways may have been constructed to cross defensive structures, such as moats; irrigation structures, such as canals; or natural wetlands, such as marshes or fens. They often have a ceremonial element to them and their ritual significance can include symbolic passages between the mundane and the sacred, between life and death.

Key Takeaways: Causeways

  • Causeways are early types of human-made roads which have practical and ritual functions.
  • The oldest causeways are about 5,500 years old, built to cross ditches and provide access to peat bogs.
  • The Maya people created causeways up to 65 miles in length, crossing miles of forests in a nearly straight line.

Causeways are remarkably different in function. Some (like those of the classic Maya) were almost certainly used for parades for diplomatic visits between communities; others such as the 14th-century Swahili coast were used as shipping lanes and ownership markers; or, in the European Neolithic, as trackways assisting navigation through uncertain landscapes. Some causeways are elaborate structures, elevated several feet about the ground such as at Angkor civilization; others are built of planks that bridge peat bogs, those of the Irish bronze age. But all of them are human-constructed roadways and have some foundation in the history of transportation networks.

Earliest Causeways

The earliest known causeways are Neolithic bridges, constructed in Europe and dated between 3700 and 3000 BCE. Many Neolithic enclosed settlements had defensive elements, and some had concentric ditches or moats, generally with one or two at most bridges with which to cross. In some special cases, more causeways were built across the ditches then seems necessary, usually at the four cardinal points, allowing people to cross into the interiors from several directions at once.

Since such configurations would not be easily defended, enclosed settlements with multiple causeway entrances are considered likely to have had a ceremonial or at least a shared communal aspect. Sarup, a Funnel Beaker site in Denmark occupied between 3400–3200 BC, had a ditch that encircled an area of about 21 acres (8.5 hectares), with several causeways which allow people to cross the ditches.

Bronze Age Causeways

Bronze Age causeways in Ireland (called tochar, dochair, or togher) are trackways which were built to allow access across and into peat bogs where peat might be cut for fuel. They varied in size and construction material—some were built as a line of planks laid end to end, flanked on each side by two round timbers; others were made of flat stones and gravel laid on a foundation of brushwood. The earliest of these date to about 3400 BCE.

Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom pyramids in Egypt often were constructed with causeways connecting the various temples. These causeways were explicitly symbolic—there was no obstacle to be crossed—representing a route that people could use to travel from the Black Land (the land of the living and a place of order) to the Red Land (a place of chaos and the realm of the dead).

Beginning in the Old Kingdom's 5th Dynasty, pyramids were built with an orientation following the daily course of the sun across the sky. The oldest causeway at Saqqara was paved with black basalt; by the time of Khufu's rule, causeways were roofed and the internal walls were decorated in fine relief, frescos that depicted pyramid construction, agricultural scenes, craftsmen at work and themes of battles between Egyptians and their foreign enemies, and the pharaoh in the presence of gods.

Classic Period Maya (600–900 CE)

Sacbe to the Palacio at Labna
The sacbe (white lane) that leads to the Palacio, Labna, Puuc, Yucatan, Mexico. Mayan civilisation, 7th-10th century. De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty

Causeways were a particularly important form of connection in lowland areas in North America such as those settled by the Maya civilization. There, causeways (known as sacbeob, singular sacbe, connected Maya cities for distances up to about 63 miles (100 kilometers) such as the Late Classic Yaxuna-Coba sacbe.

Maya causeways were sometimes built from the bedrock up and can rise as high as 10 feet (3 meters; their widths range from 8 to 40 ft (2.5 to 12 m ), and they connect major Maya city-states. Others are barely above ground level; some cross wetlands and have bridges constructed to cross streams, but others are clearly only ceremonial.

Medieval Period: Angkor and the Swahili Coast

Baphuon Causeway Angkor
Short round pillars support the causeway leading to the Baphuon, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Jeremy Villasis, Philippines / Moment / Getty Images

At several sites of the Angkor civilization (9th–13th centuries CE), elevated causeways were constructed as later additions to the immense temples by king Jayavarman VIII (1243–1395). These causeways, perched above the ground atop a series of short columns, provided walkways connecting the major buildings of the temple complexes. They represent only one part of the enormous Khmer road system, a network of canals, pathways and roads which kept the Angkor capital cities in communication.

During the height of the Swahili coast trading communities on the east coast of Africa (13th–15th centuries CE), numerous causeways were constructed out of blocks of reef and fossil corals along 75 mi (120 km) of coastline. These causeways were pathways, elevated just above sea level, that extended out perpendicularly from the coast into lagoons at Kilwa Kisiwani Harbor, ending in circular platforms at the seaward side.

The fishermen today call them "Arab Roads," which is a reference to the oral history which credits the founding of Kilwa to the Arabs, but like Kilwa itself the causeways are known to have been African constructions, built as navigational aids for ships plying the trade route in the 14th-15th centuries and complementing the Swahili urban architecture. These causeways are built of cemented and uncemented reef coral, up to 650 ft (200 m) long, 23–40 ft (7–12 m) wide and built up above the seafloor up to 2.6 ft. (8 m) high.

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