This week’s entry: List of largest monoliths in the world
What it’s about: Among the oldest surviving constructions in human history are monoliths—giant stone towers erected in an era before any construction equipment and even most construction tools had been invented. Wikipedia’s list of the biggest starts with one stipulation: At least one stone of more than 10 tons has to be involved. The list is also broken into three parts: Stones that were quarried, but left in their original positions; stones that were moved, but left flat; and stones that were lifted upright, or even off the ground (in pre-modern times, only the Romans had the means to do that).
Strangest fact: Three of the six largest stones ever quarried are at the same site. Baalbek, Lebanon has many well-preserved Roman ruins (the Greeks called the city Heliopolis), among them the Stone Of The Pregnant Woman (also called the Stone Of The South). There are conflicting stories behind the name. In one story, a pregnant woman claimed she could move the stone, in exchange for being fed until she gave birth. Another story has pregnant jinn (magical figures from Arabic and Islamic mythology, who can apparently get pregnant) cutting and moving the stone (although there is no evidence the stone has ever been moved). Some also believe that the stone itself has innate power, granting an increase in fertility to a woman who touches it. (No word on whether people have sex on the stone hoping for better results, as with the Rude Man in Dorset, England). At 1,000 tons, the Stone Of The Pregnant Woman is actually the third largest monolith at the Baalbek site. Archaeologists discovered a 1,200-ton stone in the 1990s, and a 1,650-ton stone in 2014 (both unnamed).
Biggest controversy: Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to calculate the weight of massive, ancient blocks of stone with any accuracy. Without actually cutting samples to measure the rock density, the weight is estimated by using the size of the monolith and the typical density of the rock it was made of. However, typical densities vary. Occasionally, pieces which have broken off of a monolith naturally, or by its creators, can be used to determine the density of the larger stone.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The Ming Dynasty was ambitious as all get-out. Having built the Forbidden City and the Porcelain Tower, restored the Grand Canal, and reinforced the Great Wall, the Yongle Emperor of the early 1400s planned to build a massive stele—a monument carved on all sides—in honor of his late father. Had it been completed, it would still be one of the largest statues in the world. In preparation, three massive stones were mined—a 6,100 ton head, and a body weighing roughly 8,800 tons, which all by itself would be taller than the Statue Of Liberty if upended. They were intended to be set up on a 16 meter-high base weighing 16,250 metric tons, for a total height of 73 meters. However, the builders of the monument realized that moving and raising the stones would be impossible, so the project was abandoned, with all three stones still partially connected to the mountain they were cut from.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Western Hemisphere definitely loses the quarrying-gigantic-stones competition. Only one stone on this side of the Atlantic makes any of the main lists—Levitated Mass, a 340-ton boulder that artist Michael Heizer incorporated into a sculpture outside the L.A. County Museum Of Art. The boulder is suspended above a concrete trench, so museum visitors can pass underneath. The largest monoliths page also has an “honorary mention” section for obelisks less than 200 tons but still pretty big, which features several monuments from pre-Columbian America, including Machu Picchu and the giant Olmec heads that dot Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
Also noteworthy: Far from the largest on the list, one of the oldest stoneworks still existing is Newgrange, a monument of stone and earth in County Meath, Ireland, which dates to 3200 B.C., making it older than the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge. Newgrange is the most significant part of Brú Na Bóinne, a site that Irish mythology holds was the home of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods. At the center of Newgrange is a passage tomb, a mythological portal to the underworld. The site was sealed millennia ago, and only uncovered in 1699 by a farmer, who believed it was simply a mound of earth, until he dug up the entrance to an ancient tomb. Since then, it’s become one of the most significant historical sites in Ireland.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Wikipedia also has a list of the largest in situ sculptures, meaning sculptures carved directly into existing rock. These include the Buddhas of Bamyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001; Petra (known to moviegoers as the Grail temple in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade); the Great Sphinx of Giza; and the many sculptures of India, which alone has separate lists for cave temples, caves, and rock-cut temples. (Currently, the first and third link to the same list. Oh, Wikipedia!)
Further down the wormhole: The honorary mention list also mentions Caesarea Maritima, noteworthy for it’s combination of Roman and Crusades-era ruins. It also has much significance for Christians, as it’s the only archaeological site with an inscription bearing the name “Pontius Pilatus.” Legends persisted for centuries that the Holy Grail was discovered in the city. (An emerald chalice found in Caesarea was purported to be the Grail until it accidentally broke, and the emeralds were revealed to be green glass.) The Grail is but one on a list of mythological objects, a list we’ll peruse next week.