The Ancient World & Cranes

And no, I am not talking about the bird. Many people wonder how the ancient people built such large buildings when there were supposedly no large construction workhorses like a crane to help them. In the years I have been doing research into archaeology, etc., I had not come across one story about ancient cranes and their contribution to the ancient construction industry.

It wasn’t till about a month ago that I came across a small book, I believe it is called a Primer of the Ancient World (but I have to double-check), which mentioned that the ancient Greeks had industrial cranes to help them in their large construction work. My interest piqued I started to investigate a little bit and sure enough, the ancient Greeks and Romans had construction crane sat their disposal. Here are some links to a few articles to help your own research and see that what is said about the ancient world is not always close to the truth.


The first construction cranes were invented by the Ancient Greeks and were powered by men or beasts of burden, such as donkeys. These cranes were used for the construction of tall buildings. Larger cranes were later developed, employing the use of human treadwheels, permitting the lifting of heavier weights. In the High Middle Ages, harbour cranes were introduced to load and unload ships and assist with their construction – some were built into stone towers for extra strength and stability. The earliest cranes were constructed from wood, but cast iron and steel took over with the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

For many centuries, power was supplied by the physical exertion of men or animals, although hoists in watermills and windmills could be driven by the harnessed natural power. The first ‘mechanical’ power was provided by steam engines, the earliest steam crane being introduced in the 18th or 19th century, with many remaining in use well into the late 20th century. Modern cranes usually use internal combustion engines or electric motors and hydraulic systems to provide a much greater lifting capability than was previously possible, although manual cranes are still utilized where the provision of power would be uneconomic.


In ancient Greece, the crane was used widely used. This has been substantiated by the fact that many Greek temples have stones with holes that give the impression that they were placed with the assistance of a lifting device. The development of the crane is believed to have replaced the older ramp technology that had previously been used to create large structures (such as the Pyramids in Egypt). It was however the use of the winch and pulley system that meant that the crane replaced the ramp and became far more mobile.

It was the Romans however that invested a great deal of time and energy into the crane. The Romans were renowned for their impressive construction efforts from the aqueducts of the Mediterranean to the magnificent Colosseum. The Romans developed a number of different crane varieties from the trispastos, a mobile and versatile crane to the treadmill crane, a more permanent structure capable of lifting extremely heavy weights long distances. As some roman structures have stone blocks of 100 tons and more, it is clear that the abilities of roman crane designers were immense.


Necessity is the mother of all innovation—and you won’t find a more urgent group of inventors than those under threat of being smote from above. For whatever reasons, the Ancient Greeks felt compelled to build huge temples to their gods, and traditional methods like ramps for moving and lifting the enormous building stones of massive monuments like the Parthenon just weren’t going to get the jobs done. Meet the crane: at first a simple winch and pulley system, and later a compound pulley system credited to Aristotle.

Today, you can see the difference in the way temples were built in different time periods. Pre-cranes, building blocks actually tended to be much larger, because so much effort was required to push each one up a ramp that it was less labor-intensive to use bigger and fewer blocks. Post-cranes, blocks were smaller, but stacked higher, in more complicated and advanced structures, and more quickly.


Archaeologists assume that cranes were used in Greece since 900 BC (although there is no direct proof). After a recent discovery of a 2.3 ton and 2900 years old sarcophagus in Corinth an archaeologist (Guy Sanders) said: “To lower the sarcophagus into place in a controlled movement … requires some kind of temporary superstructure over the grounds so they can control the vertical movement of the stone”.


The most common tower crane used in construction today has a lifting capacity of some 12 to 20 tonnes. For quite a few construction projects in ancient history, this type of crane would be completely inadequate.

The majority of stones that make up the almost 140 discovered Egyptian pyramids have a weight of “only” 2 to 3 tonnes each, but all of these structures (built between 2750 and 1500 BC) also hold stone blocks weighing 50 tonnes, sometimes more. The temple of Amon-Ra at Karnak contains a labyrinth of 134 columns, standing 23 metres (75 feet) tall and supporting crossbeams weighing 60 to 70 tonnes each. The 18 capital blocks of Trajan’s column in Rome weigh more than 53 tonnes and they were lifted to a height of 34 metres (111 feet). The Roman Jupiter temple in Baalbek contains stone blocks weighing over 100 tonnes, raised to a height of 19 metres (62 feet). Today, to lift a weight of 50 to 100 tonnes to these heights, you need a crane like this.

Occasionally, our forefathers lifted even heavier stones. The gravestone of Theoderic the Great in Ravenna (around 520 AD) is a 275 tonne stone block that was lifted to a height of 10 metres. The temple dedicated to Pharaoh Khafre in Egypt is made up of monolithic blocks weighing up to 425 tonnes. The largest Egyptian obelisk weighed more than 500 tons and stands more than 30 metres tall, while the largest obelisk in the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia (4th century AD), raised up to a similar height, weighed 520 tonnes. The Colossi of Memnon, two statues of 700 tonnes each, were erected to a height of 18 metres and the walls in the Roman Baalbek temple complex (1st century BC) contain almost 30 monoliths weighing 300 to 750 tons each.

Only the most powerful contemporary cranes could handle stones of this weight (see the picture on the left, specifications here).

Raising construction materials to impressive heights seemed to be no problem either. The Alexandria lighthouse (3rd century BC) stood more than 76 metres (250 feet) tall. The Egyptian pyramids rise up to 147 metres. During the Middle Ages some 80 large cathedrals and around 500 large churches were built with a height of up to 160 metres – out of reach for all but the most recent top model crawler cranes (picture above, right).


Noah’s Ark was a large construction project. While none of the timbers were likely to top the mass of the Egyptian obelisk now standing in the Vatican, Noah must have used something to raise loads. Shifting large keel logs into position, raising structural timber frames and handling long lengths of planking all require some sort of lifting apparatus. Since rope, wooden pulleys and lifting frames are all “low tech” ancient technologies, there is no lifting operation that is technically inconceivable as far as lumps of wood are concerned.

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Mayans and others were all fascinated with lifting heavy objects, usually stone. Theories abound on how the Egyptians accomplished it. Even as recently as 1586, simply lifting an Egyptian stone obelisk was considered an engineering feat. That’s strange.


Giant cranes were employed in construction just as cranes are used today.

“In a treadwheel crane, people walk on the inside of a large wheel (think of a hamster wheel) and the weight of their bodies provides the lifting force. Treadwheel cranes have been used in England since Roman times.

An earlier version of this note suggested that the crane had no brake and relied on the walkers’ weight to keep the load from falling. [H] replies: “I believe this is not quite right, that it actually does have brakes on the wheels but that they failed because the load was too heavy and the mechanism broke. The brakes are referred to as “stoppers” and are probably like the ratchet mechanism in a clock, with the stopper being the pawl. On page 11 [after the accident], Fister says ‘That load wer too much for that weal … it wer the stoppers coming luce and the weal took charge.’