What are the main reasons ancient cultures erected monuments?
April 11, 2013 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious as to the most common reasons ancient cultures created monuments that served no alternative function (like tombs, temples or residences) but rather large scale art intended only to make some sort of statement. For example, the Easter Island moai or Egyptian obelisks. I understand that monuments sometimes commemorate a victory, honor a king, make the gods happy, etc. But I'd like more reasons please! Also if anyone can cite what the most common reasons were, please include.
posted by np312 to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The wikipedia article on monuments is a nice introduction to this topic.

I would summarize it all by saying that monuments were primarily used symbolically as representations of power, wealth, and devotion, and superstitiously, as a means of attaining and maintaining favor in a world ruled heavily by magic and supernatural beings.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:26 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: I understand that monuments sometimes commemorate a victory, honor a king, make the gods happy, etc.

I'm a Roman historian, and these are basically all the reasons. The only thing I'd add is that a monument increases the commissioner's or honoree's fame by becoming a landmark (you might arrange to meet for a business transaction by the equestrian statue of so-and-so in the Forum, which would mean that you're acknowledging that so-and-so existed even if you are totally ignorant of and uninterested in military history).

The Romans transported Egyptian obelisks to Rome (and later to Constantinople) essentially as war booty to prove their dominance over Egypt, which was as famous in antiquity as it is today for being really really old. But in Egypt, obelisks were erected for much the same reason as Roman triumphal monuments: they were inscribed with narratives of the military or religious exploits of a king for posterity (and they worked!).
posted by oinopaponton at 4:50 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Honoring the accomplishments of rulers is a major one, or perhaps more broadly, promoting the ideas of power and prosperity tied into the ruling order in a visual manner. These are often connected with further identifications of the ruler and the gods, or as an offering to the gods. Egyptian obelisks were a celebration of time spent in office but also connected to the worship of Re. (Of course, the looting and re-display of obelisks in Rome etc. leads down other paths...) Trajan's Column was a hugely visible and expensive reminder of his military success in Dacia; the question of just how propagandistic it was/how visible the scenes actually were is hotly contested, but it was certainly a visible and central monument. (It reportedly held the ashes of Trajan and his wife later, but that may or may not have been the original plan.) The Arch of Trajan in Benevento, constructed for the Appia Traiana, is similarly celebratory, but it shows representations of Trajan's alimentaria (food project) as well military symbols. Trajan's works at home and abroad could then be promoted in a handy, impressive way to all travelers along the road.

There are a number of astronomy-oriented monuments; would you say those alignments serve another function, or are those in the broader category?

And hey, some things, we just don't know-- just look at the beautiful Sardinian nuraghi, for example.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:51 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: I think the deeper reason is an eminently human one, to assert: I was here. We were here. We are important. It's why we make art, write stories, create music, etc.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 4:58 PM on April 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

To me, it seems that the making of and the praying to these physical monuments or idols brought people together easier, and they could wonder together about the existence of life together. The physical object was a symbol of a character in myths/legends...or a place, or some other significant tool.

In some cultures, like in Hinduism, some of these statues or monuments were Gods. In other cultures, demons and superstitious things.

I always have the feeling that concentrating all one's imagination and thoughts on an object helps bring it to life--they tend to have some favourable power. Whatever power these monuments, idols have depends on the amount and intensity of the concentration of nearby people. It's interesting, the way these ancient people lived, you could tell they had awesome imaginations, were able to give power to objects by having very little skepticism...

Plus, in these places they could hold religious conferences--the idols reminded Hindus of the characters they represent, the morals of their stories, making their prayers more rich and powerful.

There are so many Hindu texts of people praying to specific monuments. One of them is a very big statue of Vishnu somewhere South India, whose arm moves slowly...and only when he brings his arm to his mouth will the world eventually end.

my grandma says she's seen it, but I don't believe it =P
posted by rhythm_queen at 5:05 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: Piggy-backing on fivesavagepalms' comment, in ancient times, monuments were often the Pinnacle of Achievement in there time or era, employing not only slaves or common workers, but also the great architects and artisans of their time.

That is to say that they not only represented or celebrated the greatness of particular rulers or Gods, they also represented the cumulative achievement of their society at the time. That was a very big deal in nation building and nation maintenance.

WE did this. WE feel safe, secure and prosperous.
posted by snsranch at 5:25 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might want to distinguish whether you're interested in the reasons different groups have stated for their monuments and analytic explanations others have provided. Simplistic functionalist explanations for monuments have included a variety of social and economic rationales, e.g. do they in some cases function as public works programs or wealth redistribution mechanisms increasing social stability and contentment, are they effectively a way of cultivating or alternatively 'spending' an excess of artisanal labor such that the same craftspeople are available for non-communal construction projects, are they an ostentatious display of wealth that demonstrates how much the community can afford to burn as a sort of advertisement that others should respect their dominance and grant them trade, are they collective representations reinforcing organic solidarity, etc., etc. Unfortunately, the stated reasons are often unavailable, and the analytic reasons are usually debatable.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:48 PM on April 11, 2013

Sometimes, as with the moai on Easter Island or the Nazca lines, we just don't know. Well, except for those who come up with explanations involving aliens.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:19 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Athanassiel: Sometimes, as with the moai on Easter Island or the Nazca lines, we just don't know. Well, except for those who come up with explanations involving aliens.
Seconding this. There's an awful lot of archaeological theories out there that are paraded around (and repeated ad nauseum) as **FACT**!!, when in fact they're just guesses.

If there isn't a translated document, stile, or passageway pictogram clearly stating "THIS BIG STONE THINGY WAS PUT HERE FOR THE FOLLOWING REASON:...", it's conjecture.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:47 PM on April 11, 2013

Two things to consider about monuments.

* Monuments don't get built by magical collective action. They're built because someone pays for them to be built, either in money or the effort to influence others. In other words, the monument-builder's goal doesn't have to be a shared goal among his contemporary society. Versailles could be considered a monument, and Versailles had a specific purpose.

Similarly, there are more monuments in Tennessee dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest than any other person. Why him? People that liked him wanted others to know they liked him. Those monuments had a specific purpose when they were built -- intimidating certain members of that contemporary society.

* The guy paying the bill for the monument won't be the architect, the artist or the stonemason, and those professionals have their own goals in building the monument. Carl Schenck helped build the Biltmore Estate, but was more interested in using the estate as the base of his forestry education efforts.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:01 PM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of my art history profs was particularly interested in when monuments come down - it's the other side of the coin. If someone puts a monument up to say, "I am here," defacing or destroying that monument erases not just the physical building but the person along with it, removing them from the river of human memory. And monuments survive for odd reasons - they get repurposed. The statue of Marcus Aurelius wasn't melted down for its metal or destroyed by Christians who were eradicating pagan sculpture because they thought it represented Constantine. Obelisks erected by Romans to show their power over Egypt were topped with statues of the Virgin Mary or with crosses, making another transferal of that power.
posted by PussKillian at 7:11 PM on April 11, 2013

I like to think of them essentially as billboards advertising political candidates.
posted by empath at 7:16 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: Archaeologist here.

There is one major reason we see monuments erected by cultures that's not been explicitly stated here already - hinted at, but not said outright. At certain times we see monuments built by cultures/sites/etc who are under extreme stress, such as the threat of a neighboring culture/site/etc's rising star, the possibility of foreign invasion, and the like. Said monuments are thus outward expressions of power, wealth, resources (human and otherwise), and make distinct, landscape-modifying statements about that culture's/site's strength.

Otherwise, these are all good answers as far as my training and experience is concerned!
posted by AthenaPolias at 7:51 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Temples in Mexico City have sculptural Chaac Mools ( Rain God ), holding Sacrificial vessels, a common theme. Some were used for bloodletting or using it for burning incense and recieving offerings. A lot of stones and stellae are carved with dates and names of the occupying rulers. The temples were used as gardens, entertainment, sports, and rituals just to name a few examples. These peoples were Aztecs, Toltecs, and Mayans. There are more but I'd have go dig out my books!
posted by SteelDancin at 8:43 PM on April 11, 2013

Said monuments are thus outward expressions of power, wealth, resources (human and otherwise), and make distinct, landscape-modifying statements about that culture's/site's strength.

Handicap principle.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:51 PM on April 11, 2013

Also, I would venture to say that Art and religion were powerful reasons, being that there are so many Temples rich with carvings and sculpture.
posted by SteelDancin at 8:56 PM on April 11, 2013

One thing that might help you frame this interesting question is to start from the opposite side. What circumstances would have to obtain in an early hunter gatherer society or early agricultural society before they had enough food, shelter, time, technology and resources to start to free up active members of the society to do these?

Start tracking from Altamira, (so you're stuck in for the winter so all you need is some means to colour and a bit of imagination) to monuments like the Pyramids.
As you start to unpack all the steps that are necessary to make these things happen you learn lots about the reasons.

Always start from the basics, food water and shelter.
Also, is the age old tradition of Irish answers to questions of direction 'well, I wouldn't start from here!'

It is very hard for us to put ourselves in the mindset of cultures where belief in the supernatural was such a powerful force. The unknown is always terrifying even if it is only the attacking tribe from the West. Humans are powerfully imaginative, so in a way we dreamed these monuments into being. What kind of mindset would do that?

Anyway, that's how I'd start..... Great question
posted by Wilder at 1:01 AM on April 14, 2013

Julian Jaynes thought that before a widespread societal collapse that included the Dorian invasions, people didn't evaluate situations deliberately; instead, they'd evoke auditory hallucinations to advise them. He also thought that art, especially music and poetry, were hallucinated in the same way.

Running water, he proposed, was a hallucinatory trigger. So were monuments. You could look up at the ziggurat/obelisk/steeple and hear your god's voice.
posted by tangerine at 2:32 AM on April 14, 2013

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