comp.risks for the ancient world
August 8, 2014 1:16 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about ancient engiineering projects that failed.

I've been watching Strip The City's [via metafilter] first episode about roman engineering. It got me to thinking about failure. What are some projects in the ancient world that failed because of limited engineering knowledge? Surely there must have been some hapless engineers/priests that convinced King Whosit X that a grand ziggurat would be an appropriate tribute to the mighty King Whosit X only to have the ziggurat collapse before it was a quarter built and some of those failures must have been too massive to be written out of history.
posted by rdr to Technology (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well Sneferu's pyramids are the obvious example. He's the first pharaoh to build true pyramids, and they were kinda learning as they went along.

The Meidum pyramid collapsed due to construction errors, the Bent pyramid was built at too steep an angle and had to be corrected half way up. They mostly got it right on the third attempt, with the Red pyramid.
posted by Leon at 1:30 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Angkor Wat is a huge success then failure of water engineering. NatGeo piece on it. Basically it worked brilliantly and then because they couldn't shift the effects of the changing climate, in part changed but what they had already built and transformed, it failed pretty fast after six centuries of success. They couldn't dredge or divert the existing infrastructure fast enough.

The Hagia Sophia which was for a long time I think the largest freestanding dome ever built due to engineering and architectural innovations took a while to get going. The first dome collapsed. Video from NatGeo again on that.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:13 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: Stretching the definition of "ancient", but how about the 14th century crooked spire at Chesterfield in the UK? Not a catastrophic failure, but definitely not what they were aiming for.
posted by metaBugs at 4:35 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If the 14th century counts, then we have to include the Leaning Tower of Pisa! Surely the most legendary example of an engineering failure in history. It was completed in 1372, but its tilt had already started during construction. Also the Hagia Sofia, which was constructed in 537 and then again in 562 after part of its main dome collapsed. Oops.
posted by backwards compatible at 5:00 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: Beaten to the Tower of Pisa!

I know that you're watching a show about real world stuff but are books with fictional but plausible examples forbidden from this quest?

If not, Pillars of the Earth [link] and it's follow on book, World Without End [link] speak very accessibly about building construction (the first of a church, mostly, the second of other buildings and failures along the way) as well as being a bit of an interesting overall story.

Stone failures are all I can see "surviving" much, as everything else would weather away. And the cost of extracting and putting together the stone might make it more likely failures taken apart and reused rather than left behind.

Huh, apparently both are mini seriesesesses now. I'll have to check that out.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 5:43 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: Beauvais Cathedral is another mediæval example: ‘In the race to build the tallest cathedral in the 13th century, the builders of Saint-Pierre de Beauvais pushed the technology to the limits. Even though the structure was to be taller, the buttresses were made thinner in order to pass maximum light into the cathedral. In 1284, only twelve years after completion, part of the choir vault collapsed, along with a few flying buttresses.’
posted by misteraitch at 6:11 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: Perhaps the Nave of the St. Martins Catherdral of Utrecht's collapse in 1674? It was poorly built and a large storm destroyed it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:31 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: Heracleion, which sank beneath the sea after an earthquake.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:48 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: The Unfinished Obelisk in Egypt. If it had not developed cracks it would have been the largest obelisk ever erected.
posted by antiwiggle at 8:18 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: This is more a triumph than a failure, but it is worth reading up on the Salisbury Cathedral, which celebrated the 750th anniversary of its consecration in 2008. It (still) has the tallest spire of any cathedral in England, and it took quite a bit of engineering work to keep it standing, given that its foundation is only 4 feet deep. But it is still standing, so I guess it isn't the failure that you're requesting.
posted by mosk at 11:30 AM on August 8, 2014

Best answer: You might look at Adrienne Mayor's "Greek Fire and Scorpion Bombs," a lot of stuff about military technology in the ancient world---bet she has lots of examples of failed military engineering.
posted by paultopia at 4:19 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A famous one was the Canal of the Pharaohs^, aka the forerunner to the Suez Canal. It may have actually opened under Darius the Great, or around 500 BCE, but it's also claimed that differences in elevation proved too great a problem for the engineers of the era to overcome, and it was only operable later, after Greeks built at least one lock.

Nevertheless, the canal did not last, in part likely due to changes in the Nile delta, and was lost for up to thousands of years.
posted by dhartung at 10:21 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Okay, one massive massive push to watch them both later - there is almost nothing about building in the POE and WOE miniserieseseses.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 5:52 PM on August 10, 2014

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