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How studying ancient buildings can improve modern ones


(Photo: Courtesy Donna Coveny/MIT)

John Ochsendorf, professor of architecture at MIT, studies ancient structures like Inca suspension bridges and Roman domes. Last year he was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of his unique achievements in both the fields of preservation and design. Ochsendorf spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY's Nicole Albertson about his first excavation, Inca construction sites, and what the ancients can teach today's engineers.

Do you consider yourself an archaeologist or an engineer?
I'm definitely an engineer. Archaeology is my love, but I don't have the degrees. I don't think there is an archaeology faculty that would want me. But for the last seven years I've built up a research group at MIT that studies historic structures. We look at everything, from the stability of Maya arches to the design of Roman aqueducts.

Why does ancient architecture intrigue you?
There are many lessons we can learn from studying these structures. A major concern today is how to build buildings that use fewer resources. Pre-industrial construction methods can teach us fundamental lessons about sustainable design and the environmental impact of our buildings today. For example, modern homes are cooled by inefficient air-conditioning units powered by electricity that is mostly generated by burning coal far away. Ancient homes around the world were cooled naturally through smart design. We won't go back to living in caves, but in the 21st century and beyond, we will need to be much smarter about how we use our natural resources for our buildings.

How does an engineer get so passionate about history and archaeology?
After two years of studying engineering, I went on a dig near Ithaca, New York. I spent a whole day digging test pits and found absolutely nothing. And it was just the greatest day of my life.

You were hooked?
I went back to my adviser in engineering and I said to her, "Thank you for your help, but I've decided I'm going to become an archaeology major." She said, "That is a fantastic idea. You should definitely do archaeology, but don't leave engineering." And she helped me design a major that combined archaeology and structural engineering.

Did you do more fieldwork?
I spent much of one summer doing fieldwork in the Andes as an undergraduate. I hiked the Inca road system, documented the remains of suspension bridge abutments, and visited the last known Inca suspension bridge in a remote region of Peru. The Inca city of Ollantaytambo particularly stood out to me because it was abandoned while being built about 500 years ago, and it's as if all the workers had just set down their tools. If we were to dream up a site to see how the Inca built their marvelous stone monuments, this would be it.

What do you look at first when you visit an ancient site?
I inspect the stones. I look for the marks of the people who made them, and examine how they shaped or finished the material. I have this idea that borders on the romantic--that there is a direct connection between me and a person who lived centuries or millennia before, and devoted weeks or years of their life to these stones.

What are you working on now?
I'm collaborating with archaeologist Sandra Lucore, who is excavating the North Baths at the ancient Greek city of Morgantina in Sicily. We want to know whether the geometry of the building was so stable that only something radical like an earthquake could have made it come down, or if it was an experimental design that was not very stable and may have collapsed under its own weight.

What is the biggest difference between being an engineer and an archaeologist?
It's easy with an engineering education to think of ancient people as primitive. But the truth is, in terms of the materials and construction, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge they had that we no longer possess, particularly masonry techniques. I really believe that we as engineers still have a lot to learn from studying these monuments and that we should be humble. We are learning from the masters.

I have to ask, what are you doing with the prize money from your MacArthur Award?
I'm worrying less!