Carving a Legacy

Part of the Petra exhibition.

City of Petra in Jordan

According to the ancient geographer Strabo, the Nabataeans were encouraged to display their wealth. In fact, he wrote that they would "publicly fine anyone who diminishes his possessions and confer honors to anyone who has increased them." Affluent families commissioned master architects and masons to create grand tombs, carved into the sandstone cliffs of Petra. Today archaeologists have identified more than 600 monumental tombs and over 100 ritual banquet halls.

Imagine the countless hours of precise chiseling needed to carve an elaborate facade--not to mention the work required to tunnel out the large chambers inside. But there was a method to managing the process. Builders carefully chose the rock's natural features to facilitate the cutting process, which followed drawn architectural plans. Expert engineers, the Nabataeans also developed the right tools for the job. They carved work platforms and erected scaffolding to reach great heights; they hung plumb lines and set levels to ensure straight lines; and they used wedges, pickaxes, and shaped chisels to carve with precision.