History of timber-framed walls in the Southern Balkans and Anatolia

Scientific Essay, 2016

26 Pages




2. Material Documentation of timber framed walls
2.1. Forerunner of timber frames
2.1.1. Huts in Dispelio /Greece (50th century BC)
2.1.2. Sparse timber-frames in Thera / Greece (17th century BC)
2.1.3. Read constructions in Haimos (Balkans), Africa and Mesopotamia
2.2. Timber framed walls in the antique
2.2.1. Vague written descriptions
2.2.2. Excavations findings
2.3. The Roman Empire's era "dark times"
2.4. Timber framed walls around the 17th century AD
2.4.1. General description
2.4.2. Description of timber constructions in Istanbul
2.4.3. Sporadically surviving framed walls
2.4.4. Interpretations problems of historiography
2.5. Two centuries old framed walls
2.5.1. “Vitruv –type” walls
2.5.2. “Herculaneum – type” walls
2.5.3. Walls with diagonals
2.5.4. Walls with laths covering
2.5.5. The dense stud – lintel frame
2.5.6. Spare timber frame

3. Transmission of timber wall technology
3.1. Timber-frame wall technology transmission by Greeks in the early Roman Empire
3.2. Timber-frame wall technology in Balkans on the verge from Christian Roman Empire to the Ottoman one
3.3. Wall technology in Central Europe
3.4. Allusions for wall technology transfer during the Ottoman Empire
3.5. Claims of other researchers
3.6. Technical terminology as expression of state rule
3.6.1. Antique
3.6.2. Roman Empire era - Rom's rule
3.6.3. Roman Empire era - Constantinople's rule
3.6.4. Ottoman Empire era
3.6.5. Era of the national states in southern Balkans

4. Types of timber framed walls through history


6. appraisal of wooden wall types

7. Conclusions




by Nikolaos K. Hatzitrifon [1]

ABSTRACT: To understand the technological, esthetical and symbolic value of the surviving timber framed walls and to plan their restoration and protection, historical documentation is needed. Archaeological finds from the 16th century BC (Thera / Greece) and the 1st century AD (Herculaneum / Italy) have provided physical evidence, and written documents of 1st century BC (Vitruv) and 17th century AD (Dela Valle) give analytic description. Allusions to these walls made up until today help us to form an idea about the development of various timber wall types, over the last three one half thousand years. The surviving buildings were generally built after the 18th century AD. Some of the main characteristics of their static system and construction will help to identify the various forms of technology, aesthetics, materials and construction procedures.

Keywords: timber, wall, Balkan, Anatolia, construction, technology, appraisal, evolution.

Shortened version of the title: Timber-Framed Walls in the S. Balkans - Anatolia


The types of timber-framed walls have been the subject of research of many scientists in many countries. This is not strange, because timber walls were probably the first building construction of human beings. Forerunner examples of these constructions are the huts on wooden pole foundations in lakes –e.g. the excavation finds from the Neolithic period in Dispilio (Δισπηλιό) in the area of Kastoria / West Macedonia / Greece, but also the huts built during the Median / Persian Wars at Lake Prasiada (today perhaps the Lake Doirani / Central Macedonia / Greece and F.Y.R.O.M.): “a platform fastened together and resting upon high piles (ίκρια επί σταυρών υψηλών εζευγμένα)stood in the middle of the water of the lake, with a narrow approach to it from the mainland by a single bridge. The piles, which supported the platform...” (Herodotus, V16). Similar constructions have been built in Colchis at the Black Sea (Phasis River) / Georgia: “their dwellings are constructed of wood and reeds, and are built in the waters” (Hippocrates, “About winds, water and regions” XV), in Bodensee / the Alps / Central Europe, the timber huts in Germany in the 1st century BC (Tacitus 1877: pp. 87ff) and all over the world, e.g. in Thailand. Also in the 20th century and till today huts are fabricated with branches or reeds in many areas of the world, i.g. in the mountains of Greece by thenomadic tribe Sarakatsanoi (Figure 1), in South Africa (Figure 2) and in Mesopotamia (see Chapter 2.2.3.).

In Greece, huts of rectangular cross section have been constructed till the middle of the 20th century AD, for agricultural use (Moutsopoulos; Devolis 2003: pp. 11-89) but also as residences in small villages in highlands.

Surviving timber framed walls of the past centuries exist all over the world. These walls differ in the geometry of the cross section of their bars, the net-like pattern of the bars, the infill or surface covering materials and the fabrication of the knots.

The development of the tools has enabled new formations of knots (Gerner 2000) and of gradually more operational buildings. The surviving timber framed walls in the Southern Balkans and Anatolia have a maximum age of about 350 years, including some older solitary buildings (Günay 1998: p. 15). All of them have been constructed during the Ottoman Empire and some decades after its dissolution, as reinforced concrete started to be used. The traditional walls of this area have thinner members compared with the ones of Central-North-West Europe, and therefore usually they do not allow the fabrication of scarves in the knots, and many of their connections are nailed with hammered nails. The various type of timber houses have been analysed morphologically and typologically. Timber buildings in Central and West Macedonia / Greece have been analysed mostly by (Moutsopoulos 1988; 2000), buildings staying in many areas in Greece by (Touliatos 1997: pp. 167-184) and buildings in Turkey by many researchers (Günay, 1998; Kuban 1995; Cobancaoglu 2001; Langenbach 2003; Akan 2004; Öztank 2006; Öztank 2008, Wooden Istanbul 2008). Similar buildings e.g. in India and Afghanistan, have been mentionedin the literature (Langenbach 2003). Civil engineers have examined their static system using different physical models (Hatzitrifon 2004a;Hatzitrifon 2004b; Doudoumis et al. 2005; Ignatakis et al. 2006, Akan 2004).

The history and the evolution of timber framed walls has not yet been the object of a joint examination by both, engineers and historians. Therefore, there is the need to examine the evolution of these timber framed walls in a close connection of engineering, morphological and historical expertise. Some fragmental interpretations misconstrue rather than unfold the evolution process of the walls questioning the ability of the invading population to understand and evolve the technology developed in the cities they settled. These interpretations are based on superficial historical and linguistic phenomena (Günay 1998: p. 32). According to more cautious and detailed research about the historical development of houses, it is impossible to identify the origin of wall constructions (Moutsopoulos 1988).

To help towards a fuller knowledge of the development of timber framed walls in the Southern Balkans and Anatolia, excavation finds, surviving buildings and historical descriptions will be exploited.

2. Material Documentation of timber framed walls

2.1. Forerunner of timber frames

2.1.1. Huts in Dispelio /Greece (50th century BC)

The excavations in the years 1936 – 1990 in Kastoria / West Macedonia / Greece uncovered thousands of wooden pole foundations which are parts of wooden huts on lakes dating from 4570 – 4330 BC (Moutsopoulos; Devolis 2003: pp. 23-29, p. 51). It is assumed that their walls were composed of vertical and horizontal branches and a knit of thin horizontal branches. The knots were fabricated with cords. Huts like these ones have been built up till today for agricultural work and livestock. The huts in Dispilio have been reconstructed after the excavations and show a rectangular cross section, and today they are free for visiting.

2.1.2. Sparse timber-frames in Thera / Greece (17th century BC)

Because volcano lava covered the city at Acrotiri on the island Thira / Aegean Sea / Greece between 1627 and 1600 BC, Minoan houses could be excavated. They are constructed with thick stonewalls and strengthened on each site with twin timber frames connected with transversal slabs (Palivou 1999: Fig. 194, 196). Looking only at one wall surface, the geometry of the frames – similar with the one in Herculaneum - has vertical bars and few horizontal ones in the upper part. No diagonals have been used. Similar constructions could have been constructed in the dockyard of Kition / Larnaca / Cyprus, in 1800 BC (Buchholz 2004: Fig. 18c). They do not necessarily show the origin of timber-framed walls, but they prove that simple frames existed at this particular time and place.

2.1.3. Read constructions in Haimos (Balkans), Africa and Mesopotamia

Such constructions building surface and frames have been used till today. In Haimos, the nomadic tribe of Sarakatsanoi (in Greece, FYROM, Bulgaria) have built their huts of circular floor plan till the 20th century. In Africa, for example in South Africa, huts of circular floor plan have been built with read, limbs and clay (Figure 1). Similar buildings with the same technique are built also today, as representative ones (Figure 2). In Mesopotamia / Iraq, in central marshes,the water Bedouins, who live in the swamp area at the point where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates flow into the sea, in the Persian Gulf in Așșar, Hamar March, Chibayish, Barsa, Iraq (Pullukcu& Güneş 2015), huts with oblong floor plan, but also representative buildings have built till today, for example an Adobe House, constructed from reeds and mud, Chibayish / Iraq, as a demonstration for low-cost buildings (Nature Iraq 2016).

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Fig. 1: Reconstructed hut in South Africa in an open-air museum (Pictureshot by the author N.H., 2010)

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Fig. 2: New building in South Africa constructed with the traditional technique (Picture shot by the author N.H., 2010)

2.2. Timber framed walls in the antique

2.2.1. Vague written descriptions Priamos’ chamber in Troy / Turkey

In the epic of Homers Iliad (Homer 2008: Omega-192; Orlandos 1955: p. 24) written in the 8th century BC, the store room of king Priam in Troy / Ilion(~12-14 century BC)is described as “a musky, high-ceilinged cedar chamber”. No further details have been given. Demosthenes’ commentary on houses, Athens / Greece

According to Plutarch (50 - 120 AD), Demosthenes (Athens,384 – 322 BC) speaking ironically about a thief called “Copper” (Χαλκούς), said: “You Athenians, do not wonder at thefts, because our thieves are of copper but our walls of clay” (Plutarch 1993: pp. 11-7). This rhetorical information has been transferred in today researches as “walls of clay and straw” (Flacelière 2007: p. 27). The thieves were called “wall breakers”, and according to inscriptions in Delos, reed matting was known and used with clay -at least- in roofs as bedding for tiles (Orlandos 1955: p. 35). The same fragile walls have been applied also in Plataiai, a city near to Athens (Thucydides[1946]: B-3). Also Flacelière (in the same paragraph as before) mentioning them says –without referring to his source- that “the walls of these houses were fabricated with wood, not burnt tiles or gravel held together with clay made of wet earth”. Vitruv’s wall descriptions in Greece and Italy

In his first book, “Architectura”, which was written in Latin, Vitruv (1st century BC) describes the science of building construction as it was developed by the Greeks, so that Caesar D.F. Avgvstvs Octavianvs “could judge the already fabricated buildings and also the ones to be constructed” (Vitruv [2001]: VI - 11), getting his knowledge mostly from Hermogenes of Karies / Asia Minor (2nd century BC) who worked as an architect in the city of Teos / Ionia - Asia Minor which was inhabited by Achaians (people of an area in Peloponnesus / Greece). In chapter I of his 2nd book, ”The origin of the houses”, he describes the fabrication of log houses in Cohlis / Pontus (the Black Sea) / Georgia. This type of wall does not have a frame. In chapter III, line 15, of his 7th book, describing the fabrication of plaster, Vitruv mentions without any further description a “frame” and “vertical and horizontal bars”. Wooden temple of Poseidon in Peloponnesus / Greece

In Peloponnesus / Greeceup till to the 1st century AD, entire temples were built of timber, according to the Greek traveller and geographer Pausanias from Lydia, who wrote in his book Arcadica: “Agamides and Trofonios took the order to fabricate a temple for Poseidon and they cut out oak beams and attached them to each other” (Pausanias [1903 / 2008]: VIII-10-2). Heras temple in Metapontion, South Italy, ~ AD 1st century

According to Pliny (Nat. Hist. XIV, ii 9) in the Heras temple in Metapontion in South Italy a column was fabricated with wine wood: “at Metapontum, the temple of Juno has long stood supported by pillars formed of similar material (vine)”. In a reference of our days (Orlandos 1955: 17) this information is changed to: “Heras temple (was) fabricated with wine wood”.

2.2.2. Excavations findings

The excavations in Herculaneum and Pompeii next to the volcano Vesuvius / Italy and next to the Greek colony Naples, uncovered houses constructed with timber frames and stones infill of the year 78 AD. Here, the type of frames consists of vertical and horizontal bars (Figure 3). Another rare type has been found in the upper level of Diomedes villa in Pompeii. Additionally to the horizontal and vertical bars, it has a diagonal one (Adams 2007: p. 134, fig. 284).

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Fig. 3:Herculaneum / Italy(Picture shot by the author N.H., 2011)

2.3. The Roman Empire's era "dark times"

For the time after Herculaneum (78AD) till the Ottoman era (16th century AD), in the eastern part of the Roman Empire (so called Byzantium) and particularly in the southern Balkans and in Asia Minor, there are only few vague descriptions of timber walls. From the same time, no archeological findings are available. Some allusive descriptions are noticed, referring to Constantinople, Vatnai and Thessaloniki. Therefore, for the timber constructions this period can be called as "dark times".

The existence of variations of the timber framed cover described by Vitruv and of Herculaneum type timber framed walls in the centuries 17th AD till 20th AD, indicates that also in the meantime (2nd - 16th century AD) may have been constructed walls of the same type. The lack of drawings or descriptions in the eastern Roman Empire must not lead to conclusions that timber houses and their walls were necessarily of a different technology compared with those in Herculaneum and the ones of the Ottoman era. In the next, the references to timber houses, known by the writer of the present article, are mentioned:

- There is an allusion to timber houses in Constantinople in the time of Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus (4th century AD), after the new city was founded: “(the city) was set up in a not small area along the sea, and they placed bars in circles and put buildings on them, so many buildings that they could build a city” (Zosimos [2008]: par. 2-35-2).
- For the same period, timber constructions are mentioned in other regions: The third Emperor of the empire, Julian, (361-363 AD) writes that the palace in Vatnai / Antioch (Epistolai, 98, 182): “was only of clay and timber” (Koukoules 1952: Vol. D’-260).
- Evagrios the Scholastic (6th century AD, PG, 86, 2540) writes about a fire: “not only the inflammable, but also the buildings of stone”.
- The historian, senator and royal judge, Michael Attaleiates, describes arson carried out in 1074 AD by the general Ioannes Vryennios in Constantinople. Fires ware started along the coast of the Golf of Keras from the bridge of St. Panteleemon (Justinian Bridge) at Vlachernai, to Propontis, and also in Pera (Attaleiates [1997]: p. 434): “The fire rose up and destroyed nearly all the houses except some, also important buildings, beautiful houses and big churches ... especially all the Jewish ones, being of wood, were destroyed”.It can be concluded that there were flammable buildings fabricated partially from timber, and others, humble constructions built entirely of wood. This description is not detailed enough to discern the type of the timber walls.
- A Greek historian (Choniates [1835]: 732, 9) writes about the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders (4th crusade) in 1204 AD: “big pieces were flying because of the fire hitting... the fire reached to the great church (Hagia Sofia) ... and the surrounding houses, and burned them totally to ashes”.
- There are also house drawings where timber constructions appear. For example, a wall painting of 1314 AD in the church of Nikolaos Orfanos in Thessaloniki (“The Akathistos Hymn”) shows a wall that can be interpreted as a timber one (columns, beams, capitals and a plastered area between them) and so expresses the painter’s idea for noble houses in his area and time. Similar images are in “Chronografia” miniatures of Ioannis Skylitsis (14th century AD).

2.4. Timber framedwalls around the 17th century AD

2.4.1. General description

In analogy to the Herculaneum wall type technology which existed as early as the 1st century AD, it is possible that the frame characteristics used in the 17th century AD (according to a description of Dela Valle or to the houses stayinge.g. in Kastoria/ Greece), existed long before this time in at least in southern Balkans. The miniatures of the 16th century AD (MCTTR 1988; Du Tanney 1996) give some vague information about the house morphology (especially of their roofs) in Constantinople - Kostantiniyye/ Istanbul, but not about the construction of the walls.

2.4.2. Description of timber constructions in Istanbul

A cursory description of houses in Istanbul at the times of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566 AD) as written by a traveller (Quiclet 1664: p. 176), is given by a contemporary historian (Mantran1991: p. 53-55): “Most private houses are of wood and very botched, especially the bazars are almost one-storey... simple houses ... next to them there are houses with very nice appearance, palaces, mansions (serais), hotels (konaks) ... wood was the main material but not the only one... these houses were mostly of wood, a not so common material in Turkey, as marble and other stones ... but not demanding so much time and toil to start the construction”.


[1] Nikolaos Hatzitrifon, dr civil eng., em. Dir. of the Service for Newer Monuments and Technical Projects of Easertn Macedonia and Thrace / Hellenic Ministry of Culture.

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History of timber-framed walls in the Southern Balkans and Anatolia
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timber, wall, Balkan, Anatolia, construction, technology, appraisal, history
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Dr.civ. eng. Nikolaos Hatzitrifon (Author), 2016, History of timber-framed walls in the Southern Balkans and Anatolia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/334414


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