Suspension bridges and skyscrapers are marvels of modern engineering, but some of the world’s most impressive constructions are thousands of years behind us. The Roman Colosseum is one such wonder, marking a crucial transition point between two vastly different ages of construction.
For our list of the 15 Most Impressive Ancient Builds (at least ones that are still partially around) we’ll use the Romans’ iconic stadium as our starting point and dip further back in time to explore the depth and breadth of building before the common era.
1. Great Wall of China
Northern China, 210 B.C.
Nobody wants barbarians from the north entering their land. That’s why Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang commissioned the start of what is now the Great Wall of China in the third century B.C. Made up of sections of walls that cover nearly 4,000 miles—not including another roughly 1,500 miles of natural barriers—the east-west wall uses stone, brick, wood, and earth to create a physical and psychological barrier. Much of the original wall didn’t stand the test of time, but the Ming dynasty in the 1300s started a building push that made the Great Wall the wonder it is today.
2. Temple of Hera
Italy, 550 B.C.
Originally surrounded by 40 stone columns (originally wood) the Doric style exterior of the low-slung Temple of Hera was built on the south slopes of Kronos hill, complete with three distinct interior chambers. Interior walls broke up worship areas for different Greek gods, rooms which later became a home for some of Rome’s ancient relics. The temple has a limestone base which runs east to west, longer than it is wide. Mud bricks, meanwhile, form the upper portion with wood and terracotta adorning the temple’s interior. Unfortunately most of it was destroyed during an earthquake in the 4th century AD.
3. Ancient Greek Parthenon on the Acropolis
Athens, 432 B.C.
The first buildings constructed on the the rocky outcrop of the Acropolis of Athens were destroyed by Persians around 480 B.C., but that didn’t stop a second 15-year effort from finishing a complete reconstruction that wrapped up around 432 B.C. The highlight of the Acropolis was the Parthenon and its gold and ivory statue of Athena, but there was plenty of other stuff to see, including the limestone foundation and columns made from Pentelic marble, an early use of the material.
4. Gobekli Tepe
Turkey, 9000 B.C.
Considered to be the world’s first temple, the Gobekli Tepe contains at least 20 circular installations that contain several pillars surrounded by walls, some 200 pillars throughout the whole temple. The site is also home to rock statues with carvings of animals—foxes, snakes, wild boars, cranes and wild ducks—that could date back as far as 10,000 BC. Perhaps most interestingly, some of the construction features pillars that are T-shaped and weigh over 60 tons, leaving experts unsure of how such primitive humans accomplished such a difficult and complex task.
5. Tumulus of Bougon
France, 4700 B.C.
On a limestone plateau near the river Bougon is a stepped mound with a rectangular chamber, the Tumulus of Bougon. Inside the ancient mound is a series of passages and chamber walls formed by human-shaped orthostats, or out more simply “upright stones.” A 90-ton capstone covers the main chamber, with the monolithic pillars dividing the room up into smaller subsections. When discovered, the location was filled with several vertical layers of skeletons and lots of pottery, which helped archaeologists identify the timeline of construction and discover just how early and impressive this structure is.
England, 3000 B.C.
The widely famous Stonehenge is built from a mix of large sarsen stones—a type of sandstone found naturally in the south of England—and smaller bluestones. The largest sarsen stone, believed to be from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles from the site, weighs about 30 tons. The Wales-derived blue stones weigh between two and five tons each and were likely carried over 150 miles to reach their final resting place at the Stonehenge site.
7. Carnac Stones
France, 3300 B.C.
The year 3300 B.C. sound a little too recent for the world’s largest collection of standing stones? It’s a relatively conservative guess. Some believe some of the stones that form the array known as the Carnac Stones in the Brittany region of France date all the way back to 4500 B.C. Many have guessed at the possible purpose of the megalithic site which may have been used to track to movement of the sun or the stars. We may never really know, but the sheer intensity of so hundreds and hundreds of carved stones placed in such a regimented order is compelling food for speculation.
8. Knap of Howar
Scotland, 3700 B.C.
It may seem like just a stone house, but the Knap of Howar in Scotland is actually the oldest preserved stone house in northern Europe. The farmstead’s two buildings connected by a passage were built with split stone to a height of just over five feet and feature doorways facing the sea. A hole in the roof indicates the home was likely heated by fire and stone furniture found provides an even stronger indication that this was once an ancient residence.
9. Megalithic Temples
Malta, 3,500 B.C.
A collection of six different temples built over hundreds of years in Malta, the Megalithic Temples are noteworthy not only for their originality and complexity, but due to the advanced technical skill that would have been required to build some of the earliest known freestanding stone structures. Each monument had a different articulation and construction, and the exteriors were often hard coralline limestone, while softer globigerina limestone use used for a more delicate and ornate interior.
Ireland, 3200 B.C.
On roughly four days every year, the winter solstice sun pokes through the top of this Stone Age monument and onto the floor of the interior chamber, filling the ancient temple with light for about 17 minutes. Built before Stonehenge, Newgrange was likely used to track the passing of the years with a precision ahead of its time. With an earthen mound and stone forming passageways and chambers inside Newgrange, the site likely also served as a passage tomb and ceremonial location as well as highly engineered clock.
11. Sechin Bajo
Peru, 1,300 B.C.
The vast majority of the world’s most imposing ancient structures are found in the Eastern Hemisphere, but Peru’s Sechin Bajo can’t be overlooked. One of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas, the valley-based civilization’s impressive build was opened up to the world in 2008 after the discovery of a circular adobe brick and rock plaza over 30 feet in diameter. That, along with a nearby frieze standing over six feet tall served as archeologists’ first look at the area. Eventually additional buildings with platforms, circular plazas, sunken features, friezes, graveyards, and walls with carvings have been uncovered, many built with pre-ceramic materials.
12. Theatre of Marcellus
Rome, 12 B.C.
Rome’s Theatre of Marcellus has a star-studded past. Commissioned by Julius Caesar and later inaugurated by Augustus, the architecture of the columned building became the template for countless theaters and stadiums to follow. The Theatre of Marcellus was an open-air venue that could hold 20,000 spectators and included a semicircular travertine façade, arches, Doric columns, and three levels of seating. The intricate design included stairways, ramps and even an open-air backdrop seen behind the stage.
13. Aqueduct of Segovia
Segovia, Spain, 50 A.D.
It’s the useful things that tend to be the best preserved, which is why the crucial Aqueduct of Segovia in Spain is one of the best surviving examples of an ancient aqueduct. Likely build around 50 AD, just a few decades before the Colosseum, it was carrying water from the Frio River to the Spanish town of Segovia into the 1900s. Made of 24,000 granite blocks—and no mortar, mind you—it covers over eight miles of undulating landscape. With 165 arches that reach over 30 feet high, the two-story aqueduct was built with great precision, which is why it’s still around today.
14. Roman Colosseum
Rome, 80 A.D.
At 620 feet long and 513 feet wide, the Colosseum in Rome was easily the largest amphitheater around when it was in its prime, yet it wasn’t built into a hillside for support like many other large structures of the time. Instead, it was a fully freestanding stadium with a foundation of concrete and stone that could provide seating for 50,000 visitors in multiple seating configurations and levels. On top of that, the Colosseum’s 80 awning-covered arches lead visitors into an arena that was so well-engineered that it could even be flooded with water to support aquatic events.
15. La Hougue Bie
The La Hougue Bie on the island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy, France, has a two histories. When it was first built around 3500 BC it served as a passage grave, one of the tallest in Europe. It was also a religious site, marked by a medieval chapel sitting atop the prehistoric mound dolmen—a grave marked by upright stone. Then, in its second life, it was home to a command bunker built during the German Occupation of World War II.