What's a Barrel Vault?
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What's a Barrel Vault?

Roman baths of Cluny in Paris

Once you've built an arch, you know how to make a doorway or a window without having to use big expensive beams. But how do you make the whole roof that way?

Easy: you stick a whole lot of arches together in a row, and that makes a roof. That's a barrel vault: an arch over and over. (This one is in the Roman baths at Cluny in Paris).

They're called barrel vaults because they look like the inside of a barrel.

Arch of Sapor
Parthian Arch of Sapor (Iraq, 200 AD)

The earliest barrel vaults were built by people living in the Roman Empire, who used them a lot for roofing. The Romans built barrel vaults all over Europe and North Africa. People in the Parthian Empire, about the same time, also used barrel vaults.

In the Middle Ages, architects also used barrel vaults to put stone roofs on Romanesque churches and cathedrals. By the late 1100s AD, however, most architects were using a more complicated kind of stone roof called a groin vault.

Bibliography and further reading:

Arches to Zigzags: An Architecture ABC, by Michael J. Crosbie (2000). Shows what an arch is, or a gable, or an eave. For younger kids.

Eyewitness: Building, by Philip Wilkinson, Dave King, and Geoff Dann (2000). Lavishly illustrated, like other Eyewitness books for kids, and with good explanations of most architectural terms.

Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction, by David Macaulay (1981). Beautiful drawings and clear text explain exactly how medieval craftsmen built a groined vault. Easy reading.

Groin vaults
Roman architecture
Parthian architecture
African architecture
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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