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

Cluny
Roman baths of Cluny in Paris

August 2016 - 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 small ones in Mesopotamia, where architects used them for small drainage tunnels and tombs. The Elamites used bigger barrel vaults to roof buildings at Susa. By around 2600 BC, Egyptian architects used mud-brick barrel vaults. At Nineveh, the Assyrians used barrel vaults in their fortification walls. People in the Parthian Empire also used barrel vaults. The Romans also loved barrel vaults; they used concrete to build barrel vaults all over Europe and North Africa.

long narrow barrel vaults in creamy stone on a desert building
Qasr Amra (Jordan, 700s AD)

In the Middle Ages, architects kept up the West Asian tradition and used barrel vaults to put stone roofs on Umayyad castles in West Asia, like these barrel vaults on the castle at Qasr Amra, from the early 700s AD. The Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, from the 1100s AD, also used small barrel vaults, though the main nave has a flat wooden roof.

barrel vault in a church
Toulouse, ca. 1100 AD

Further west, in Europe, architects used much bigger barrel vaults to cover Romanesque churches and cathedrals. This Romanesque barrel vault is from a big church in Toulouse, in the south of France, about 1100 AD. By the late 1100s AD, however, most architects in Europe were using a more complicated kind of stone roof called a groin vault.

In India and China, people used barrel vaults for small, often underground structures like tombs and sewage pipes, but not for houses or big public buildings. But in South Africa, North and South America, people didn't build barrel vaults at all.

Learn by doing: building an arch
More about groin vaults

Bibliography and further reading about barrel vaults:

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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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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