For billions of people across the world, stairs are a part of our daily life. They allow us to access otherwise inaccessible locations and take us across or over difficult or otherwise inaccessible terrain. They can be carved into a hillside with hand tools, ornately designed with exquisite stone to blend into the cascading landscape of a terrace garden, or engineered with extreme precision and modern materials to span 30 floors of a high-rise. So when were stairs invented exactly?
In general, stair-like structures have always existed in nature via erosion. While no one can exactly pinpoint when humans began creating stairs, it was likely very early on in our existence that we started building stairs that mirrored those already found and used in nature.
In this article, we’ll explore the history of the human use of stairs, from construction via natural materials to navigate pre-civilization life to the standards of modern stair building. Keep reading to explore this fascinating history!
Stairs and Pre-Civilization
So, how long have stairs existed? Early humans would have used naturally occurring stairs in their environment to traverse across landscapes in their nomadic lifestyle.
They would have likely then taken inspiration from these naturally occurring stair-like structures in their environment to build steps to important locations, such as the entrance of a cave or hut. Some of these ancient stairs would likely have been made from stacking flat stones or logs on top of each other.
Naturally Occurring Stairs
Ancient naturally occurring stairs and steps can be found all around the world, often created as a result of of years of erosion. The stunning steps of Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway are an example of naturally occurring stairs that have existed.
While nature is the true inventor of stairs, humans cunningly expanded upon nature’s design to suit their needs. From these environment-inspired beginnings, as some groups of humans settled down into less nomadic lifestyles around 10,000 years ago, human-created staircases linked to civilization started to arise.
Early Civilization Use of Stairs
For many cultures across the world, stairs hold significant practical and spiritual significance. Ancient civilization connected stairways with religious, practical, social, and military significance.
Of course, just as stairs are used today, early civilizations used stairs to effectively access different areas of their homes, villages, cities, and landscapes. Stairs were carved into difficult terrain to make traveling and transporting goods easier, less time-consuming, and safer. They allowed access to elevated homes to protect from flooding.
Ancient civilizations often constructed temples high atop hills or mountains with stairs carved into the landscape. The stairs would elevate their temples and other structures of religious importance over non-religiously significant buildings. These temples would signify closeness to sky deities, and climbing the stairs to these temples would be a spiritual experience.
As Social Status
In early civilization, and indeed, throughout history, those who occupied high social status often lived in elevated homes. These elevated homes were accompanied by elegant staircases to signify social, political, or religious superiority and the accumulation of wealth over others.
In modern times, we continue to see the connection between staircases and status with elaborate staircases in mansions and ornately designed palace steps.
Some of the oldest known existing stairs in the world are made of stone or contain stone in the design. One set is located in the ruins of Pakistan’s Mohenjo-Daro archeological complex and is estimated to be 4,500 years old.
Another set of ancient stairs is found in Peru’s Caral archaeological complex and is estimated to be about 5,000 years old.
Researchers discovered the oldest existing wooden staircase in Europe, and possibly the world, in a Bronze-Age-era salt mine. The 3,000-year-old wooden staircase has been preserved due to a lack of microorganisms in the salt mine that would otherwise have long ago decayed the wood.
Military Use of Spiral Stairs
The oldest standing spiral staircase is Trajan’s Column. Roman builders constructed this ancient structure in 113 AD. They developed the snaking design with warfare and defense in mind. Those who wished to attack the building would have to ascend the narrow, uneven steps in a clockwise direction.
Since most people are right-handed, this means that the majority of soldiers would be extremely restricted in their weapon-wielding as they ascended the stairs with their right side closest to the central support of the staircase.
Meanwhile, those who defended the building could swing their weapons in a much larger arc. They could also have a better view of those ascending the staircase. And while the attackers would stumble over the uneven steps, the defenders could quickly traverse the familiar staircase.
The Roman empire colonized Western and Northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The use of the spiral staircase design became widely used in the construction of European castles and fortresses.
Five Famous Stair Structures Around the World
Across the world, some staircases are the site of significant cultural, spiritual, and religious journeys. These stairs lead visitors to breathtaking mountain peaks, temples, and architectural masterpieces.
China’s Stairway to Heaven
Every year, thousands of tourists make the journey up the 999 steps of the Stairway to Heaven. The journey leads them to a breathtaking natural archway 24,500 feet above sea level, high atop Tianmen Mountain to Heaven’s Gate Cave, which features the world’s highest naturally formed arch.
Builders intentionally constructed the staircase with 999 stone steps, as 9 is a lucky, spiritual number in Chinese numerology. To this day, many visitors consider walking up these 999 steps to be a spiritual journey toward the celestial realm of the gods.
Chand Baori, Abhaneri, India
The wonderfully unique, geometric steps of Chand Baori serve as both a staircase and a part of a stepwell system. The stepwell, built in the 9th century in Abhaneri, contains over 3,500 steps comprising 16 interlocked, beautifully intricate stories. Those who appreciate unique architecture and history will love these ancient stairs.
The Vatican’s Double Helix Spiral Staircase
Also known as the Momo Staircase, the brilliant 20th-century Italian engineer, Guiseppe Momo, designed this stunning staircase. Constructed in 1932 to efficiently manage visitor flow, the Momo Staircase features two gorgeous intertwined spiral staircases.
Momo masterfully blended practicality with artistic design when creating this masterful staircase. Today, the Momo Staircase is one of the world’s most photographed stair structures.
The Sigiriya Lion Staircase
The Lion Staircase of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, is a 1,600-year-old set of stairs carved into an enormous stone Sphinx that guarded the entrance to the innermost sanctum of King Kasyapa’s Sky Palace atop Sigiriya Rock.
Today, while the stairs remain intact, all that remains of the sphinx carving are its enormous stone paws.
The Mysterious Spiral Staircase of Loretto Chapel
For over a hundred years, engineers have been deeply intrigued by the mysterious 33-step spiral staircase’s construction, located in Loretto Chapel, New Mexico. Historians estimate that the builder constructed the winding stairs around the year 1880. The staircase connects the ground floor of the chapel to the choir loft 22-feet above the main floor.
Mystery surrounds this gorgeous staircase, as there are no official records of exactly who built it, what type of wood the builder used, and how the superbly talented craftsman constructed the spiral staircase to support itself without any central pole.
Modern Stair Construction
Today, engineers who design and build staircases must adhere to building codes and ensure thEY are structurally safe, and provide ease of use. The International Residential Code (IRC) for stair building dictates that construction must adhere to a specific set of building standards. For residential stairs, the codes are as follows:
- The minimum width of residential stairs must be no less than 36 inches.
- The stair risers must be no higher than 7.75 inches, and step height can not vary by more than 3/8th of an inch.
- The depth of the stair tread must be no less than 10 inches with a protruding edge, no less than 11 inches without a protruding tread, and variation of tread depth must be no more than 3/8th of an inch.
The Romans, since the first century B.C., used volcanic ash, lime, seawater, and volcanic rock to make extremely durable concrete structures, some of which continue to exist to this day.
Builders typically make modern concrete with Portland cement, developed in the mid-1800s by Joseph Aspdin and Isaac Charles Johnson of England. They invented the compound through a synthetic mixture of limestone and clay.
Concrete stairs are a staple of modern commercial properties and public structures. Builders typically use concrete to construct stairs in parks, office buildings, hotels, apartment complexes, and public buildings. An interesting fact about concrete stairs is that some modern homes builders are increasingly using concrete stairs for a sleek, modern interior designs.