Ashlar is prepared stone work (i.e., dressed, cut) of any type of stone. Masonry using such stones laid in parallel courses is known as ashlar masonry, whereas masonry using irregularly shaped stones is known as rubble masonry. Ashlar blocks are rectangular cuboid blocks that are masonry sculpted to have square edges and smooth faces. The blocks, in European masonry, are generally about 35 cm in height. When shorter than 30 cm, they are usually called “small ashlar”.
Ashlar blocks were used in the construction of many old buildings as an alternative to brick. Generally the external face is smooth or polished; occasionally it can be decorated by small grooves achieved by the application of a metal comb. (This process is usually used only on a softer stone ashlar block. The decoration is known as mason's drag.)
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The term is frequently used to describe the dressed stone work of prehistoric Greece and Crete, although the dressed blocks are usually much greater than the 30 cm to 35 cm mentioned above. For example, the tholos tombs of Bronze Age Mycenae use ashlar masonry in the construction of the so-called “bee-hive” dome. This dome consists of finely cut ashlar blocks that decrease in size and terminate in a central “capstone”. These domes are not true domes, but are constructed using the corbel arch.
In some Masonic jurisdictions, ashlars are used as a symbolic metaphor for progress. A rough ashlar is a stone as taken directly from the quarry, and allegorically represents the Freemason prior to his initiation; a smooth ashlar (or "perfect ashlar") is a stone that has been smoothed and dressed by the experienced stonemason, and allegorically represents the Freemason who, through education and diligence, has learned the lessons of Freemasonry and who lives an upstanding life.
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