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Amid a Sword and Sandal era, my protagonist comes from an ancient and powerful family who has lived in a castle for many generations. The problem is that castles shouldn't exist yet, at least not for humans. The protagonist's family is elven and humans and elves seldom interact at this point in history. BUT, this particular family oversees a village of humans that are something like serfs (but they are allowed to leave for certain reasons like trade).

Supposing that the castle is of elvish origin then, and supposing that magic exists, what would prevent humans from learning from and replicating this "new" architectural technology for themselves? Humans shouldn't start implementing this sort of architecture for another few/several hundred years and keep in mind that the castle has already existed for thousands of years without being replicated by humans.

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  • $\begingroup$ TBH I feel like the real questions are A: What would the humans even want a castle for in the first place, and B: Why would the elves even ALLOW the humans to build their own castle without going over there, killing them all, and dumping their castle in the swamp? $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Apr 1 '19 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – James Apr 2 '19 at 6:08
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If you have the technology to have swords, you have the technology to have something like a castle. Consider wooden motte-and-bailey castles. They simply take lots and lots of people who haul earth and logs.

But imagine the elvish castles have cyclopean walls with large blocks. They were done in ancient times, when the elves

  • had magic
  • were helped by astronauts
  • enslaved lots and lots of humans

(pick one). Human warlords and sorcerors may try to copy elvish castles, but they invariably fall short.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments usually aren’t meant to explain selected answers, but I feel there is something to add by doing so here. If humans have a reference and the tools/materials available to them to make something, then why can’t they make it? They lack in other ways. Their resources (be it laborers, materials, knowledge, etc.) lack the quantitative or qualitative requirements and that’s why. It’s a simple, but very reasonable answer. $\endgroup$ – JustSnilloc Apr 4 '19 at 12:50
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A castle is a lot more than seeing one and copying it. I see cars everyday, but wouldn't be able to make one. I couldn't even make the tools that make a carburetor, and I'm an engineer. Same with castles, there is a whole bunch of technology behind castles ranging from tools, to stone/woodworking, to quarrying and transporting materials, to strategic positioning etc,. they're a culmination of centuries of technological inventions in multiple fields. Just making a hammer from scratch needs several inventions.

If the humans never saw one built, had no access to the tools, and didn't understand how it all fits together,they couldn't make one.

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    $\begingroup$ "Just making a hammer from scratch needs several inventions" just one actually, the invention of hitting things with a big rock, it was one of our earlier efforts in the field of invention actually :) $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Apr 1 '19 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ @pelinore. That's not a hammer, that's a stone. You need to find a way to affix a handle before you can call it a hammer. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Apr 1 '19 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ If you can use it to hammer something it's a hammer, for at least as long as you use it so.. simples :) $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Apr 1 '19 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ Smashing something with a rock gives you a lot less mechanical advantage (and opportunity to build momentum) than rotating a lever that happens to have a sturdy heavy thing at the other end. $\endgroup$ – Jesse Amano Apr 1 '19 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore I strongly disagree. This discussion is in the context of carpentry, so although abstractly I would only weakly disagree with your implied definition of "hammer = any hard object that can be grasped", in this case the implied definition has to be one that can satisfy the use case "apply concentrated blunt force in a specific direction" which requites that you have at least a basic understanding of how mass, velocity, angular momentum, and force work. You obviously don't need the exact Newtonian equations, but you've got to at least know the concepts. $\endgroup$ – Jesse Amano Apr 1 '19 at 22:39
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Consider Orthanc.

orthanc

From the Two Towers

There stood a tower of marvelous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills...

They came now to the foot of Orthanc. It was black, and the rock gleamed as if it were wet. The many faces of the stone had sharp edges as though they had been newly chiselled. A few scorings, and small flake-like splinters near the base, were all the marks that it bore of the fury of the Ents.

The elf castle is not a glorified hut, or pile of stone. It is altogether different, and so foreign from the things humans make for themselves that the humans view it more like a mountain, or the moon, or perhaps the Wall in Game of Thrones - an awesome artifact made by the Creator or ancient race of giants, but beyond what human skill can reproduce. I like how Tolkien describes it as "riven from the bones of the earth" - not the way humans make buildings.

An interesting thing about Orthanc is that it was viewed exactly that way by every being which occupied Middle Earth at that time. It was alien even to Saruman.

This is how it is for your elves. The castle they live in was not made by them either, but predates the elves also. It could be one of the "cyclopean ruins" one finds in Lovecraft stories - build to last by an ancient race. The other reason the humans don't copy it is that they find it an uncomfortable thing to look at. The elves don't particularly like the looks of their castle either but they are tough minded, unsuperstitious and they do appreciate the practical benefits it affords.

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    $\begingroup$ I kind of like the basic concept. Something like concrete would be good enough I think. For example, seeing the Colosseum or the Pantheon would help you exactly not at all trying to copy them because Roman concrete is not a natural substance you can find, it has to be manufactured from things that do not resemble it that much. My examples also have arches that would be hard to copy unless you actually understand the principles behind them. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 1 '19 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ Bricks are another technology that cannot be copied. Even if you have ceramics and understand how to make them, making enough for a large building requires economy on par with the Roman Empire or Renaissance Italy. You just cannot afford the logistics otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 1 '19 at 17:53
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Make it a natural fortress

If you want to have a castle before castles became a thing, turn to mother nature. In a sword-and-sandal world people can build houses, walls, etc., yet if your castle consists of a very-defensible natural feature, then your castle is impossible to copy.

See e.g. Massada

enter image description here

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