Daily Archives: February 16, 2011

The History of Bricks: Mesopotamia

And now I must describe how the soil dug out to make the moat was used, and the method of building the wall. While the digging was going on, the earth that was shoveled out was formed into bricks, which were baked in kilns as soon as sufficient number were made; then using hot bitumen for mortar, the workmen began at revetting the brick each side of the moat, and then went on to erect the actual wall. In both cases they laid rush-mats between every thirty courses of bricks. — Herodotus, i. 179 (of Babylon)

The area that comprises modern-day Iraq was originally inhabited by a people who invented the arch, the column, the wheel, algebra, geometry, astronomy, and the potter’s wheel. However, 11,500 years ago, during a period that is called Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, people there lived much more simply, in round buildings with outer structures made of mud brick. They lived in upper Mesopotamia and the Levantine, in the Fertile Crescent. Later and further south, lay Sumer and its people, the Sumerians. They were the first to develop a written means of communication; they wrote on clay tablets in a hand that evolved from pictograms to cuneiform. Literature was important to them and the work we would recognize most easily today is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Sumerians were pantheistic and their temple, the ziggurat, was an ascending rise of mud bricks. Other famous Mesopotamian places names include Babylon and Assyria. Hammurabi and his  code, a set of laws, is among Babylon’s legacy. It has been noted that some of the bases of Babylonian temples were mud brick only, some were mud brick with fired clay faces, some with stone faces. Regardless, the Babylonians were the first to fire clay. There is other evidence of the use of clay for daily living. Axe heads of clay have been found, as has weaponry in the form of sling bolts and bullets, also found were nail-shaped objects made of clay, thought to be used as pestles or as a tool for tanning, in addition according to Peter Roger Stuart Moorey’s Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and industries: The Archaeological Evidence. It makes perfect sense that that clay would be used for such objects in clay-rich areas, especially in the absence of other building materials.  The following chart is also from Moorey and it shows the “partial chemical composition of clay and sherds from Babylon and Kish.”And, as with other ancient areas, Babylon was conquered and reconquered numerous times. After the Hittites destroyed it, a Semitic people, the Assyrians, held sway. Later, it was defeated by Cyrus the Great, who made Babylon part of the Iranian empire. The Chaldeans tried to reestablish it and it was during this time that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon existed, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Later, Darius the Great, a Persian, came to rule Babylon and it was he who started Persia’s long-running stewardship. Eventually, this gave way to Alexander the Great. We’d be hard put to find a sector of land that has seen such history, such traffic and such glory. There were other areas of Mesopotamia, too, but their contributions were of a quieter order.  However many changes were wrought by the waxing and waning of these ancient civilizations, their building materials were little changed. Then, as now, they are  variously called mud-bricks, mudbricks or mud bricks. Something I came across while trying to find more information about the mud brick itself was the site of a Los Angeles middle school teacher named Mrs. Charky. I love the recreation of things historical and was thrilled to see that she sent her students on a quest to create and turn in a modern-day reproduction of a Mesopotamian mud brick. You’ve gotta love it! The ingredients were to be “dried grass or hay, soil, and water,” the size a rectangle about 3″ x 6″. Take a look at this link to see a photo of her example. (I daren’t post it!) According to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, “Brick making was a major Mesopotamian industry, especially in the south, where wood was in short supply and stone was non-existent.” Clay was Sumer’s most abundant material and with it was mixed sand, water, mud, and organic material, husks or straw. Often, it was sun-dried, as there was little fuel for firing. Pottery and brick-making and laying were going concerns in ancient days and a large part of the economy. The Sumerians even used clay to make sickles. Today, throughout former Mesopotamia, one can find Old Town sections made of mud brick structures, often enclosed by a mud brick walls. As well, brick manufacture continues to be a going concern. The example of mud brick wall in the photo above is in Al Hillah, Iraq, a remnant of ancient Babylon. Unfortunately, there is little left, thanks to George Bush Jr.’s so-called “Shock and Awe.” So much has been lost, it is difficult to contemplate. It is true, however, that humankind has endured in this area for tens of thousands of years and it is uplifting to see new mud bricks being made to replace the old and the broken.

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