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History of Bricks: Ostia

Map of Ostia

I learned of this town last year and wanted to move there right away. It receives a lot of sun and is in a coastal environment. A major port with an adjacent river, it is next to an airport and is an hour from a big city. Architects paid a lot of attention to detail and the town also has terrific art, public and private. I fell in love with it after googling photos! Before last year, I’d never even heard of it and only learned of it after reading Lavinia, by Ursula K. LeGuin. An area next to it is really hopping, a tourist hot spot called Lido di Ostia. Both places are along the Tyrrhenian coast. I prefer my Ostia, though. My town is perfectly laid out on a grid and has lovely cobbled streets.  Its apartments have many windows are there are shops on the ground floor, so there is privacy and convenience. The town is beautiful, a model town.

Model of apartments

I would so love to wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, then take it along, as I go for a stroll in the sun. Warm terra cotta glow from the sun on the bricks, long shadows would be cast across streets, just like in a de Chirico painting. I can nearly taste the place. I’m afraid it’s just pipe dream, though…. I have lived many places and it’s not like me to not move somewhere I really want to go. But, there are no for rent signs and nothing’s for sale; my Ostia isn’t available to me or anyone else. I mentioned that the neighboring area is called Ostia but, you see, my town is now called Ostia Antica

Horse Mosaic

because the last person moved out in 414 CE.  The frescoes and mosaics and apartments that are in such good condition were built by the Romans in the 4th Century BCE and these apartments are the first such domiciles built in antiquity. Ostia was Rome’s major harbour, located at the mouth of the Tiber River. It’s said the town has roots that date to the 6th Century BCE. The reason the buildings are in such excellent condition, given their age is because they are made of concrete with brick facings. It was a gorgeous town with every amenity and the architects designed attractive edifices on all the buildings, even warehouses. There is a definite modern feel about the place. When I do go there I’d like to stay at this hotel, right in Ostia, so I wouldn’t have to travel back and forth from Rome. That way, I could have a cup of coffee and my morning stroll and it wouldn’t be a pipe dream… Emperors, officials, merchants, and the wealthy left and arrived at the port of Ostia and the town was adorned in a manner the Romans thought befitted a town that attracted such august visitors. It had the inevitable

Model of Warehouses

theatre, taverns, snack bars, temples, and baths, brothels, in addition to warehouses and wharves. Even the warehouses were appealing to the eye. Every care was given to the look of the place. “Most of what is visible at Ostia is a development of the Flavian, Antonine, and Severan periods,” according to Ostia – Roman, insulae, collēgia“>this article. “The uniformity of the kiln‐fired brick construction and the regularity of the plan suggest wholesale redevelopment, and large‐scale investment in urban property.” Archaeologist David Noy is commenting on a scientific study of Ostia by Dr. Janet DeLaine, archaeology lecturer at Oxford University, from her 2002 article, “Building activity in Ostia in the 2nd century AD.” He states that “analysis of building techniques and brickstamps can yield unexpectedly detailed information about

Ostia Brick Stamp

the dating of buildings and about how Ostian builders worked.” Noy said DeLaine’s work shows that a “‘signature motif’ of one contractor…can be found in buildings elsewhere in Ostia.” Further, “some of these buildings use different materials, suggesting that it was the patron not the contractor who was responsible for providing or at least sourcing these. Noy said DeLaine “calculates that each of the buildings could have been built by a contractor with eight to ten men and about the same number of day labourers in a period of between two and five years, and she is thus able to reconstruct the unknown contractor’s activities over several decades.” This source is so fantastic! Continuing to comment on DeLaine’s work, Noy addressed her treatment of brick stamps, saying “the range of brickstamps found in some public buildings such as the Forum Baths suggests that the sources of bricks were closely related to the patron’s personal contacts; her assumption seems to be that obtaining sufficient bricks for a project was potentially problematic.” He finishes by saying that “Although the evidence used is very specialized, the conclusions are potentially wide-ranging for the

Snack Bar

understanding of business and employment in early second-century Ostia.” Superb! Not only does this information bring history to life, it sheds light on the inner workings of something that is usually behind the scenes. All through this period, the town was subject to invasion and theft by pirates. After the town was sacked by pirates in 68 BCE, Pompey enacted a law that enabled him to draft an army for the purpose of wiping them out, which he did. Life and trade carried on, after that, except for the fact that the Tiber River had a silt problem in the, making it possible for only shallow boats to make the excursion to Rome. The very word ostia means opening, but soon the opening to the Tiber was hobbled by the inability to navigate the waters there. Considering exports and imports, the situation became so untenable, that Claudius had a new harbor built, calling it Portus. It was completed by Trajan in 113 BCE. This meant that traffic now flowed away from Ostia and that this new deep water harbor was used. Ostia was not forgotten, however. After a time, it became a haven for rich Romans. Still, the town was in a state of

Tiber delta today

slow decay and, after a fashion, was isolated and pretty much forgotten. If I were to have seen it during that time, I don’t know whether I would have even been able to recognize its charm. But, believe it or not, if it hadn’t been for Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, and his strategy of associating himself and his rule with the glories of ancient Rome, Ostia would never have experienced rebirth. Because of his campaign, about 3/4 of the town site is visible today. Many of his actions were closely linked his belief that by spotlighting ancient Rome, he himself would be elevated. Supposedly in honor of the deified Tiber River, he had a Roman column placed alongside the it. Its inscription reads QUI NASCE IL FIUME SACRO AI DESTINI DI ROMA (“Here is born the river / sacred to the destinies of Rome”) and a Roman eagle is perched on top, symbol of the Senate and the Roman people. This was all propaganda. Daniel Neuman, in 2006 wrote, “Ostia Antica was the port city and virtual lifeblood for Rome at the delta of the Tiber.” He further explained that “connecting Ostia to EUR and Rome was a pinnacle accomplishment for Mussolini. It was under

UK PM welcomed to Ostia by Mussolini

his reign that Ostia took on new significance and excavations were reenergized with great zeal.” Neuman makes further assertions about Mussolini and Ostia in this same article, called Mussolini: Power, Propaganda and the Revival of the Roman Empire. “This was all part of Mussolini’s plan to create scholarship and national interest in the Ancients,” he writes. “Always close to his heart, though, were the ulterior motives of preaching the Fascist doctrine simultaneously. The importance of uncovering the hidden treasures of Ostia was to emphasize the great culture and heritage of the Ancients, which the Italian people now have the responsibility to carry on.” However misguided Mussolini’s intentions were, today we have Ostia, restored. A huge preservation effort continues to the present. The concrete used to build it ensured its survival and the brick facades make these structures beautiful. It still needs help, though, as preservation efforts must be kept up. If you’d like to visit Ostia, here is a guide that will help you. This blog will tell you what it’s like to take a day trip there from Rome. It’s still February, so I’m closing the story with this lovely shot of the Temple of Cupid and Psyche in Ostia.

Temple of Cupid and Psyche in Ostia Antica

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Preview — History of Bricks: China

From Mesopotamia, sweeping across the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent’s Indus Valley, we have learned that bricks became an important economic vehicle and a means of improving the quality of life for untold numbers. This unassuming building material affected worldwide change in a most amazing way. Tomorrow, we will focus on China in our quest for that humble little rectangle of clay. China’s story also starts during the Neolithic, but because we are now fairly grounded in it and the transition to the Copper Age, I hope to concentrate more on the beauty and artwork of the brick, as made and used in China, in addition to any differences in its properties. There are many treasures, including the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. “The tower was built with white porcelain bricks that were said to reflect the sun’s rays during the day, and at night as many as 140 lamps were hung from the building to illuminate the tower,” according to Wikipedia. We will also consider the energetics of clay. The Chinese culture is the only one I know of that has a system of esthetics that affects where objects are placed and what building materials used: Feng Shui. According its principles, brick is an Earth Element and, as such, is to be used in specific ways within and outside the home to create an energetic atmosphere that will make the best use of this element’s properties. Today, in closing, I will leave you with a map of the largest and most imposing edifice made of brick in China. The famous Great Wall consists of many walls made of brick and stone.

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The History of Bricks: The Indus Valley

From Mesopotamia, brick-making spread to Egypt, Persia and to the Indus Valley, in what is now part of India and Pakistan. The Indus Valley is traversed by the Indus and Saraswati Rivers, covering 1.6 million square kilometers. As with many archaeological ‘finds,’ this one was accidental, in addition to unusual: the find was an entire civilization. In 1856, John and William Brunton, British engineers, were overseeing the building of a stretch of the East India Railway Company railroad from Karachi to Lahore, up near the Himalayas. They needed ballast for the project and had learned of the ancient ruins of Brahminabad nearby. Workers came upon quantities of fired brick there and, subsequently, used it for ballast. More bricks were found near the village of Harappa, in present-day Pakistan, along the Ravi River, where villagers had been using them themselves for some time. As it turns out, the bricks the Brunton brothers commanded for use on the railroad amounted to 150 kilometers of ballast. Unbeknownst to them, they had stumbled upon remains of the Indus Valley Culture, a rich and ancient culture. However, this pilfering did great damage to these ancient ruins. Today, the Harappa site is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. At the time of the discovery, the area was the domain of India; however, after India was partitioned by the British, this terrain was split between Pakistan and India. So, during the initial discovery period, it was part of the British Raj. When archaeologists got around to figuring out what they had on their hands, they had a field day. It was an enormous find. Expeditions into the Indus Valley are still being carried out today. According to archaeologist K. Kris Hirst, the Indus Valley Civilization spans the following time periods:

  • Early Harappan 3500-2700 BCE
  • Early Harappan/Mature Harappan Transition 2800-2700 BCE
  • Mature Harappan 2700-1900 BCE
  • Late Harappan 1900-1500 BCE

The culture’s eventual demise was the result of flooding, geological activity, and changing trade routes. During the early days of the archaeological digs, certain names are associated with work there, including archaeologist Madho Sarup Vats, who worked on the Archaeological Survey of India during the 1920s and 30s and Sir John Hubert Marshall, archaeologist and Director General of the Indian Archaeological Service. Aside from the original peoples from neolithic times, the cloth from which these  people were cut has remained a matter of controversy. Theories abound: they spoke proto-Brahmi, or proto-Dravidian, or Sanskrit. There is no consensus, no definitive answer; it’s all part of the Aryan controversy: one side and the opposing view. What is known is that there were three classes of people, elite (religious), tradesmen, and poor. The cultures pivoted upon clay, literally and figuratively. The main type of dwelling, Harappan house, was of ingenious design and the bricks they were made with have lasted thousands of years. Homes had indoor and outdoor kitchens and were made of fired or sun-dried bricks. The photo above shows an example of an ancient well and the brick drainage canals in Lothal, India, a port city which used kiln-fired brick extensively in its ancient dockyards. Its inhabitants learned that fired brick was more impervious to tidal waters. Each city in the region was surrounded by a brick wall, which helped control trade and flooding, according to Wikipedia. “The Harappans were great city planners. They based their city streets on a grid system. Streets were oriented east to west. Each street had a well-organized drain system. If the drains were not cleaned, the water ran into the houses and silt built up. Then the Harappans would build another story on top of it. This raised the level of the city over the years, and today archaeologists call these high structures “mounds”.

In The Indus Civilization: a Contemporary Perspective, by Gregory L. Possehl, the author states that funnel-shaped updraft kilns were used for firing clay, however, I am, as yet, unsure whether this type of kiln was used to fire bricks or ceramics, in general. He does say, though, that “millions of bricks” are among the ruins at Mohenjo-daro, in present-day Pakistan, a little excavated site which is garnering more attention. The photo to the right shows the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro. It has been subject to debate, but most now seem to agree that it was used for ritualistic bathing, much like the Hindu practice today. The bath is basically a water tank made of brick. It was meant for public use and it’s the earliest example of such a facility, measuring 12 x 7 meters, with a depth of 2.4 meters. Truly impressive…the number of bricks needed for such a project takes my breath away. One of India’s largest archaeological sites centers on the city of Dholavira. It is in the province of Gujarat today and during the monsoons it is surrounded by water. Dholavira’s remains were found in 1967 and it is considered a model city. It boasts a towering citadel, an acropolis, and a huge reservoir, all made of stone — the only major city of the Indus Valley Civilization not made of brick. The photo below shows a model of the city.

As with ancient Mesopotamia, the wonders of the Indus Valley are spellbinding. It is a civilization built upon oceans of brick which have withstood every test of time…enduring testimony to the industry and esthetics of an intriguing people.


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