Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in various contexts.
The Ancient History of Bricks
You may think of bricks as a very modern material. We tend to imagine ancient buildings being made of stone or wood. Many primitive buildings were constructed from mud and straw. However, the truth is that bricks were invented a very long time ago.
When Were Bricks Invented?
The first bricks that we know about were made in Jericho as long ago as 7000 BC. The people there had discovered they could make simple bricks by leaving clay mud to dry in the sun.
Mesopotamian Brick Kilns
The Mesopotamians developed stronger bricks by mixing the mud with straw and then baking the result in kilns. This process also made the bricks more resistant to water.
Bricks baked in kilns were also lighter and easier to transport than stone. Because they were also stronger they could be stacked, loaded and carried from the place where they were made to the place where they were to be used much more easily and without breaking them.
Bricks in Britain
The British never invented bricks. Brick-making technology was brought to the British Isles by the Ancient Romans. The pre-Roman inhabitants of the British Isles lived in houses made of stone, wood and thatch.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the technology of brick building was forgotten, and it was common practice to reuse old Roman bricks from ruined villas, aqueducts and so on. It was not until much later in the 12th century that brickmaking was rediscovered.
It was even later still, in 1825, that the first brick-making machines were introduced. This facilitated not only a better quality of brick but also a much faster and more efficient method of production. There was, alongside greater industrialization, a huge upsurge in building using bricks and mortar during this period.
Building Before Bricks
Before bricks – durable, lightweight, inexpensive and portable – were first widely used, the most common building material for permanent projects was stone.
Stones were gathered and piled up together to form walls as far back as prehistory. The art of masonry and 'stone dressing' dates back to about 2500 BC and originated in Ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Egyptians were also the first to develop mechanical, rather than manual, stone splitting and shaping technologies. It was this technology that helped them to build the magnificent temples and pyramids for which they are now most widely known.
Sticking Bricks Together: Mud and Mortar
Before the invention of modern mortar, the most commonly used materials for getting bricks to stick securely together were simple clay, mud, or bitumen.
The Egyptians were the first to invent mortar using the material gypsum as a base.
The Romans later developed the concept further, using a mixture of lime, water and sand which is the process still used today.
The ancient city of Pompeii was built using bricks and mortar.
The Invention of Concrete
Concrete is most often associated with fairly modern buildings and is still widely used all over the world. Not so many people realize that experts suspect Ancient Romans invented it and used it widely in their building activities throughout the Roman Empire. Some claim it was invented even earlier by the Ancient Egyptians.
The discovery of how to make concrete was a development from the use of bricks and mortar. The Romans experimented with adding bits of broken stone, brick, pebbles and pottery to their basic mortar mix. They found that the resulting substance could be moulded and shaped, and resulted in a very durable building material.
An excellent example of this type of construction using early concrete is found in the building of the town of Cosa in central Italy. The construction of the town walls was completed around 275 AD.
The Weakness of Bricks and Mortar
Bricks have been central to the development of human culture and urban architecture. They are the most ancient man-made building material and also the most enduring and versatile.
We've been using bricks to build our cities and expand our range for over 9000 years now. It really is an incredible material.
One of the greatest strengths of brick construction is also one of its weaknesses. Brick walls have to be built of an accumulation of many individual units and each of these units has to be bound together using an adhesive agent. This agent is called mortar.
In stable conditions, mortar is an effective and powerful bonding material for bricks. But under certain kinds of vibrational stress – such as an earthquake – the mortar can crumble, the bond can fail and the building can fall apart.
The Art and Craft of Bricks and Mortar
Over its 9000-year history, the use of bricks and mortar has been developed into an art form. Skilled bricklayers train for many years to perfect their craft.
In the hands of a master bricklayer, the humble brick becomes an architectural marvel. Bricklayers can use bricks to create intricate patterning, arches, bridges and seemingly gravity-defying vaulted ceilings. See the video at the end of this article to learn more about bricklaying techniques.
Different Types of Modern Bricks
Molded from Portland cement and then shaped to fit the purpose. They are most commonly used in decorative work.
These bricks are actually a form of pottery and are hollow. Lightweight and versatile.
These bricks are manufacted by extruding a large slab and than wire cutting each brick out of it. Kind of like a cookie cutter.
These are often irregular and have an old world charm
The most expensive bricks are handmade because of the time and effort needed to produce them. They are highly prized and characterful.
These are made from an oily clay found only in the South East of the UK
Bricks that have been made with a fast burn at high temperatures. They are smooth and good for facing.
Very strong and water resistant.
The Future of Brick
We've come a long way from the early days of baked mud. Modern bricks come in all kinds of colours, weights, sizes and scales of absorbency. The manufacture of bricks has been made extremely cost-effective and efficient by the introduction of new machine technologies, equipment for the extraction of fundamental materials, modern kilns and electrical motorization of the brickmaking process.
Bricks are now being made from concrete and calcium silicate as well as the traditional pure clay. In 2007 a brand new ‘fly ash’ brick was developed to recycle the byproducts of processing plants.
Bricks are still the most commonly employed unit in building construction. Architecture using bricks is an ever-expanding field and both in terms of brick manufacturing technologies and the art of building design it seems that the brick still has a long future ahead of it. It is hard to imagine a more versatile and beautiful building material.
The Art of Master Bricklaying
Sources and Further Reading
- BuildingBlocksMagazine: A Brief History of Bricks
- HaverstrawBrickMuseum: Building With Bricks
- MyLearning.org: Ancient Egyptian Objects
- NACHI.org: The History of Concrete
© 2015 Amanda Littlejohn
Do you live in a brick house? Do you like bricks or prefer something else?
Amanda Littlejohn (author) on August 17, 2018:
Thanks for your comment. Glad you found what you were looking for here about the history of bricks. And I envy you your visit to Pompeii!
PC1i on August 17, 2018:
I was actually looking for the history of bricks after visiting Pompeii
Amanda Littlejohn (author) on October 07, 2015:
I'm so glad you found this interesting. I did wonder if anyone would be interested in bricks!
Bless you :)
Amanda Littlejohn (author) on October 07, 2015:
Thanks for your kind comment. :)
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 04, 2015:
This is a very informative hub, Amanda. Thank you for increasing my knowledge in such an interesting way!
FlourishAnyway from USA on October 04, 2015:
Excellent hub! I learned quite a bit of new information.