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Bricks around the world

Bricks of one kind or another have been manufactured from many different materials throughout the ages. Whether they be for the construction of a simple dwelling hut to a grand cathedral, bricks have been the staple building material for many centuries. The manufacturing process may change from location to location, but the overall use of bricks has remained pretty constant.

Bricks in the Middle East

The earliest known bricks were made from clay rich earth or mud and dried in the heat of the sun until they were strong enough to be used for building. The oldest discovered bricks, originally made from hand shaped mud were carbon dated to before 7500 BC and were found at Tell Aswad, in what is now Turkey. Other more recent brick findings, dated between approximately 7,000 and 6,395 BC in the Palestinian city of Jericho.

The Jetavanaramaya stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka is one of the largest brick structures in the world. The height of the stupa is 400 feet and was the tallest ancient stupa in the world, the structure is no longer the tallest although it is the largest with a volume of 2,508,000 sq ft.

Ceramic, or fired brick was used as far back as 4500 BC in the early Bronze Age Indus Valley cities in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent.

Bricks in Rome

The Romans made very good use of fired bricks, and the Roman legions even had fully operational mobile kilns. This allowed them to introduce bricks to all the parts of the Roman Empire as it expanded year by year. The Roman bricks were frequently stamped with the mark of the legion that supervised their production. The use of bricks, described by the Roman architect Vitruvius, exactly matched the use of bricks in southern and western Germany much later on.

Bricks in China

Before modern times in China, the manufacture of bricks was the job of an unskilled labourer, but the kiln master was considered more worthy of respect. Very early traces of bricks were found in an old ruin site in Xi'an, one of the oldest cities in China, in 2009 and these bricks dated back around 3800 years. Before this discovery, it is widely believed that bricks appeared about 3000 years ago in the Western Zhou dynasty since the earliest bricks were found in Western Zhou ruins. These bricks are the earliest example of bricks that were made by the firing process. Early descriptions of the production process and glazing techniques of bricks can be found in the Song Dynasty carpenter's manual, and this was published in 1103.

In China, the kilnmaster needed to make sure that the temperature inside the kiln stayed at a constant level that caused the clay to shimmer with the colour of molten gold or silver. He also had to know exactly when to quench the kiln with water so as to produce the desired surface glaze. The labourers had the job of brick production to carry out. They would mix the clay and water together and drive oxen over it so as to make a thick paste. Then they would put the paste into wooden moulds to produce a brick shape, smoothing the uneven surfaces of the brick clay with a wire, then removing them from the frames. The workers would then have to stamp the bricks so that they could be identified and fuel up the kilns for the kilnmaster. When the kilns had reached the correct temperature, they would stack the bricks in the kiln, removing them to cool while the kilns were still very hot and load the bricks onto pallets for transportation.

The idea of signing the workers name and birth date on the brick and the place where it was made was nothing new and certainly not restricted to brick making. The government of the day often required blacksmiths and sword makers to engrave their names onto weapons so that poor quality ones could be traced back to them should they fall below the high standards of the government.

Bricks throughout Europe

Brick Gothic is a very specific style of Gothic architecture that is common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea that do not have any natural rock resources. The buildings in question are essentially built from bricks. Brick Gothic buildings are found in the Baltic countries of Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Sweden and Russia.

The use of baked red bricks in Northern Europe dates from the 12th century, the oldest such buildings are classed as the Brick Romanesque. In the 16th century, Brick Gothic was replaced by Brick Renaissance architecture.

Brick Gothic is characterised by the lack of figural architectural sculpture using built ornaments and the colour contrast between red bricks, glazed bricks and white lime plaster.

During the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, visible brick walls were deemed to be rather unpopular and the brickwork was frequently covered with plaster or some other kind of rendering. To this day, many properties still have external aggregate covered walls as opposed to bare bricks. It was only during the middle 18th century that visible brick walls started to regain some of their previous popularity.

The transportation in bulk of building materials such as bricks over any extended distance would have been rather rare before canals, railways or proper roads had been built. Before the former had been built, bricks were usually made close to the area they were intended to be used. In England in the 18th century transporting bricks by horse and cart for just a few miles along the very uneven roads would more than likely double the asking price of the bricks.

Even if raw materials like rock or stone were available locally, bricks were often used because structures could be built quicker and cheaper with bricks than with these materials. The buildings of the Industrial Revolution in Britain were mostly made from brick and timber. During the building boom of the 19th century in the American cities of Boston and New York, locally made bricks were often used in construction instead of the brownstones that could be locally sourced from New Jersey and Connecticut for the very same reasons.

In Victorian London, bright red bricks were chosen to make buildings far more visible because of the heavy fog, or pea soupers that caused transport problems at the time. The vast majority of buildings from this time were constructed from bricks and although the amount of red pigment was reduced in the bricks production, red remained the most popular colour for the brick and still does to this day.

Brick lasts for a very long time

Long before anyone had even thought of the word sustainability, builders were using clay bricks because they lasted for a very long time and required almost no maintenance. Brick buildings are strong, durable and can resist extreme weather conditions through fire-resistant construction and resistance to impacts and wind-borne debris. No wonder bricks have been the preferred building material for many centuries.

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