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Mudbrick and stone

In this section you will learn about mudbrick as a building material.

The two most common building materials encountered in the archaeology of Western Asia are mudbrick and stone. Although other materials, such as timber, are sometimes used, several factors favour the use of mud and stone, as we will see below.

What is mudbrick?

A mudbrick is generally a block made of clay-rich soil, often combined with straw or other organic materials (Figure 1). When hardened, either by drying in the sun or by baking in a fire, they form solid bricks which can be used in construction (Figure 2). Mudbrick is still used today in many parts of the world (Figures 3–4).

A pile of mudbricks tempered with straw stacked on a concrete floor.
Figure 1: Newly made mudbricks, for construction of a modern building in Oman. Note the straw worked into the bricks. Photo courtesy of Kristen Hopper.

A doorway in a mudbrick building is made of exposed mudbricks.
Figure 2: Section of a modern historical mudbrick wall. Photo courtesy of Kristen Hopper.

A modern single storey mudbrick house under a tree seen in India, with the walls smoothed with a mud coat and roofed with corrugated iron.
Figure 3: Present-day mudbrick houses in rural India. Photo courtesy of Sayantani Neogi.

A recent but abandoned two storey mudbrick house, with exposed roof wooden supports.
Figure 4: A mudbrick house in the Konya region of modern Turkey. Photo courtesy of Oscar Beighton.

Since mudbrick is quite soft and brittle, it is relatively vulnerable to weathering – especially wind and water erosion (Figure 5). As mudbrick structures disintegrate, they form soil deposits, and if buildings are continually constructed and allowed to decay in a single location over time, deep soil deposits can build up. It is this process that forms the distinctive mounded sites common throughout Western Asia, known in Arabic as a ‘tell’.

A modern historical, now derelict mudbrick house with most of the walls now collapsed and tumbled down, with only short sections still standing to full height. The ground inside and outside the house is covered with thick plant growth.
Figure 5: Abandoned mudbrick structures in a modern historical village. Note the extensive collapsing, the visible cracks in the section, and the smooth rounded breaks where wind and rain have eroded the soft material. Photo courtesy of Kristen Hopper.

The reconstruction and interpretation of mudbrick structures by archaeologists is based upon an understanding of the techniques of construction and forms of decay encountered in well-preserved archaeological settings.

In this region, mudbrick architecture dates back to the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, when structures at Netiv Hagdud and Jericho (Figure 6) were built of plano-convex (one flat side and one rounded side) mudbricks. Ethnographic and archaeological studies show that the raw material used for making mudbrick was usually acquired from soil close to settlements.

A section of extant, excavated, and partially reconstructed mudbrick walls at Jericho.
Figure 6: Mudbrick architecture excavated at Jericho. Photo A. Sobkowski, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Stone as a building material

Stone is an excellent construction material that has been used to build everything from simple shelters to major architectural monuments throughout history. Examples range from the monumental standing architecture of ancient Egypt (Figure 7) to the Moai of Easter Island erected by the Rapa Nui. Usually, the stone used comes from local sources. In addition to building with loose stone, rock-cut architecture, where buildings and features are carved into rock, is also known, such as at the Nabataean site of Petra in Jordan (Figure 8) or the Ajanta Caves in India.

Two rows of monumental stone columns decorated with hieroglyphs at Luxor, Egypt.
Figure 7: Monumental built stone architecture from Luxor, Egypt. Photo courtesy: Sayantani Neogi

The facade of the treasury at Petra, Jordan, cut into the red local stone in a Hellenistic style with false columns.
Figure 8: Rock-cut architecture from Petra, Jordan. Photo courtesy: Sayantani Neogi

What are the different types of building material that you find historically in your local area? Do you find any continuity with past techniques or have construction methods changed? What kinds of environmental conditions and landscape settings would favour the use of particular building materials?

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