The Origins of Building Bricks

Building bricks are as old as man’s desire to stop moving!  Of course, this makes perfect sense-after food, what mattered more than shelter?  And from this basic instinct to survive, an eleven-thousand-year-old tradition was born.

Photo of several rows of red clay bricks drying in the sun.

Basic Beginnings and Early Improvements

Archaeologists can date back the earliest known bricks to about 9000 BC.  These were hand-molded from basic mud and dried by air and sun.  While it was a start, these first samples were not built to last.  Over time, three key advancements were made:

  • First, it was discovered that mineral-rich clay, common to river banks, was a superior component than plain mud.   The minerals formed a stronger bond and resulted in a more durable finished product.
  • Next, the development of molds was a great improvement over hand-shaped building bricks.  This allowed for uniformity, and therefore more efficient, well-built structures.
  • Lastly, between 4000 and 3500 BC, the practice of baking bricks in fired kilns was introduced. 

This last innovation, achieved in the world’s first civilization, Mesopotamia, (in modern day Iraq) revolutionized building techniques, and enabled the completion of structures on a massive scale. Building bricks were now significantly more durable and highly resistant to water damage.

Photo of an massive ancient Mesopotamian temple known as a Ziggurat.  It is square, with a wide set of stairs, and is made of many thousands of building bricks.
An ancient Mesopotamian Ziggurat, in modern day Iraq.

Around the ancient world, the civilizations that followed continued to improve brickmaking methods:

  • By 3000 BC, the Chinese had introduced the Clamp Kiln, which allowed for higher temperatures and produced bricks in greater quantities. 
  • The Chinese also experimented with different clay compositions and additives. This improved brick quality and structure for various environments, which proved beneficial for the wildly extensive Great Wall. It’s estimated that there are over 3 BILLION bricks used in it!
  • By 2500 BC, the Egyptians were using specialized molds which gave them uniformity, and added straw to create more lasting building bricks used in some of their smaller pyramids, temples, homes and tombs.
Photo of on old clamp kiln.
Clamp Kiln
Photo of the Great Wall of China.  Close up of bricks in the foreground, and the wall extending up a green hill in the background.
The Great Wall of China

The Roman Effect: Innovation and Expansion

As they did with many things, the Romans likely used what they learned about building bricks from the areas they conquered and combined them with their own engineering prowess.  The results were significant:

  • Opus Latericium-a building technique where a cement core is faced and reinforced by layers of bricks on each side.
  • The Voissured Arch-The Romans featured arches in much of their construction, recognizing their ability to bear heavy weights.  The voussoirs were wedge-shaped building bricks molded to fit the contours of the arch.
  • Mobile kilns-true to their nature, the Romans developed kilns that met their goals of expansion.  Their ambitious plans meant the need for millions of bricks.  Making and transporting them made no sense when they could bring the kiln and use local materials.
Diagram of a cement core, with layers of building bricks on both sides.
Opus Latericium
Photo of a voissured arch, with wedge shaped building bricks used to complete the top of the arch.
Voissured Arch

The Romans brought the use of building bricks to much of Europe.  In areas where suitable stone was scarce, they became a versatile, cost-effective alternative.  This was especially true in northern and central Europe, where Gothic brick architecture emerged in the late Middle Ages.

And by the Renaissance, brick had taken its place alongside stone in some of the architectural masterpieces of the era, such as Florence’s El Duomo, Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, and Germany’s Reinbek Castle.

photo of Il Duomo, in Florence Italy.  The Dome is made with vibrant red bricks.
Florence’s Il Duomo
phot of Castello Sforzesco, in Milan, Italy.  Downtown Milan is in the background, with the large, square brick castle in the foreground.
Milan’s Castello Sforzesco
photo of Germany's Reinbek Castle.  Close up of the large red brick castle, with many rectangular windows, and a cross atop the highest point of the roof.
Germany’s Reinbek Castle

By the Industrial Revolution, bricks were being mass-produced on an unprecedented scale.  Steam powered mechanical presses and massive kilns made building bricks a foundation of urban development and industrial expansion.  They were now essential to keeping up with the needs of rapidly changing society.

And so thousands of years later, modest building bricks were still serving the same purposes they did in the beginning for the people who made them: providing shelter, representing permanence, and contributing to the advancement of civilization as a whole.