The discoveries of scientists have shown that even in the geological periods, that is to say, long before historic times, the plastic properties of clay were utilised by man for the manufacture of various objects. Pieces of pottery have been found contemporaneous with the stone age in the lake dwellings of Switzerland and with the bronze age in Denmark. In Europe, Asia, Africa, and America similar evidence shows that the use of clay was general on the globe and that it dates from the most distant antiquity.
Were the first objects made of clay utensils called potteries from the Latin potum, meaning drinking-vase (Brongniart), or those parallelopipeds which we call bricks from the Anglo-Saxon brice (Littrd)? The question is a difficult one to answer: one thing is probable; that is, that raw bricks, namely those only dried in the sun, must have preceded bricks baked by fire.
As might be expected, those countries whose soil is of a clay nature have especially used bricks as building material. Accordingly the regions near the mouths of large rivers, the alluvions of which have formed valleys and attracted man, are remarkably rich in interesting vestiges of brick monuments.
The plains of Asia, the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, the valley of the Nile in Africa, are examples of this. We find, on the other hand, no traces of the use of brick in certain parts of Norway and Sweden, where wood is almost exclusively used for the construction of dwellings.
It is evident that the first bricks must have been roughly fashioned, but clay lends itself so easily to modelling, that this primitive manufacture must have rapidly improved. Besides, as the taste for ornamentation grew with the advance of civilisation, attempts were made from the earliest times to decorate the baked clay by enamelling it with brilliant colours. Finally, the plasticity of the clay, which takes any shape, led to the modelling of plain or enamelled terra-cotta ornaments, which were used to decorate buildings, and which are now found among their ruins. We will now give a sketch of the principal discoveries which form the foundations of the history of the applications of brick in ancient times.
The valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates offer to archaeologists numerous and important ruins of brick edifices. Of Babylon, that immense Chaldean city founded by Nimrod more than twenty-six centuries before our era, so celebrated for its riches and for the remarkable works carried out under the orders of Semiramis the Beautiful, there remains nothing to-day but a large collection of ruins forming a series of eminences, 10 kilometres long, on the banks of the Euphrates.
An examination of some of these ruins has shown the important part played by brick in the construction of Babylonian buildings. The greater part of these buildings was formed of raw bricks, used when fresh and thus rendered adherent in spite of the absence of mortar. But there are also many fired bricks to be found, most of them bearing inscriptions in cuneiform characters which appear to have been made by stamping. They are very hard, of a reddish colour, and have the following somewhat large dimensions: about .3 m. to .5 m. and .06 m. to .07 m. in thickness.
The most remarkable ruin built of fired bricks crowns an eminence on the right bank of the Euphrates; it consists of a fragment of wall 8 to 10 metres high and 6 metres broad. The layers of the bricks, which are almost completely vitrified, and the cement joining them, can be distinguished; the dressing is regular and well finished, the bricks are .35 x .32 x.072 in size.
Some archaeologists see in these ruins the remains of the famous Tower of Babel, others consider that they belong to the Temple of Belus.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the bricks used to build the high walls of Babylon, which are attributed to Semiramis, were made of clay extracted on the site of those walls.
The exploration of the ruins of Nineveh, Babylon's rival and neighbour, has shown that clay was also the principal building material in the Assyrian monuments: fired bricks were used for facings and decorations, for they were often enamelled; the bases were of limestone.
Other important ruins of ancient cities of Asia Minor have also exemplified the great part played by clay, fired or raw, in the construction of their buildings.
In Persia, it is probable that the use of brick was introduced by the Assyrians, who for a long period held Media (a part of Persia) under their rule.
Many fragments of terra-cotta have been found in the ruins marking the site of the famous Ecbatana, capital of Media, and of Susa, where the Dieulafoy mission has excavated the palace of the ancient Persian kings.
In all these ruins numerous bricks have been found, some whole, some broken, and coated with variously coloured enamels, which show the importance of these materials in Assyrian, Chaldean, and Persian architecture. We shall return to this subject later on.
The use of brick continued under the dynasty of the Sassanides, which was founded by Artaxerxes in the second century before our era, and destroyed by the Arabs towards the seventh century. But the quality and decoration of the bricks were no longer those of ancient times, and, although examples remain to the present day, the bricks have neither the dimensions nor the remarkable appearance of the ancient products.
The pagodas of India, while not as ancient as Babylon and Nineveh, are also examples of the use of brick in public buildings. The ruins which have been discovered do not seem to date back beyond the first centuries before our era; the existing buildings, whether well or badly preserved, date from our middle ages.
As far as we can tell, Chinese builders have scarcely ever, from the most distant antiquity, used anything but brick and wood, to which later on, in the centuries immediately preceding our era, they added porcelain, a new application of pottery to architectural art. The famous Great Wall, which, according to some historians, dates from the 3rd century B.C., is in several parts built of brick: the same may be said of certain fortified enclosures of Chinese towns, which are made of clay sometimes simply baked in the sun, sometimes fired and decorated.