Ancient Egyptian Mud Brick Construction: Materials, Technology, and Implications for Modern Man
Research Paper – Draft 2
01 April 2011
Ancient Egyptian Mud Brick Construction:
Materials, Technology, and Implications for Modern Man
In our modern age, homes are perceived as both uniform and permanent. Our methods of construction do not allow easy repair and certainly do not adapt to our local environment, while our methods of thermal control rely upon energy-fueled heating and cooling systems. The Ancient Egyptians had an alternative. Most people look at mud architecture and jump to conclusions about culture and primitivity, but the techniques used by the ancients may be more economical, practical, and environmentally conscious than anything we have today.
Egypt already holds the title for the foundation of civilization, but it may also be the founder of soil-based architecture. Archaeologist and Egyptologist, Dr. Barry Kemp, points out that adobe, the modern word used to describe mud brick construction, developed from the Ancient Egyptian word djebet. First it turned into the Coptic τωϧϵ, and from there into the Arabic الطوبى (tub(a)). Finally it ended with the modern Spanish adobe (80). This suggests that mud architecture began in Egypt and developed to its full extent alongside the Nile.
Adobe and mud bricks were a staple of construction due to their ease of production and architectural versatility. Earth can be formed into bricks, packed into a shape, or even rammed between other building materials. During the Predynastic Period, men preferred a method similar to wattle and daub. The Egyptians built simple reed huts, supported by poles, and then plastered the outside with cob to provide additional protection against the elements. In the 1st Dynasty they transitioned to primarily a mud brick construction method (Kemp 78-79). During this time their houses all began to take on similar designs.
Worker’s homes were around 80 m2 and consisted of two to four rooms, an enclosed yard, a kitchen, and one or two underground cellars. A single wood column in the center of the home supported the ceiling. Town houses were much larger, usually two to three stories high. Additional beams and columns were necessary to support the walls, and occasionally they constructed the first floor out of stone for additional stability (Minnesota State University, Mankato). Dr. Kemp adds that there is evidence of palaces constructed of mud brick, but after years of erosion, only the foundation remains (78). Why was this material preferred, even for the construction of palaces, instead of the more durable stone? The answer lies in how the Egyptians perceived their buildings.
Temperature was a central aspect of home design. High windows, dark rooms, and rooftop cooking and sleeping were all part of an effort to remain cool (Minnesota State University, Mankato). While some believe mud brick to be a good insulator, experiments performed by Dr. Kemp resulted in an uncomfortable experience where the days were hot and the nights cold (88). Nevertheless the Egyptians compensated with a loose roof of woven sticks and palm leaves and reed mats to cover the earthen floor (Springer). After construction, walls were whitewashed or plastered to reflect heat from the sun. On the inside, houses could then be decorated with natural pictures of geometric designs (Springer; Minnesota State University, Mankato). The plaster also served as protection against the inevitable degradation of the bricks exposed to the ravages of the fertile Egyptian environment.
The primary disadvantage of dirt construction lies in its vulnerability to erosion, requiring lots of patching and repair (Kemp 78). As homes deteriorated, the Egyptians simply built new houses right on top of the ruins. In addition, they built high sand dunes to block the annual flood water from the Nile (Minnesota State University, Mankato). Moisture was their greatest problem, since unbaked brick will fall apart in a moist environment. Most importantly, the Egyptians recognized their houses to be temporary dwellings that could be easily rebuilt to last several more generations (Dollinger). Stone was reserved for temples and rich tombs; buildings that were meant to last forever. (Springer; The British Museum).
Special bricks served as directional markers for building plans or religious artifacts (Kemp 84). Very fine Nile clay was made into unbaked magical bricks, marked with text from the Book of Coming Forth by Day. The bricks, along with embedded amulets, were placed in the cardinal directions in niches in the wall or floor to ward against dangerous entities (The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago). These bricks were made with much greater care than those used in construction and these were also made using different materials.
Mud bricks should contain at least three of the following ingredients: course sand for strength, fine sand to lock the course sand in place, silt and clay as binders and a plastic medium. A large quantity of aggregate make strong bricks when dry, but they crumble easily in a wet environment. On the other hand, high amounts of clay may result in a more highly water resistant brick that proves to be weaker overall (qtd. in Kemp 80). Other minerals, such as soluble salts, also play a big role in cementing the small particles together (Kemp 80). The Nile provided mud rich in a variety of minerals and small particles. Grains of slate, barium carbonate, gneiss, and iron oxide were swept into Egypt on the turbulent waters and gave the soil its dark color (Jacob 19). Modern analyses of mud samples from the Nile reveal high levels of certain minerals such as iron oxide (0.8-124,500 ppm), Zinc (2-866 ppm), and Manganese (12.5-800 ppm) (Solton et al.). How much these elements affected the physical characteristics of the bricks, beyond pigmentation, is unclear. The Egyptians were adept at remedying their mud, and frequently relied entirely upon silt, as opposed to clay, to bind their materials together. Their preferred soil type was the cultivated topsoil of Egypt’s farmland since it was already well mixed and enriched by farming laborers. Of course this type of soil was not always available, and the brick makers frequently had to work with lesser materials. It is interesting to note that while they rarely added a straw temper on purpose, it may have been present in the materials themselves (Kemp 80). When harvesting their crops, Egyptians cut the ears of the wheat, leaving the stems to be worked back into the soil. Any bricks made from the farming soil were already reinforced with organic material (Jacob 22). Sun-baked bricks produced using the same method as the Egyptians, without straw, have a strength from 4 N/cm3 to 5 N/cm3 whereas bricks containing straw have a strength from 7 N/cm3 to 9 N/cm3. Despite our scientific observations of brick making, the Egyptians did not have such exacting methods for their production.
The process of ancient Egyptian brick making was a craft. The composition of the brick was largely determined by feel, each craftsman preferring a different mix. Generally the sand content was 60-70% (Kemp 81). After thorough kneading, the mixture was left to sit overnight, and then it was shaped with a wooden mold and left to dry in the hot Egyptian sun (Ancient Egypt 354). Drying took as long as a week, but more frequently the bricks were left for only a few hours. The still damp bricks finished drying in the finished structure (Maspero 3). Since the bottom face of the brick was on the ground, it was not a perfectly smooth surface and the bricks after drying usually had a slightly convex surface (Kemp 84).
Despite the imperfections in manufacture, approximate measurements of bricks reveal that there was no standardized size during any period of Ancient Egyptian history. Indeed, some buildings were constructed from differently sized bricks, because they were produced by two separate workforces. In general, mud bricks became progressively bigger over time. During the Predynastic period the average brick was 24×12 cm. The Old Kingdom introduced larger bricks of approximately 42×21 cm, and later, 30x15cm bricks replaced the smaller bricks from the Predynastic period.  Throughout history, the ratio of length to width has always been 2:1 (Kemp 86-87). To this day the ratio has remained unchanged.
Mud brick remained a common building material until very recently. Baked bricks and concrete have only just begun to take hold in Egypt (Ancient Egypt 354). Modern Egyptian brick makers can produce 1000 to 2000 bricks per day. Assuming ancient brick makers were at least as efficient, it would take five days to produce enough bricks for a one storey worker’s house with 60 to 80 m2 of floor space (Dollinger). Many brick makers sometimes worked together on large projects for the Pharaoh.
Bricks produced in the royal workshops for a state project were marked with the cartouche of the reigning monarch (The British Museum). Private workshops marked their bricks with red ochre, a stamp, or a simple finger mark (Maspero 4). It mattered not whether it was a state project or a farmer’s home; the same techniques were used with no special steps taken to reinforce the unbaked bricks.
An important question is why they continued to use sun-baked bricks instead of kiln-firing them. The Egyptians knew about baking bricks from an early stage in their architectural development, both from their own experiments and from the brick materials used in brewing beer. In addition, the Ancient Egyptians experienced several accidental fires caused by baking bricks which may have discouraged further experimentation. from the idea. Until the period of Roman involvement, baked bricks were used only in the Middle Kingdom as paving slabs in Nubian fortresses (Saifullah, Elias, and Abdullah). Baking bricks was a very expensive prospect for the Egyptians because of fuel, which was scarce to begin with, and the need for a better mortar than the usual cob binder (Kemp 79). Despite the historical evidence that they preferred to use their scarce fuel baking ritual bricks and glazing pottery (Saifullah, Elias, and Abdullah), the Qu’rān tells of the pharaoh during the time of Moses, demanding the “fir[ing of] some clay (bricks) to build a tower for me” (Al-Qu’rān, 28:38). Perhaps over time the true meaning of the words were lost, or perhaps he was mocking the idea as modern men would mock the idea of building a tower of gold.
While it is clear that modern man cannot simply step outside and mold himself a home in the style of Ancient Egypt, perhaps he should look at the civilization that first mastered the techniques of making, using, and preserving mud bricks. Earth-based building techniques could be implemented in the home cheaply and renewably. Cob walls can divide rooms, mud bricks can build strong external walls, and rammed earth can reinforce and insulate homes. More important than any specific technique, the Egyptian idea that homes are not permanent structures and should not be built as such could prove to be invaluable to modern man.
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 Adobe, cob, daub, and mud brick construction are all based upon the same principle: some form of clay-rich soil combined with other materials to produce a highly moldable building material.
 The Predynastic Period extended from 5500 b.c.e to 3100 b.c.e. During this period there was no Pharaonic rule.
 The rich, vibrant colors, common to ancient Egyptian homes were especially popular among the upper classes of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth dynasties. For examples, reproduced by Prisse d’Avennes, see Ancient Egypt 355.
 In modern times, we refer to the Book of Coming Forth by Day as the Book of the Dead.
 For the complete soil analysis of Nile mud, see Solton et al.
 Straw is used as a temper in mud bricks and cob. It serves as flexible supporting lattice, interspersed throughout the building material. When a brick would otherwise break, straw will redistribute the force throughout the brick, decreasing the chance of breakage (Smith 23).
 The Old Kingdom extended from 2686 b.c.e to 2160 b.c.e.
 Lime was used as a mortar during the Hellenistic period (Kemp 79).
 For the surrounding information relevant to the brick tower, see Al-Qu’rān, 28:38.