Archaeologists spend a lot of time investigating material traces that are not exactly glamorous. Seeds, bone fragments, broken plates. On one hand, it can take years for the evidence to come together and present a rich picture. On the other hand, a dish of charred grains and some soil microbes can radically change our understanding of a past human experience, which is worth far more than gold. In ten years of fieldwork, I’ve excavated barely a thimble-full of gold and jewels, none of which ever fascinated me as much as bricks, mortar, nails and other industrial crafts. In archaeology, nothing is “just” anything. I love bricks, and here’s why.
Bricks are a great example of how archaeology gets down to business. For one thing, they hide in plain sight. Archaeology sheds light on the unseen diversity around us everyday, everywhere. Chances are there are all kinds of bricks where you live, right? Houses, walls, chimneys, sidewalks, paths, garden edging, wells. Look a little closer next time you pass some, and you’ll probably notice variations in color, size and texture. You might see patterns or impressions, streaks of salt, glassy patches. Maybe numbers and codes, which are often used to keep track of placement. Bricks might have traces of paint or color, old holes to fit drainpipes and all sorts of other quirks. If the bricks look modern and clean, well, give them time. Another century of exposure, recycling and demolition will give them all kinds of character.
Thin-section view of mortar remains on red brick, 100x, XPL
Now think of all the questions you could start asking. Who made them, and how? What are they made of? Where did they come from, and how did they get here? Who put them together? Were they re-used? Are there odd ones out? These are just some questions we can ask of bricks now, and they are all important questions to an archaeologist like me. And a hundred years or five centuries from now, someone might be asking the same questions of places where you find yourself every day.
Cross-section of melting particles in hand-made red brick, 60x
So why are we looking at bricks above ground? Doesn’t archaeology happen in layers, underground? My answer is that we connect the dots wherever we find them to answer a question at hand. Bricks are a good example of how far archaeologists can cast their net. For example, on a large scale, bricks might tell us about an entire regional economy and how brick-makers lived decades, even centuries ago. On a much smaller scale, we can see what size and shape the sand grains in bricks are, or which elements are present in clays.
Linking up answers between large and small questions makes even the most boring and mundane materials exciting, because they become more than the sum of their parts. And that’s exactly what bricks are: lots of small pieces combined into something new. The same applies to mortar, concrete and other “aggregate” products which make up the bulk of our historic and modern buildings and cities. As archaeologists, we get a clearer view of how to explain materials from the past if we understand how they have changed and endured into the present.
Cross-section of yellow brick with reduced clay marbling, 60x
So bricks are all around you, and they are an apt metaphor for our common story. Think of what they’ve seen in their lifetime, who has walked over them, fought on them, who turned them out for bread and butter. I’m sure bricks have just as much to say as trees, and I think we take for granted the fabric of our cities. We construct our past like a building, and we tend to see it as immutable as concrete. Bricks matter because constructions are always changing, just like the people that live in them, in large ways and small. They are all very similar, but still all unique in their way. They all tell a story, just like all the tiny moments that add up to another day in the city.
The most important thing archaeologists can do is to show how everyone, everywhere is part of a history, probably many histories at once, and that every experience is a unique contribution. It’s not just a brick in the wall. Just because it’s not written down doesn’t make it any less valuable or any less true. The smallest and most personal moments captured in materials can speak louder than any word or statistic. What we consider common history should be complex and confusing, because all manner of people experience it differently. What archaeology reveals is the dynamics of how events are experienced, how cities take shape and how the bricks of our experiences are laid. In this sense, we don’t preserve the past. We make history.
Written By: Martin Schmidheiny
Martin studied and worked in Scotland, focussing on underwater excavations of lake dwellings and then medieval ships in the Black Sea. After spending several years in fieldwork in the northeastern US, he received his MA in Historical Archaeology from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which included training in material analysis and petrography at CMRAE at MIT. Besides bricks, his research interests include urbanization, aggregate industries, historical production sites, and advancing field methodology.