Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014
The major ingredient in all building systems in the ancient world was not exotic, it was not difficult to find, not difficult to mine and it was not difficult to prepare for use in construction applications. It was certainly not difficult to use. It was used to form individual building units or bricks. In its simplest form, it could be employed to construct complicated architecture and it was used to bind stone building blocks together. It was also used as plaster which could be sculpted to form complicated surfaces or simply be the base for painted surfaces. It was used in combination with plant materials to construct other type building systems. The major ingredient for building in ancient times continued to be used in all these applications until the 20th century. Even today, it is estimated that 1/3 of the world’s population continues to live in houses made of this most simple material. Of course I am referring to good old dirt, or to be a bit more sophisticated, earth.
In ancient Egypt the primary building material was brick made from earth, cured by drying in the sun and used to construct major monuments with the same material used for mortar. The raw materials consisted of a combination of alluvial soil, which had a high percentage clay and silt, and sand. The clay and silt functioned as the binders for the sand. The clay platelets bind the individual sand grains and silt played a similar role, but to a lesser extent also served as filler between the grains of sand. Often organic material was added to the bricks as was vegetable matter and these could be added as well to the plasters, but less frequently to the mortars.
For the present conservation project at Malqata, we use mud bricks and mud mortar, similar to those used originally. We don’t add any additional materials such as straw to our bricks and mortar, as straw is a food source for insects. The bricks are prepared as they were when the Malqata buildings were constructed, by hand, one brick at a time.
The mud mortar is also prepared by hand by soaking the soil in water to break down the clay and by adding sand as necessary to make a strong mortar, but one that is also compatible with the ancient bricks and mortar found on the site. The mud is mixed by forming a basin in a pile of soil to which water is added; the soil and sand are mixed together in the earth basin. In Egypt, this basin is called a mukmara and two adjoining ones can be seen in one of the photographs. When it becomes necessary to move the mud mixing operation to another site, you simply walk away and form another mukmara at the new site with a new supply of soil. Over a short time the mukmara dries and forms a shallow basin. These shallow basins, known from contemporary mud mixing, look exactly like those formed in ancient times, a clear indication that the system of mud preparation has not changed. At the Shunet el Zabib at Abydos mukmara basins from the original construction in the Second Dynasty (ca.2910-2649 B.C.) look exactly like the ones used and abandoned during the present conservation project.