The Value of Bricks

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By: M. Barbara Reeves, 2013 Harris Grant recipient

Bricks don’t get a lot of respect as artifacts. Perhaps it’s because they’re so ubiquitous on many archaeological sites. Or perhaps it’s because their form, composition, and function seem so very obvious to everyone. After all, human beings the world over have been making bricks—baked and unbaked—in essentially the same way for as long as they have been building. All of these factors make bricks very familiar artifacts, and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Typically, it is only when a brick has an especially interesting property such as a graffito or a footprint that it receives a detailed mention in a publication report. Otherwise, bricks and other ceramic building materials generally receive only superficial mentions. This is a shame because these sorts of materials, like all other artifacts, are manmade objects that vary in quantifiable ways relating to the time and place of their manufacture.

C. Harvey & B. Reeves cataloguing CBM in the ACOR basement

C. Harvey & B. Reeves cataloguing CBM in the ACOR basement

Since 2010, a team of researchers from the Humayma Excavation Project, which I direct, has been paying close attention to all the bricks and other ceramic building materials excavated from Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic contexts at Humayma. This research focus was born out of necessity. We were excavating a multiphase bathhouse that had been in use for hundreds of years. But, while there were signs of phasing in the in situ architecture, there were no traditionally diagnostic artifacts associated with the architectural phases. We did find, however, lots of bricks, heating pipes, and other ceramic building materials that varied in form and fabric. In 2011, Assistant Director Craig Harvey and I started to create typologies based on the samples of ceramic building materials kept from previous excavations at Humayma. During the 2012 excavation season, we greatly expanded our study material by keeping all of the ceramic building materials excavated from both in situ and dump contexts. Moreover, we reopened previously excavated areas of both the bathhouse and a heated room in the Roman fort in order to collect in situ bricks. Our comprehensive collection strategy produced thousands of pieces of ceramic building materials—much more than could be processed during the 2012 field season. The American Schools of Oriental Research assisted us in our long endeavor: by awarding us a Harris Grant, ASOR enabled us to spend three weeks processing all of the remaining ceramic building materials at ACOR this summer.

Throughout our ongoing study, we have been thoroughly cataloging all pieces of brick, pipe, and tile in terms of manufactured characteristics such as form, dimensions, weight, fabric, surface treatment and imprints, and use characteristics such as the type and location of mortar, the location of soot or heat damage, and archaeological context. We have used standard characteristics across samples to create subtypes both within functional types (e.g., small rectangular bricks) and between functional types (e.g., small rectangular bricks and water pipes) that are suggestive of similar production techniques. An archaeogeology student funded by a USSRF from Queen’s University, Dominique Dupuis, is currently carrying out petrologic analyses to test these subtypes further in terms of mineral and chemical similarities. As a result of this ongoing work, we have been able to refine our typologies and employ ceramic building materials as diagnostic artifacts at our site. Moreover, thanks to contributions of ceramic building materials from other archaeological projects, we have begun to address questions about the origin and distribution patterns of this material in Jordan from the Nabataean to the early Islamic periods.

D. Dupuis studying a brick's fabric via a digital microscope

D. Dupuis studying a brick’s fabric via a digital microscope

For more information about the Humayma Excavation Project or our ceramic building materials study, please contact
M. Barbara Reeves
.

About the author: Barbara Reeves is an associate professor in the Classics Department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She has worked at Humayma since 1995 and has been the Director of the Humayma Excavation Project since 2007.

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