The history of British architecture is amongst the most fascinating and diverse in human history, due to the wide and diverse range of influences that come from countless civilisations that have either called Britain home or interacted with the British Isles over thousands of years.
From early stone structures such as Kit’s Coty House and the majestic long barrows that date over 6000 years ago, through the architectural traditions of the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans and well beyond our era of occupation to the present day, there has never been a sole material that has defined British construction.
Because of this, people in listed buildings tasked with preserving heritage brickwork often need to understand the properties and characteristics of historic masonry materials to preserve buildings that face a somewhat uncertain future.
What Was The Earliest Surviving Building Material?
Discounting construction materials that inherently decay over time, the earliest surviving building materials are the stone structural walls that make up many of the historical long barrows found in Britain and across much of Western Europe.
Whilst not always made of stone, these semi-underground structures look like mounds or hills on the surface but are made from elaborate unmortared stonework, with evidence of lime mortar coming with the Romans in 43 AD.
This has led to a lot of speculation surrounding just how these early structures could possibly be made without the aid of materials and construction techniques only found in Britain millennia later.
This question is typically asked of the famed megalithic structures that are formed from huge stones, most famously the circle at Stonehenge.
However, a potential answer to this can be found in these early long barrows, which typically used megalithic structures as gates and entrances for the tombs and burial chambers. Given that some structures are made of wood, often the gigantic gates are all that are left of these tombs.
The Birth Of The House
The primary construction materials for thousands of years were stone and woodwork, although there is a significant caveat in that almost all of the surviving buildings prior to the Roman Conquest are tombs, megaliths or other buildings believed to be of spiritual significance.
Houses were practically non-existent until the late Bronze Age, and given the natural difficulty of proving a negative, it is almost impossible to find a concrete reason as to why.
Part of is perhaps that stone, as a relatively rare resource that was difficult to process, was saved for works of ritualistic importance, leaving materials such as wood as the primary construction material for structures such as longhouses.
Wood rots and fades away over time, leaving only trace signs of former structures such as the Timber Hall at Balbridie, so it is very possible that we will never know how the vast majority of Brits throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.
There is, however, also a chance that the vast majority of Brits during this time lived largely nomadic lives, using natural shelters such as caves or earthworks that leave no trace of humanity.
This would start to change heading into the late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, with the creation of the roundhouse, the primary type of settlement in areas such as Bodrifty, Cornwall.
Roundhouses are a fascinating exploration into the various kinds of construction techniques and materials available during this time, with buildings made from either stone (As with Bodrifty), or wooden posts driven into the earth joined together with panels of wattle-and-daub.
The roofs would have been made from thatching using either straw or reeds depending on the area, which allowed, interestingly, for the roof to be porous enough to allow someone to light a fire inside it without smoke accumulating and asphyxiating everyone inside.
As noted by Fred Mustill, the smallholder farmer who reconstructed a roundhouse in Bodrifty the mortar for the stones would have been created using traditional rab, but by far the most time-consuming and difficult part of the project was cutting the reeds to create the thatched roof.
Earthen mortar is another ancient building technique, dating back more than 5,000 years. Earth was commonly used as a binding material, filling in gaps between blocks of stone – and you can find examples of these techniques all over the world, no doubt in large part because earth was easy to source at a local level, was cheap and easy to work with.
Earth mortars were actually used right up until the end of the 19th century, but with technological advancements taking place in line with industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries, its use began to fade out.
How The Romans Changed Everything
By the time the Roman Empire arrived and conquered England in 43 AD, the roundhouse villages in the south and group living longhouses in the north were both set to change significantly.
The number of construction innovations the Romans brought to Britain is almost incalculable, with the development of lime mortar, mudbrick and later fired Roman brick, terracotta clay and even early forms of concrete that would be lost for centuries after the Roman Empire fell.
Roman bricks were somewhat strange compared to modern bricks. They were thin, long and available in various different shapes, and this shape has often confused archaeologists and heritage construction workers alike, as the difference between brick and mosaic tile is not particularly substantial.
Roman brickmaking often used bricks in conjunction with stonework in the form of “bonding tiles”, which not only gave the building a very unique aesthetic sensibility but also added stability and a flat surface that helped when using somewhat irregular stone materials such as flint.
What is significant about Roman brick is that when the Empire abandoned Britain around 410 AD, the use of materials such as brick or even stone ceased as well, abandoning so many early brickyards and leaving so many construction techniques as lost arts for many centuries.
Terracotta was also brought to Britain, functioning as a cheaper substitute for stone for various architectural features.
What makes restoration and conservation so complex is that a lot of terracotta used in Britain was repurposed for other buildings, most notably Roman buildings were knocked down and the bricks were reused to make various churches and abbeys.
Roman cement, a material that was still being rediscovered as late as the 2020s, is most notable because whilst it had been perfected so early, it became a famously lost art, as many buildings from the Sub-Roman period until the Middle Ages used lime mortar instead.
Because of this, and because of the horrifying effects of using modern hydraulic mortars in their place, lime mortar is still used in specialist heritage work to this day.
Something else certainly worth drawing attention to is the self-healing properties of Roman cement and lime mortar. Roman concrete is a mixture of grit sand, quicklime and volcanic ash, which is known as trass.
These materials bind together to create a hydraulic mortar that boasts self-healing capabilities… which, according to recent research, could actually help 21st century construction by reducing carbon emissions and developing climate-resilient infrastructure!