What's In A Brick?

August 30, 2013

Christopher Kim '15 is a Royce Fellow researching glazed bricks dating to the Assyrian Empire, uncovered in the ancient city of Idu (in the present day Iraqi Kurdistan).

Bricks are such ubiquitous objects that they are not normally paid much attention, but archaeologists can discern many useful pieces of information by examining them. For instance, their shape and composition may reveal the time period in which they were made and by extension help to date a settlement. Their quality and design may reveal what structure they were used in (a home, a palace, or perhaps a temple?). Further still, comparing material from different sites can inform the nature, if any, of trade and interaction between different locales.

The bricks I am particularly concerned with are glazed, a relatively expensive technique that was used by the elites of ancient society. As such, they may be particularly useful for better understanding political and cultural relationships between two polities, which is the case with Idu, located at the periphery of the Assyrian Empire and home to a local dynasty for a time. To focus my research, I was particularly interested in attempting to find parallels to a set of unique T-shaped bricks uncovered at Idu. Where did this style of glazed brick originate? I began with two hypotheses: (1) from Assyria, which seemed a good bet as a similar Idu brick bears an inscription referring to an Assyrian king; (2) northwest Iran, which may have been a production center at roughly the same time (Idu is between Assyria and said region of northwest Iran).

Not a huge amount of prior work has been done on this topic, which meant that creating a strong foundation for my own study required perusing museum collections to build up a database of comparable glazed architectural features. The Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin was an obvious first choice, as excavations of numerous Assyrian cities in the past century were led by German teams. The museum also exhibits the famous Ishtar Gate of Babylon (built of glazed bricks, though chronologically irrelevant). Though there were no T-shaped bricks there, I did record a large number of glazed architectural elements which will be useful later on. In Boston and New York (the Museum of Fine Arts and Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively), I was able to find closer parallels, though numerous exemplars at these two museums are unfortunately unprovenanced.

I find it rather appropriate that in the process of trying to find evidence for and understand cultural interaction in the ancient Near East, I myself have experienced such interaction, traveling to various institutions around the globe and learning from scholars American, European, and Middle Eastern. It is relevant, too, that Idu is today located in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is booming economically and quite secure despite the turmoil in neighboring regions. That same growth is fostering increasingly greater international exchange in Kurdistan. At summer's close, I am left with such profound realizations, but my original questions remained unanswered: Where do those T-shaped glazed bricks originate?

In fact, I have an additional hypothesis: They may have been a local innovation.