Where did concrete start – the first concrete slabs

In today’s modern world, concrete is almost literally everywhere.  Structurally, the foundation of our modern world is built on it (pun intended), and the way our streetscapes and surrounds look and feel depend on it.  Why?  Because it’s easily accessible, malleable and relatively cheap.  Mankind has now almost perfected it’s use in a way that allows us to mould it to our purposes, but the questions is, how did we get here?  Largely through trial and era, although while some civilisations in history may have utilised early forms of concrete and other cement based forms of building materials, the use getting lost in and out of time until we were grand enough to bend it to our will.  Below is a quick outline of the discovery of the material which helps hold our modern world upwards and together.

Now, first to understand what we determine as the use of concrete in a historical content, it’s exact form was very different to what we know today.  Earlier civilisations had neither the understanding or technology to create a cement powder composition that would have allowed them to obtain a result as to what we a familiar with in our own time. 

7000-4000 BC

The earliest known records and structures that highlight a use of cement based material (ie something that could be loosely called concrete) was, not too expectantly and more than little proper, much where people believe modern civilisation began.  This was in a part of the world between and around the Tigris River and Euphrates River, that created a fertile area of land that made for easy farming, also known as the cradle of civilisation.   So it is that we only expect to find a number of early technology and creations here, as to whether this building method was lost in time or passed on to other civilisations, it’s unlikely a direct result can be directly traced.

What we do know is that certain areas in the Middle East (namely around modern Syria and Jordan), have ancient buildings that house concrete floors and structures.  As above, this concrete is not what we would think of concrete today but still the utilisation of some sort of lime content mixed with water so that it can be applied as a paste, set to a mould, or alternatively as mortar between bricks or a covering such as on the floor or on walls.

The most well-known of those that used this method were the Nabataeans (okay, so not that well known).  The Nabataeans however were traders, and while they did build structures, allowing them to live in places normally people at that time may not have been able to, it is possible that there early lifestyle of trade and sometimes nomadic population eventually carried it through to other civilisations – as we will read about below.

What we do know is that they were the very much like modern day concreters, with knowledge of specific mixing ratios in regards to moisture content, and ensured that the slurry wasn’t to wet to prevent cracking and structural issues upon setting.  Evidence was also found of specific tools used to pour, lay and mold the concrete just like modern concreters used.  While it is unsure whether these tools and methods were from the original concreters in the 6th millennia, it does tell you that they used it long enough to develop and perfect the art.

 It is possible that they did not even the technique themselves, and the people who passed the knowledge on to them disappeared form existence.  It also possible that elsewhere, other early people were using the technique, completely separate of the Nabataeans, however, if so, this information has been lost in time.

3000-2000BC – The Ancient Egyptians

Probably more well-known due to their famous landmarks and wonders of the ancient world, the Egyptians also used a form of concrete early on.  Whether they invented it separately themselves or gained the knowledge from traders or other civilisation themselves, we are not so sure today.  Like above, their concrete used a lime based mortar, however their technique was a little different.  They started with simple bricks (mud mixed with straw and sun hardened or fired the kiln) however there is evidence, and some historians believe that the stones used to build the pyramids were not carved out of natural mineral but instead poured cast of a material that closely resembles concrete.

There method used not just the easily available soft limestone in the area but gypsum, which they obtained  burning palm trees.  Gypsum is rich in calcium oxide and often makes up a component of materials such as plaster board or drywall.  Mixed with the ancient method of using the limestone extract, this would have reinforced it giving them a harder, and more malleable product.  At the very least, they used the material as mortar to hold the pyramids together (it is estimated that the Great Pyramid of Giza required about 500,000 tons of mortar to hold it together).

It is predicted that instead of hauling impossibly large blocks upwards to the pyramids’ heights, cast moulds were made and the concrete poured in.  As evidence of this, historians and archaeologists have discovered a stone mural illustrating the method of making their version of concrete on a wall in Thebes.

Regardless of the use in some of the world’s biggest wonders, it is unlikely that the material was widely used in the average building process.  The extraction of both lime and gypsum would have been both extremely intensive and labour and time consuming making it difficult and most likely not very affordable to the general public, and maybe anyone outside of the Pharaoh and royal lineage, at least in the early days while it was still knew.  It is obviously much easier today to be able to simply buy a package of cement.

No direct link has ever been made between the use of concrete by the Nabataeans in those earlier days and the Egyptians early use, although given the time periods and the regular trade between the regions, it’s quite possible that the method was brought across from civilisation to civilisation as equally as the two developing their own methods simultaneously apart from each other.

Either way, the basis was formed and the most important aspect, the ability to derive a material like lime to be mixed with water to form a completely mouldable material that will eventually harden to form strong building material was firmly set (pun intended).

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