Masonry is an ancient craft that has been with us for centuries, dating back to early civilizations. From the Middle East to Europe and across Asia, masonry—and masons—helped build some of the world’s most impressive structures. Through time, stone and brick masonry have evolved and transformed, adding new techniques, tools, and materials to what’s possible to use. In this post, we will look at the history of masonry – then vs now, exploring how this time-honored tradition has changed and adapted.
The Early Days of Masonry
Some of the oldest examples of stonework are connected to what many consider sacred, burial or magical sites, including Stonehenge in Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, Nawarla Gabarnmung, in Arnhem Land, Australia, or the pyramids of Egypt. Nawarla Gabarnmung is a stone monument created by aboriginal peoples 50,000 years ago and Stonehenge was constructed in stages, the earliest of which was nearly 5,000 years ago. The pyramids were also built across time, beginning in the Old Kingdom, between 2691 and 2625 BC to the close of the Ptolemaic period in the 4th Century A.D. (301- 400). According to History.com, the pyramid building peak began with the late third dynasty and continued until roughly the sixth (c. 2325 B.C.).
But glorification of kings and deities aside, the earliest days of stone masonry—as well as brick masonry—were about the craft’s practicality and functionality, such as building shelters, ramparts, walls, and buttresses. Early humans sought to expand scarce natural caves with imitation caves made from piles of stone, including circular stone huts, partially dug into the ground, which date from prehistoric times.
Masonry materials have always reflected the available geological formations and environmental conditions where humans created structures. According to geographers and geologists, including Emeritus Professor Martin Williams of the University of Adelaide in Australia, Egyptian temples were constructed predominately of limestone, sandstone, alabaster, granite, basalt, and porphyry, which was quarried from along the Nile River. In western Asia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, clay deposits were abundant, so the masonry structures of the Assyrian and Persian empires were built from sun-dried bricks, kiln-burned and finished with glazed faces.
Mortars of early masonry structures, much like stone materials, were connected to local substances such as lime and natural sand. Mortar techniques and traditions evolved through time, mostly reflecting environmental changes. They were used in masonry as bedding mortars, renders, and plasters, and their materials were mixed depending on their role. Initially, masons used simple tools, including mallets (stone hammers), chisels, and hard straight edges to shape and cut stones.
During the earliest days, masonry was not considered a separate trade but was an element of the broader field of architecture.
The Middle Ages
Masonry’s broad nature changed during the Middle Ages, as masons became more specialized, with craftsmen dedicating themselves exclusively to the trade.
“The medieval mason was not a monk but a highly skilled lay craftsman who combined the roles of architect, builder, craftsman, designer, and engineer,” according to a BBC article titled ‘The Medieval Stonemason.’ “Using only a set of compasses, a set square, and a staff or rope marked off in halves, thirds and fifths, the mason was able to construct some of the most amazing structures ever built: Gothic cathedrals.”
Gothic architecture, characterized by pointed arches and ribbed vaults, featured intricate stonework. Masons began to use new tools, such as the compass and square, which helped to create more precise designs. The use of mortar, that mixture of sand and lime, became more essential to building a stable and complex structure. Gothic cathedrals usually had deep foundations that supported thick walls, all of which created strength in the structures. Although Gothic cathedrals can seem overly ornate, the elaborateness was purposeful.
“Many of the apparently frivolous details on a Gothic cathedral have a structural purpose. Decorative details helped to strengthen weak points. The ornate pointed pinnacles at the corners of the building, for instance, add weight which helps to keep the corner strong, in the same way that pressing down on a pile of books will prevent them from toppling over. Arched flying buttresses make the cathedral look like a wedding cake but also keep the walls from falling outwards,” according to the BBC article on medieval masonry.
The Renaissance Period (14th Century to the 17th Century) saw a renewed interest in classical architecture, with masons studying the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The waning of the cathedral crusade in the late 14th century led to a decline in the Gothic style followed by the master masons.
Europe’s emerging nation states began to compete with the church as power centers. To these new nations, the Roman Empire was the model, and began using Roman building shapes as power symbols—particularly the round arch, the vault and—most importantly—the dome. According to historians, this approach ushered in the first architects (from the Greek architekton, which means chief craftsman), who envisioned a building’s form and structure, as opposed to the builder, who did the work to bring the building form to fruition.
The masonry, and shift in construction roles, during the Renaissance led to the development of new techniques, such as the use of keystones, which helped to distribute weight more evenly in arches. Masons also began to experiment with new materials, such as brick and terra cotta, which allowed for more intricate designs and patterns. They also learned to work with glass as a complementary building material.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution, first coined by the English economic historian Arnold Toynbee to describe Britain’s economic development from 1760 to 1840, brought about significant changes in the field of masonry.
Architecture changed in response to the new industrial landscape. Before the late 19th century, a multistory building’s weight was supported mostly by its walls’ strength. The taller a building got, the more it put strain on the lower sections. Load-bearing walls could only withstand a limited amount of weight, which meant large constructions had to have extremely thick walls made of brick or stone on the ground floors, which was height prohibitive.
“A masonry house was built with solid brick, stone, or concrete walls on top of a masonry foundation. A masonry house had wood-framed flooring and a wood roof. A house with a masonry veneer had a wood frame made of uniform dimensional lumber. One layer of brick, stone was attached to the exterior walls of the wood frame.”
Brick manufacturing and stone quarrying boomed between 1850 and 1900, as did the lumber industry in the U.S. Bricks became more uniform in size. Brick kiln technology improved, allowing for bricks to be harder and denser, which gave the modernized bricks a structural advantage over the softer bricks of the previous eras.
New machines, such as the steam-powered crane, made it easier to transport and lift heavy stones, so stone quarries were modernized by steam-operated machinery. Quarries were also able to produce greater amounts of stone in more uniform and custom pieces.
Also during this era, cement was first developed by Joseph Aspdin, a 19th-century British stonemason, who heated a mix of ground limestone and clay in his kitchen stove, then pulverized the concoction into a fine powder, according to the history of cement as outlined by U.S. cement and building supplier CEMEX. Portland Cement, named after its resemblance to Portland stone quarried on England’s Isle of Portland, was the world’s first hydraulic cement, as it hardened when water was added and led to the development of reinforced concrete. These new materials and techniques allowed for the construction of taller and more elaborate buildings, such as skyscrapers and bridges. (Read more in this Architect Magazine article on concrete masonry.)
Today, masonry continues to be an essential part of the construction industry. While many traditional techniques are still used, new materials and technologies have been introduced to the field. Masons now use power tools, such as saws and drills, to shape and cut stones, while computer-aided design (CAD) software has revolutionized the way designs are created and executed.
Modern masonry also continues to draw from older materials, including traditional stone, to create impressive contemporary constructions, such as these highlighted in Architectural Digest.
Sustainable masonry has become an important trend in recent years, with a focus on using environmentally friendly materials and practices. Masons now use recycled materials, such as crushed glass and fly ash, in their projects, while new construction methods, such as passive solar design, help to reduce energy consumption.
For more on what’s happening with sustainable masonry, read this Architect Magazine article on sustainable masonry products.
Restoration is another important aspect of modern masonry, including Notre Dame’s vaulted ceilings. Many historic buildings require maintenance and repair to ensure their longevity, and masons use traditional techniques and materials to preserve the original character of these structures.
As recently demonstrated by the earthquakes in the Middle East, masonry structures represent the highest proportion of the building stock worldwide in regions affected by destructive seismic activity, and they account for the largest proportion of damage in earthquakes—along with reinforced concrete buildings.
According to researchers, masonry structures are often prone to damage or deterioration from temperature changes moisture exposure and other environmental factors, including severe wind pressures and blasts. Techniques, such as using coursed rubble stone masonry (made with broken stones of widely different sizes and qualities laid in level courses) is a common form of masonry construction and restoration. It’s current day advantages make it popular in geographic areas with plentiful stone resources.
Evolve Stone: The Future of Masonry
Despite the history of stone and brick masonry and its aesthetic appeal and durability, part of the future of masonry lies with stone veneers. Even those professionals who’ve worked—and loved—real stone see the advantages of stone veneer. (See what This Old House says about stone veneer.) Advances in stone veneer, such as the ability to keep it lightweight and easily installed with a nail gun, are specific to Evolve Stone, although other brands have benefits, too.
In a Nutshell
- Ancient times: Masonry is used primarily for practical purposes, such as building shelters and fortifications.
- Middle Ages: Masonry becomes more specialized, with craftsmen dedicating themselves exclusively to the trade. Gothic architecture emerges, characterized by pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and intricate stonework.
- Renaissance: A renewed interest in classical architecture leads to the development of new techniques and materials, such as the use of keystones and brick.
- Industrial Revolution: New machines, such as the steam-powered crane, and new materials, such as reinforced concrete, transform the field of masonry.
- Modern era: Masons now use power tools, such as saws and drills, and computer-aided design (CAD) software to shape and cut stones and create designs. Masonry also plays an important role in sustainable construction and restoration projects. (Read more about manufactured stone here: Masonry Magazine article on manufactured stone.)
- How old is masonry?
- Masonry has been around for centuries, with ancient examples dating back thousands of years.
- What materials are commonly used in masonry?
- Common materials in masonry include stone, brick, concrete blocks, and mortar.
- How has masonry evolved over time?
- Masonry has evolved with new techniques, tools, and materials, incorporating advancements like power tools, computer-aided design, and sustainable practices.
- Is masonry sustainable?
- Yes, masonry can be sustainable by using environmentally friendly materials, such as recycled elements, and implementing energy-efficient designs.
- What role does masonry play in restoration projects?
- Masonry plays a crucial role in restoring historic buildings, using traditional techniques and materials to preserve their original character.
- Are masons still in demand?
- Yes, masons continue to be in demand for construction projects that require skilled craftsmanship and expertise in masonry techniques.
The history of masonry – then vs now – is a fascinating journey through time. From the practical origins of the craft to the intricate designs of Gothic architecture, and the advancing-the-industry techniques of the modern era, masonry has continuously evolved and adapted to the changing needs of society.
While new materials and technologies have certainly transformed the field, the traditional values and skills of the craft have remained constant. Today, masonry continues to play a vital role in the construction industry, with a focus on sustainability and restoration, ensuring that this time-honored tradition will continue to shape the world around us for many years to come.