What is cement? History of Architecture

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Cement tunnel with cement benches along the sides and white people sitting on the benches

A cement mithraeum at Ostia, in Italy (about 200 AD)

Cement is a very hard kind of rock that people make themselves. People all over Asia and North Africa used cement as a mortar to stick bricks together, or to make a hard floor, from the Stone Age onward, for instance in the Great Wall of China (about 200 BC). But builders didn’t use cement by itself as a building material until the Roman Empire. You start with lime and powdered clay, and you add water. You mix it all up, and it turns into this soft squishy stuff, a lot like gray Playdough. Then you make it into whatever shape you want, or pour it into a mold, and let it dry. When it is dry it will be hard (like Playdoh) and even if you get it wet it won’t get soft again.

If you want a stronger building material, you can add sand or gravel to your cement, and that makes concrete.

Architects in the Roman Empire used cement and concrete as a main building material beginning in the reign of Nero, about 60 AD, to build palaces like Nero’s Golden House, temples like the Pantheon, and shopping malls like Trajan’s Market. By using cement, builders could create huge domes and big open spaces with barrel vaults or groin vaults over them. Roman architects even figured out how to use special kinds of volcanic rock to make cement that would set under water, so you could use it to build ports for ships.

Outside the Roman Empire, though, people did not use cement as a main building material. They went on using cement mainly as a mortar to stick stones or bricks together.

After the fall of Rome, about 500 AD, people didn’t build any big buildings in Europe or North Africa for several hundred years, and they stopped using cement or concrete except as mortar to hold bricks together. Even in West Asia, Late Roman or Byzantine churches like Hagia Sophia, and early mosques like the Dome of the Rock, used cement only as a mortar. By the Middle Ages, people in Britain used coal fires to burn limestone to make cement. Medieval builders used cement mortar to build castles and cathedrals, but they didn’t use cement as a main construction material.

Cement became much more important again when Besemer figured out how to make tons of steel cheaply in the 1850s. With steel beams, you could build concrete-and-steel buildings that were cheaper than stone or wooden buildings and could be much taller.

Learn by Doing: Cement

Cement to concrete

Bibliography and further reading about cement:

Cement to concrete
Roman Architecture
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By | 2017-05-25T08:32:00+00:00 May 25th, 2017|Architecture, Science|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is cement? History of Architecture. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 25, 2017. Web. March 21, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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