Two of many ancient earth-building techniques—which include wattle-and-daub and adobe—-are rammed earth and pisé de terre, prehistoric construction methods that predate the development of the opposable thumb. In fact, 130,000 years after the appearance of the first homo sapiens, most of the planet’s species and 50 percent of its humans still live in shelters made of earth.
But today’s earth shelters are a far cry from those of our prehistoric ancestors; they can be as refined as a Mies van der Rohe, as polished as an I. M. Pei. There is archeological evidence nearly 10,000 years old of entire cities built of raw earth: Jericho, history’s earliest city; Catal Huyuk in Turkey; Harappa and Johenjo-Daro in Pakistan; Akhlet-Aton in Egypt; Chan-Chan in Peru; Babylon in Iraq; Duheros near Cordoba in Spain; and Khirokitia in Cyprus. All the great civilizations of the ancient Middle East—Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Sumerian—built structures with mud brick and rammed earth. But their buildings were not primitive. They included monuments, temples, ziggurats, churches, and mosques.
The Tower of Babel, seven stories tall, was built of sun-dried mud bricks in the seventh century b.c. Excavations in China have uncovered rammed-earth construction also dating from the seventh century b.c. The Great Wall of China, built over 5,000 years ago of stone and rammed earth, remains one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken.
This unbroken tradition of earthbuilding survives elsewhere than in the Far East, where over 6,000 years of construction can be traced archeologically. It is particularly popular in Africa, the Middle East, and Australia where the scarcity of trees, low annual rainfall, and abundance of labor make earth the only logical building material.
From the time of the pharaohs, desert peoples have constructed villages of adobe and rammed earth. In Morocco, Berber tribesman continue to build rammed-earth structures to protect inhabitants from heat. Cities enclosed with rammed-earth walls created shade and protection from desert winds.
Rammed earth was brought to the more temperate regions of Europe by the Romans and Phoenicians. Pisé de terre became the dominant building method in the Rhone River Valley for 2,000 years because the soil that washed down from the Alps was ideal for rammed-earth construction. Even today, fifteen percent of the area’s rural builders continue to use pisé de terre.
In North America Jesuit priests introduced Christianity to California natives while teaching them how to make adobe, and Spaniards constructed the first permanent structures in St. Augustine, Florida using a mix of soil and shells rammed into heavy wooden framework. The result was pisé de terre, a construction method enjoying a brilliant renaissance in today’s architecture.