Book Review

BEN CLAASZ COOCKSON. Living in mud. 172 pages, 286 colour illustrations. 2010. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari; 978-605-5607-01-2 paperback.

Review by Shahina Farid
Çatalhöyük Research Project, University College London, UK

Farid image

The use of clay as a primary construction material is a vast and complex subject requiring expertise in many diverse fields. First and foremost clay has to be readily available. Sometimes it is the only accessible material when stone is scarce or non-existent in the immediate environs. Current work on Neolithic mudbrick settlements suggests that it was the onset of agriculture that dictated the settlement pattern and locations of early settled mudbrick communities because of the favourably fertile nature of such landscapes.

Geologically, an appreciation of clays, their properties and how they react to different circumstances and manipulations is also paramount to the understanding of mud architecture. Where clay is the chosen medium for construction, modern ethnographic studies show that different clay types are procured from different sources for different but specific functions. This is also evident in the archaeological record where different clays are clearly carefully chosen for particular functional requirements, such as building construction versus house 'furnishing' construction. The composition and structural properties of house walls, floors and roofs are different from those needed for the construction of ovens, fireplaces, storage bins and sleeping platforms.

Ben Claasz Coockson is aware of the complexities and diversity of the subject and touches on many of these topics and more through his book. Unfortunately the treatment is superficial, failing to deliver technical data on use, practice and development or interpretations. But that was not Coockson's intention; the volume under review is not a technical book from a specialist in the field of clay dwellings or the use of clay, it is an introduction to the types of mud constructions that an archaeologist will encounter on particular excavation sites. At the outset the author states clearly that the rationale of the book was to help student archaeologists embarking on the excavation of mud architecture; to that end the book is very successful.

Living in mud appears to be very much a personal journey for Coockson who has combined observations from his own career as an archaeologist in Turkey with references to excavations in Syria. He presents his material primarily in photographs (here his publisher could have been more selective) accompanying chapters that are grouped by types of clay use, introduced by opening remarks. The main focus however is on mudbrick architecture and in this respect the work is a little gem of a handbook for anyone involved with the excavation of mudbrick and clay. The author uses modern examples alongside archaeological instances throughout the book, to illustrate his point that since the Neolithic little has changed in the use of clay in rural areas of the Middle East.

Having briefly introduced where in the world clay architecture is found today, Coockson turns to the beginnings of mud architecture in the Neolithic in Turkey and the Middle East, making it amply clear that clay dwellings are representative of specific environmental conditions and dependent on available resources for exploitation. He follows with a short introduction to different types of clay walls before launching into his main subject, the stages involved in making mudbrick and its uses. The chapter on floors and roofing in modern mudbrick constructions is very useful to an archaeologist, as these structural elements rarely survive archaeologically and are often interpreted in the absence of any data.

Traditional types of mudbrick dwellings found in Turkey and Syria today serve as an introduction to other forms of mud structures and mud 'furniture'. Different types of ovens and fireplaces are presented with an emphasis on location within and outside the house. The topic of fuel is introduced by photographs of dung cakes, regrettably without any written commentary on the different types of fuel that may be used. Storage bins, grinding installations and sleeping platforms are presented as now (in rural Turkey) and then (various excavation sites).

A questionable commentary on dating mudbrick would have been better left out of the book, and the chapter entitled "A mixture of mud-facts" is a sometimes odd selection of topics: it contains a series of personal reflections including how to identify natural disasters such as earthquakes on mudbrick sites. The main element of this chapter, however, is the author's lament at the apparent lack of appreciation of mudbrick houses in modern life. This is clearly a subject close to Coockson's heart. Perhaps a better understanding of the exceptional qualities of clay architecture, which this book aims to promote, will encourage greater care for the preservation of a form of architecture which is fast eroding and being replaced by modern construction materials.

Sadly the book is rather outdated in terms of references to archaeological sites: most date back to a couple of decades ago, and since then a number of important mudbrick sites, which would have enriched the selection presented here, have been excavated. Nonetheless the book achieves what it set out to do: it is a simple handbook with lots of photographs and a stimulating point of entry for anyone involved in the excavation of mud architecture.