There’s nothing new about ceramics, in fact, the oldest ceramic artefact is some 26,000 years old. As a race, we humans have been using ceramics far longer than we’ve been using the wheel. Ceramic tiles were found in some of the oldest pyramids and their production technique has changed very little in the 6,000 years since. Ceramic tiles are as much a part of life today as they were millennia ago, primarily used to clad walls and floors for both practical and decorative purposes. However I believe the earliest ceramic tiles would have been found on the roof, rather than the floor or wall.
Ceramic wall tiles have, throughout the ages been solely used as a decorative feature. Whereas the ceramic tile developed for roofing was a fire resistant alternative to the readily combustible thatched roofing. Floor tiles allowed for floors to be made flatter and therefore were more comfortable underfoot. Decorating floor tiles was secondary to their practicality, however ceramic wall tiles are primarily for decorative purposes. Only later when they developed the glazed ceramic tile was it used in bath houses and steam rooms as the glazing would stop moisture from penetrating the porous clay, making it suitable for the first time in such humid environments.
These days the different varieties of decorative tiles is almost unimaginable. Designers take their inspiration from ancient Egypt and the impressive mosaics found in the Alhambra and throughout the ancient Muslim world. Inspiration is also drawn from the natural world with many tiles designed to mimic natural stone or fossils. More contemporary designers are looking at technology and futurism for inspiration, creating tiles inspired by engineering and electronics, and even heat sensitive tiles which change colour as the temperature changes.
The ceramic tile is also solely responsible for bringing astronauts safely back down to Earth. The space shuttle programme was reliant on the ceramics which covered the underside and forward facing parts of each shuttle. These titles shielded the occupants and the space shuttle itself from the staggering 1,500 degrees Celsius temperature which the space craft is subjected to on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
It’s fascinating to imagine that an artificial substance made from clay and fire some 26,000 years ago has enabled human beings to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere after a visit to space. From the ceramic wall tiles of ancient Greece and Egypt to the tiles to the underbelly of the space shuttle, and everything in between. We humans certainly owe a lot to those who pioneered ceramics.
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