Egyptian Mud Bricks and Straw: Bible = Archaeology

Egyptian Mud Bricks and Straw: Bible = Archaeology June 29, 2021

In my previous paper: Moses’ “Store-City” Pithom & Archaeology, I dealt with five ways that the biblical mention of Pithom (built or fortified by Hebrew slaves) was historically accurate, as verified by archaeology. Now I will verify that straw was a crucial component in the making of mud bricks in ancient (13th century BC) Egypt, precisely as the Bible indicates:

Exodus 5:6-8 (RSV) The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, [7] “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as heretofore; let them go and gather straw for themselves. [8] But the number of bricks which they made heretofore you shall lay upon them, you shall by no means lessen it; . . .

Exodus 5:10-19 So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, `I will not give you straw. [11] Go yourselves, get your straw wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.'” [12] So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. [13] The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, your daily task, as when there was straw.” [14] And the foremen of the people of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, “Why have you not done all your task of making bricks today, as hitherto?” [15] Then the foremen of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, “Why do you deal thus with your servants?[16] No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, `Make bricks!’ And behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people.” [17] But he said, “You are idle, you are idle; therefore you say, `Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ [18] Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, yet you shall deliver the same number of bricks.” [19] The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in evil plight, when they said, “You shall by no means lessen your daily number of bricks.”

“With & without straw: How Israelite slaves made bricks” (Biblical Archaeology Review, March 2014) looks like a good place to begin our inquiry. It was written by Robert J. Littman: chair of the Classics Department at the University of Hawaii, Jay Silverstein: adjunct professor of archaeology at the University of Hawaii, and Marta Lorenzon, archaeologist at the University of Helsinki. They state:

For several years now, we have been studying the process of mudbrick making in our excavation at Tell Timai in the Nile Delta. . . .

The modern word adobe traces its origin through Spanish, Arabic and back to the ancient Egyptian word for mudbrick, djebet. For the straw that Pharaoh denies to the Israelites, the Biblical text uses the word teben, but the word actually means, somewhat more broadly, “chaff.” . . .

The primary ingredient for mudbricks, not surprisingly, is mud. Egyptians collected topsoil because it had the right composition of clay, silt and sand and formed the hardest and most durable brick. The alluvial deposits of the Nile in the delta were enriched by organic material, such as dung and chaff left in the fields after the harvest. This  soil required less additional temper and less time to ferment.
To create bricks capable of bearing the weight of large structures and surviving the elements, straw temper is added. The temper serves to absorb the stresses associated with drying, thereby reducing shrinkage and preventing the formation of fissures and cracks. . . .
Generally, a half pound of straw was required for each cubic foot of mud mixture. (pp. 60-61)
DAILY QUOTA. Israelite slaves were required to meet a daily quota of mudbricks. Two New Kingdom Egyptian sources—a leather scroll from the fifth year of Ramesses II’s reign and Papyrus Anastasi III from the third year of Merneptah’s reign, both from the 13th century—refer to brick making. According to the former, the daily quota was 2,000 mudbricks. (p. 62)
An Egyptian leather scroll in the Louvre, dated to year 5 of the reign of Ramesses II (1275 B.C.E.), relates that 40 stable masters (junior officers) were each responsible for a quota of 2,000 bricks produced by men under them. (p. 63)
This daily quota, documented from the time Pharaoh Ramesses II, is reflected in the biblical texts Exodus 5:8 (“number of bricks”), “the same number of bricks” (5:18), and “your daily number of bricks” (5:19).
How important was the straw in the process, and how difficult to find it in this place in Egypt? The researchers further comment:
We also conducted an experiment: We made some bricks without straw. We used the same process to manufacture the mudbricks but left out the straw chaff. The bricks without straw were fragile and broke easily. . . .
Collecting the straw for the bricks is especially hard work. The straw is usually taken from the fields after the wheat has been harvested and crushed by the farmers. In ancient times, the Egyptians left the stems of the wheat in the fields. This minimized the labor needed for mudbrick production.
In Egypt (as well as the Levant), straw was available only after harvest time. This might create a serious hindrance in the construction process, as the bricks could be produced only during the dry season. Since construction with bricks was a year-round activity, chaff was collected and stored to ensure a continuous supply.
If Pharaoh did not supply the Israelites with straw, presumably from his storage units, then the search for the right chaff would have been almost impossible, which is perhaps the point of the story. The ancient reader would understand the difficulty of gathering chaff, a fact that is all but lost on the modern reader. Pharaoh in effect oppressed the Israelites by maintaining the quota of bricks without providing the materials necessary to produce them. (p. 63)
“Mudbricks, Construction Methods, and Stratigraphic Analysis: A Case Study at Tell Timai (Ancient Thmuis) in the Egyptian Delta” by
Marta Lorenzon, Jessica L. Nitschke, Robert J. Littman and Jay E. Silverstein, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020), pp. 105-131, describes some of the advantages of using straw in brickmaking:
To understand the different components of our geoarchaeological method, it is important to consider the properties of mudbricks. Mudbricks are made up of three components: soil, water, and temper.  . . .
Tempers, sometimes referred to as degreasers or additives, include both vegetal (especially straw or chaff) and nonvegetal inclusions (e.g., potsherds, grog, ashes). They are added to the matrix to make the mixture more pliable, to increase tensile strength, and to improve thermal behavior (how well the bricks insulate indoor spaces). Vegetal temper is the most common additive and is used to minimize shrinking during drying. In Egypt, straw or chaff may have already been present in the raw source material if the brickmakers were collecting soil from areas of cultivation. Additional sand and straw can be employed to compensate for a matrix high in clay to reduce the risk of fracture. Often, vegetal temper is added through the use of dung, which typically contains a high amount of vegetal fiber. (pp. 116-117)

The UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, edited by Willeke Wendrich, includes the article, “Mud-Brick” by Virginia L. Emery, post-doctoral fellow in Western Heritage at Carthage College. She informs the reader, in harmony with the above observations:

Adobe, a building material of mixed earth and straw, is commonly employed in arid environments as the standard construction material. (p. 1)

Though the scale differs, the materials used to make the bricks are relatively consistent: a mix of sand, clay, and silt combined with chopped straw or dung as temper and binding agent [five sources given] . . . If the earth mixture has a high enough percentage of clay, the straw is not always necessary; omitting the straw can reduce the chance of insects eating through the organic content of the bricks, thereby weakening them [three sources given] . . . However, untempered bricks with a high percentage of clay can dry slowly, shrink, crack, and lose their shape [three sources]. (p. 2)
To make bricks, sediment is removed from its source, dumped in a circular area (Arabic makhmara) created for the job, broken up with adzes or hoes, and mixed with water to form a stiff mixture. Chopped straw is then added to the earth mixture in a ratio of roughly one part straw to five parts earth. (p. 2)
The chapter “Egypt and the Exodus” by Manfred Bietak, professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Vienna, and Gary A. Rendsburg, professor of Jewish History at Rutgers, from Ancient Israel, edited by John Merrill and Hershel Shanks, Washington, D. C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 4th edition, 2021, informs us:
As to the specific task of the Israelite laborers, we have considerable evidence for brickmaking in ancient Egypt, especially during the 19th Dynasty (1301–1198 B.C.E.). P.Anastasi III (verso) 1.2–3.3, dated to the reign of Merneptah (r. 1224–1214 B.C.E.), includes a ledger of sorts recording various building works, including the making of bricks. P.Anastasi IV 12.6 = P. Anastasi V 3.1, dated to the time of Seti II (r. 1214–1208 B.C.E.), includes the complaint, “there are no men to mould bricks, and there is no straw in the district,” calling to mind Exodus 5:16. Unfortunately, though, we are given no location for these brickmaking tasks.
We also may assume an increase in brick production in the Wadi Tumilat during the reign of Ramesses III, who constructed both the big fortress at Tell er-Retaba and the smaller one at Kom Qulzoum near Suez. This activity certainly resulted in recruiting workmen from the local population who were, to a large extent, immigrants from the southern Levant, such as the Shasu of Edom in P.Anastasi VI. This is precisely the latter part of the assumed period of the sojourn of the (proto-)Israelites in Egypt (see further below). (p. 29)
But back specifically to Pithom (Tell el-Retaba) and the straw and bricks issue, I would like to highlight the work of Slovakian researchers Miroslav Černy and Jozef Hudec, both from the Institute of Oriental Studies, Slovak Academy of Sciences (Bratislava), and their article, “Fortifications at Tell el-Retaba” (Asian and African Studies, 2016, vol. 25, no. 2):
Production of mudbricks was recorded on the paintings in the tomb of Rekhmire (18th Dynasty). Men moisturised dug out soil, kneaded it with minced straw and transported it to a place where they moulded it into rectangular forms (Fig. 3) into bricks, which were then placed in the sun to dry. (p. 119)
Proportions of clay, silt and sand in the Nile alluvium are dependent and differ by particular site. If the clay level content was too high, bricks, would slowly dry in the sun, could crack, shrink and lose their shape. In such cases it was necessary to mix the alluvium material with sand, straw pieces or other sealant, such animal dung. Sand reduces shrinkage and cracking during drying and chopped straw and animal dung increases the strength and plasticity. (p. 122)
The quality and durability of mudbricks also depended on soaking a mixture of mud and straw in water for several days. The straw degraded during soaking and released somewhat mucus. The mucus impregnated the mud; it increased viscosity and ensured cohesion of mud during the drying. Bricks were connected together by a mortar made from mud blended with sand, straw and chaff. (p. 123)
Thus (considering my previous article as well), we now see that the Bible’s accuracy regarding the two store-cities Pithom and Pi-Ramesses is rather spectacularly verified in at least ten distinct ways:

1) the specific time-frame of the city of Pithom;

2) the name of the city of Pithom;

3) the name of the city of Ram’eses / Raamses;

4) Pithom being made [solely] of [mud] bricks;

5) The function of Pithom as a store-city;

6) The function of Ram’eses as a store-city;

7) Pithom being built (or technically, rebuilt / fortified) at the same time as Ram’eses, during the time of Pharaoh Ramesses II;

8) straw (or chaff) being an important cohesive ingredient in the bricks (bricks without straw were far inferior);

9) The workers had a daily quota of brick-making to meet; and

10) The extreme difficulty of finding enough straw without the Egyptians providing it for them, as previously.


Photo credit: Excavators Robert Littman and Marta Lorenzon of Tell Timai in Egypt re-created ancient Egyptian mud bricks, made with straw.  They were much stronger than ones made without straw [photo courtesy of Robert Littman and Marta Lorenzon / “How to Make a Mudbrick”, Biblical Archaeology Society, 8-15-20]


Summary: I survey a remarkable convergence of recent archaeological research and the biblical account of mud bricks and straw (as a crucial component). The Bible is again accurate, as always!

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