The Origin and History of Ceramic Tiles

Written by Milan Jara

Ceramic tiles are typically thin and can be made into many different geometric shapes. Their purpose is to cover walls, floors, ceilings, or furniture. They are fixed in place with mastic or other adhesive. Some ceramic tiles are simple squares of one color. Others are small works of art or are used to make a larger work of art out of tile such as a mosaic. Tiles can be glazed or unglazed.

How Ancient Ceramic Tiles Were Made

The ways tile is manufactured today are based largely on how ancient ceramic tiles were produced and the materials from which they are made has also remained the same or similar. Clay is a natural resource that can be found in various regions. The tiles were shaped and then fired, producing a product that was beautiful and durable. These qualities are still why people are drawn to ceramic tiles today. Also, like today, ancient people often took the time to paint their tiles.

The First Appearances of Ceramic Tiles in History

The very earliest example of ceramic tiles is thought to have been made back in the 13th century B.C.E. in the Elamite Temple at Chogha Zanbil. Egypt is home to some very early examples of ceramic tile. These decorative tiles date back to around 4,000 B.C.E. Around that same time period both the Babylonians and Assyrians were making ceramic tiles. In Babylon, the Ishtar Gate still shows evidence of the beautiful tiles made by Babylonians. The Greeks and Romans also left beautiful works of art rendered through tile behind. These include murals and mosaics.

The Islamic Period

Decorative ceramic tiles were favored and were often used on both the exterior and interior of buildings. The most intricate tile artistry was done in the Timurid Empire of Persia. These tile artists used a technique known as moraq where tiles of one color were cut into tiny shapes and then put back together before plaster was poured over them. This technique creates panels of tiles. These panels were grouped to cover walls. However, curved panels were also made to cover the inside and outside of domes.

The Middle Ages

Decorative tiles first became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. Moors brought the craft of tile-making to Spain and from there it spread across the continent. Churches and royalty soon started making extensive use of tile work. Encaustic tiles, made of many different colors of clay, were very popular. Painted tiles were also favored by the rich and powerful. Holland soon became an important hub for decorative tiles after craftspeople in the country developed Delftware tiles that were prized for their white and blue coloring.

The Industrial Revolution

New ways of producing tiles came out of the manufacturing boom of the Industrial Revolution. Now, instead of all ceramic tiles being made by hand, it was possible to make them in a factory using machines. Soon, this meant that tile wasn't only available to the very rich. Middle-class people could afford these factory-made tiles. Soon, tiles became the default choice for bathrooms and kitchens. Tile was soon seen as the most hygienic choice for these rooms and other areas like hallways that saw lots of use. However, hand-painted tiles remained popular and were wildly used in churches and other public buildings constructed during this era.

The Modern Era

Tiles remain a popular choice today. They are used on the interiors and exteriors of public buildings and private homes. Swimming pools are a modern example of a place ceramic tiles are often used. Hand-painted tiles continue to be a popular, if expensive, option. Technology means, though, that intricate-looking ceramic tiles are more affordable than ever. Inkjet printing is used by manufacturers to paint complex patterns on ceramic tiles. Additionally, tiles are available in a wide range of colors and shapes.

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