Adobe: Whence the Word?
This essay marks the sixth anniversary of Understanding Adobe as a monthly column in the Real Estate Guide. The series was originally conceived as, and remains, a mechanism to help realtors, homebuyers and homeowners understand some of the basics about mud buildings. During these six years I have touched on issues both technical and theoretical; I have discussed code issues, building systems, explored the history of the material and mounted a few tirades. I have gotten lots of response, ninety percent positive punctuated by a few fervent, unprintable rejoinders.
I am taking the occasion of this anniversary to quietly reflect, in my mild-mannered way, on one simple aspect of the world's most venerable building material; the etymology of the word "adobe." To do that requires a sojourn into the distant past.
To my knowledge the oldest known examples of sun-dried blocks used in construction are found in Jericho, in the Jordan River valley, and date to roughly 10,000 years ago. That's old. The age is amazing in itself, but perhaps even more astonishing is that those old, hand-molded bricks survive to this day. They were buried, of course, and in a dry climate. Still, it gives one pause.
I found out about the ten-thousand-year-old adobes 15 years ago at a conference. The presenter called them "adobes" and it took quite a few years for me to snap that the terminology might not be indigenous. So I researched it. Research in the Age of the Internet is fun and fast but when you Google, for example, the word "adobe" with almost any modifier you will get several hundred thousand hits, most of which pertain to a popular computer program.
But perseverance finally paid off and I found that the language of ancient Jericho was likely something called Proto-Afro-Asiatic. That covers a lot of time and territory so you can give odds that there is a lot of bickering going on in the ivory towers. Nevertheless, I took it as a place to start.
Proto-Afro-Asiatic was not written and so linguists look to derivative languages that are written, in this case Hebrew, Ancient Egyptian and Arabic, for clues as to how it worked.
This is what I found. The name adobe comes from the Egyptian hieroglyph dbt, meaning brick. It has passed via Coptic to Arabic as Al-Tub, traveled west across North Africa, thence across the Mediterranean to Spain where it took on the spelling and pronunciation we know today.
As an interesting aside, I have seen hand shaped bricks in Nigeria, identical for all practical purposes to those seen in Jericho, and understand that they exist elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa as well. They are called tubali, clearly from the same root.
By the way, one reason the ancient walls of Jericho are visible today is because their builders understood the importance of intercepting moisture. Along the base of the walls was a shallow trench filled with gravel that broke capillarity and provided a route for surface water to escape before damaging the adobe. That is a lesson we need to remember regardless of the building system being used, and one that I hope the last six years of essays have helped drive home.