Masonry is the craft and art of building and fabricating stone, clay, brick or concrete block.
Masonry originated at the point early man decided to supplement natural caves with artificial caves made from piles of stone. Some of the first masonry stone huts were circular huts partially dug into the ground. These huts were found in the Aran Islands, Ireland in prehistoric times.
Egyptians had developed elaborate stone masonry during the 4th Century B.C. ending in the most extravagant of all ancient structures, the Pyramids. The stone for most egyptian temples were constructed out of limestone, sandstone, alabaster, granite, basalt, and porphyry quarried from the hills along the Nile river. Geological conditions and formations in any given area in most cases will influence the materials used.
Western Asia between the Euphrates and Tigris didn't have much for stone, but were rich in clay deposits. The masonry structures of Assyrian and Persian empires were constructed of sun-dried bricks faced with kiln- burned, or in some cases glazed units of masonry.
The Romans played an important role in the Middle Ages with the invention of concrete, this was a significant development in masonry. Though precisely cut stone masonry could be erected without mortar, the Romans saw the benefit of cement.
Romans made cement from pozzolanic tuff, a volcanic ash. They would mix the volcanic ash with lime, water, stone fragments (aggregate), and in some cases animal blood. The Romans expanded this cement into concrete. This was a game changer in the masonry world, as it is much faster and cheaper to erect sone or fire-clay materials with cement than to build walls of only stone blocks.
Concrete was a huge benefit to the Roamans. Due to the formability and durability of concrete the Romans were able to develop their signature symbol, the arch. Prior the the Romans most stone masons were handicapped by stones lack of tensile strength, its tendency to break under its own weight when supported on widely separated piers or walls. The Egyptians placed their columns very close together, the Greeks used wooden beams covered in stone, which were subject to fire and weather rot. The Roman arch avoids tension entirely from the keystone to the piers. The Roman empire developed multiple arched structures such as the aqueducts and arched bridges.
The Romans extended their arches into tunnel inventing the barrel vault, which roofed buildings such as the Temple of Venus in Rome. The barrel vault is made from several arches that share the same keystone.
Two intersecting barrel vaults gave rise to the groin vault. This was used in many of the Roman public baths.
Another significant modification of the arch by the Romans was the pointed arch. The pointed arch provided a strong skeleton resting over the top of well spaced piers.
The Romans massive rigid structures gave way to soaring vaults supported by external flying buttresses. (external bracing) The use of smaller sized stones or bricks and thick mortar joints created an elastic, slender structure that stressed the masonry to its fullest. The bearing of unit upon unit required the use of mortar to distribute the contact stresses.
The problem of spanning space entirely by material in compression had been solved by the advent of Gothic forms. This was widely used until the invention of the truss in the 16th century. In the 17th century there was a rise in structural analysis, which gave way to tensile resistant materials in the 19th century such as steel and reinforced concrete. At this time the need and importance of masonry spanning space declined.
The revival of masonry was widely due to the development of portland cement which in the 20th century returned unit masonry to its essential pre-Roman role of forming vertical wall enclosures, partitions and facings.