1 Kitty, 2 Empires, 2,000 Years: World History Told Through a Brick

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How did a Roman brick from the British Isles get to Washington state's Fort Vancouver?

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Fort Vancouver Historical National Historic Site

At some moment a few years after Jesus Christ died but before the second century began, someone made a brick on the island that would become the cornerstone of Great Britain. The area was controlled by Rome then, and known as Britannia  and as the brick lay green, awaiting the kiln, a cat walked across the wet clay and left its footprints before wandering off to do something else. The clay was fired, the prints fixed, and the brick itself presumably became a piece of a building or road.

Two thousand years later, a Sonoma State master's student named Kristin Converse was poking around the holdings of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Washington state. She was writing her thesis on the business and technology of brickmaking in Portlandia (known more formally as the Willamette Valley). A brick caught her eye. It was part of an odd group that was not of local origin. In one corner, there were the footprints of a cat. Where had this cat lived? 

Back in 1982, the bricks in question had been examined by an archaeologist named Karl Gurcke who specializes in the identification of bricks. "The only bricks that come near to matching this type in size are the so-called 'Roman' bricks," Gurcke wrote in a report on excavations at Fort Vancouver. This suggested that the "type may indeed be Roman in origin," and that they were "shipped over from England."

Converse tested the presumed Roman bricks, using a process called neutron activation analysis, which allows scientists to determine the elemental components of a material. Bricks made from different clays and at different times show particular chemical signatures, so she could compare bricks from the Fort to bricks from Endland. "They tested very well like Roman bricks from England," Bob Cromwell, an archaeologist at Fort Vancouver told me. "It is still a hypothesis, but the data is all pointing in that direction: the size and the elemental analysis compares very favorably with definitive Roman bricks."

The question became, then, how did a Roman brick from the British Isles get to Fort Vancouver?

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Fort Vancouver Historical National Historic Site

The answer: the mercantile empire of the Hudson's Bay Company, a commercial entity substantially older than the United States, having been incorporated in 1670. The Company controlled the entire Pacific Northwest under a local company official known as the Chief Factor. Although after 1818, the region was nominally under the shared control of the U.S. and Britain, the only real western power was the Hudson's Bay Company, and the only real resources it could draw on came from its global network of trading ships and outposts.

Fort Vancouver was the seat of the Company's west coast operations. It was established in the winter of 1824-1825 on the banks of the Columbia River, a few miles north of what would become Portland, Oregon. With the Willamette and the Columbia right there, it was like setting up shop at the intersection of two major highways. But despite the great location and abundant resources of the region, they didn't actually have the equipment or know-how to do a lot of things. 

While there were roughly 25 Native American tribes in the region, there were not any brickmakers among them, which meant there weren't any bricks. So, the Hudson's Bay Company, which ran the Fort, had to order them from a world away.

"You can certainly bring over brickmakers to look at the local lays and the Columbia River silts are great for making common brick. But at the time, when they are out there establishing their post, if they want some brick for their chimney, there just isn't any," Gurcke said, when I reached him at his job with the Park Service in Skagway, Alaska. "So they ship them from, in this case, England. We do have some records of them shipping bricks very early from England."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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