Historic Use of Lime in 10 Traditional Buildings & Landmarks

It’s easy to take the skills of engineers, builders, and masons of the past for granted. Without the technology we are accustomed to today, cultures worldwide have used an impressive mix of innovation, insight and ingenuity to create remarkable structures. From impressive palaces to defensive walls, those that still stand continue to capture our attention today and rightfully so. The materials used to build these structures tell a story of resourcefulness, with local or plentiful materials helping define each region’s own built heritage.

Yet, this isn’t the only common thread in the story. Join us as we look at ten remarkable buildings and landmarks that have used lime in their construction. From the limestone blocks of Greece to the mortars of New Orleans, lime in its many forms has long played a significant role in buildings that remain to stand the test of time.

Understanding the Significance of Lime in Construction

It’s not uncommon for those learning about the use of lime in the past or present to get overwhelmed. So, before we begin our global tour of remarkable structures, here is a quick look at lime in its many forms.

Before the introduction of cements in the early 19th century, lime was the fundamental material used in various forms. Lime has been used generically for mortars, renders, plasters, and concretes since at least 7000 BC and is a common mineral found worldwide, naturally occurring as limestone.

Limestone

Limestone has been used as a building stone for centuries. Often neutral in colour, weather-resistant and versatile, its prevalence in historic and contemporary construction is no surprise. Easily transformed from raw material into blocks, columns, floor tiles, statues, and more, limestone remains an impressive architectural stone.

Quicklime & Lime Putty

Beyond building with limestone directly as a masonry stone, historic builders transformed this material using heat. By cooking limestone that was pure and rich in calcium carbonate in a kiln, they produced quicklime. In a process known as slaking, this quicklime was combined with water creating a volatile reaction, expanding and releasing heat. By adding an aggregate to this during or before slaking, a hot mix or hot lime mortar is made. Despite the name given to this mortar type from the heat generated during the mixing phase, a hot mix mortar can be used hot or later when cooled. Find out more about hot mix mortars and their use.

Alternatively, quicklime could be slaked without sand and left to mature with an excess of water in a pit. This process forms another form of lime known as lime putty, characterised by its soft, creamy texture. This maturing process was done to allow the expansion from quicklime to occur before use when plastering. When used within a mortar, lime putty will slowly harden through a chemical process called carbonation, where the putty adsorbs carbon dioxide and carbonates.

Today, our lime putty is crafted using high calcium quicklime sourced from Buxton, Derbyshire, following the age-old storage practice in pits post-slaking.

Natural Hydraulic Lime

Lastly, natural hydraulic lime is produced using the same method of creating quicklime, but it’s made at a slightly higher kiln temperature and using a different quality of limestone. In this case, an impure limestone which contains various minerals is cooked and slaked to create a fine powder. The result is a mix of calcium hydroxide and calcium silicates, where the impurities from the limestone have combined with the lime itself to form a material that can set and harden underwater.

These impurities, such as clay or silica, give this type of lime its hydraulic characteristics, providing a chemical set with the addition of water, a process called hydration. The final strength of this lime is determined by a mix of this hydration reaction and the calcium hydroxide adsorbing carbon dioxide and carbonating.

10 Historic Buildings & Landmarks Built with Lime

1: The Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

The Great Pyramid of Khufu, Giza, which is known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, remains a debated enigma, with its construction dating back to nearly 2560 BC.

One of three 4th-dynasty pyramids, this colossal structure gained its name from the first Egyptian king to ever build a pyramid in Giza. What and how these pyramids were built remains a subject of research and debate. With theories revolving around in-situ cast stones and ancient lime mortars, we can all agree their enduring presence can continue to teach about ancient building techniques.

For those unable to make it to Egypt’s bustling capital, a single casting stone from the estimated 5 million tonnes of limestone used to construct the pyramid can be viewed at the National Museum of Scotland.

2: Tomb of Nur Jahan, Pakistan

The final resting place of Nur Jahan, the last wife of Emperor Jehangir, this controversial Mughal empress held unprecedented power for an empress of her time, influencing 17th-century politics, culture and architecture.

Although not as extraordinary as the woman herself, Nur Jahan’s tomb is an impressive example of early Mughal architecture, predating the more famous Taj Mahal. It features red sandstone, white marble and, according to an article from the International Journal of Conservation Science, a lime mortar core.

Within the study, authors and researchers Gulzari, Chaudhry, Burg and Saeed closely examined the lime mortars used to make this remarkable structure. They found a resourceful mix of local materials, including white-coloured calcitic fragments, crushed brick, brick kiln slag, and jute fibres, to create what is known locally in Pakistan as red lime mortars.

Photo by JM Lova on Unsplash

3: The Forbidden City, China

China’s Forbidden City is a sprawling imperial palace complex that exemplifies the grandeur of Ming and Qing dynasty architecture. But you may not know that lime mortar was fundamental in its construction.

One study by scholars at Zhejiang University found an abundance of lime mortar used for masonry, rendering, and roofing. More interesting was the intriguing range of additives found within the samples. Like other ancient mortars, utilising local resources was a common way to change a mortar or render’s characteristics or performance. In this case, they found additions such as glutinous rice, sugar and animal blood.

Today, a renewed interest in lime flourishes in China, with additional research and development focused on cultural heritage conservation. As for the Forbidden City itself, despite the name and legacy of limited access, this remarkable destination hosts millions of visitors per year.

4: The Parthenon, Greece

In the heart of Athens, the Parthenon stands as a testament to ancient mythology and a symbol of Greece’s golden age, gracing the skyline of the Acropolis for more than 2,500 years.

Located on a limestone hill, like other early civilisations, the ancient Greeks utilised the plentiful local limestone and marble to construct remarkable monuments, palaces and temples, such as this Doric-style temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.

While the remarkable temple is brightly white today, according to This is Athens, ancient texts and trace amounts of paint indicate that the temple might have once featured vivid colours, such as red or blue.

5: Qasr Al Hosn, UAE

Abu Dhabi’s historical coastal bastion, Qasr Al Hosn, features two buildings, the Inner Fort and the Outer Palace and the city’s first permanent structure, the Watchtower. This commanding structure overlooked coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement established on the island.

Built with coral stone bricks, lime and an ancient type of vented wall structure called “Barjeel”, this remarkable structure, like many historic buildings, suffered from issues caused by inappropriate repairs, including the introduction of modern cement to the building fabric. As a result, issues with moisture introduced masonry degradation and declining structural instability.

Working closely with architects, contractors, and the team at Qasr Al Hosn, Cornish Lime joined the conservation and restoration project to improve moisture management and fill the extensive voids that had formed and impacted structural stability. Learn more about the solutions used to restore Qasr Al Hosn. Today, this remarkable location serves as a museum, with a vast collection of artefacts and archival materials dating back to 6000 BC.

6: The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, an architectural marvel of ancient Rome, has stood at its centre for nearly 2,000 years. Known for its distinctive arena upon which gladiators, prisoners, and wild animals triumphed in battle or perished, it was once the most complex human-manufactured structure in the world.

Built with a robust collection of natural materials, the Colosseum features sturdy white limestone from the Tibur region called Travertine, tuff blocks, bricks and the famous Roman concrete.

As researchers gain new insights into the type of lime used, be it slaked lime and pozzolans or Quicklime, we know it certainly plays a vital role in the durability of the Colosseum.

View our full range of lime and binders

Photo by Jeroen den Otter on Unsplash

7: Santa Marta Fortress, Portugal

Located on the Lisbon Coast, the Santa Marta Fortress was once a formidable defensive structure and an excellent example of lime mortars used successfully in a harsh and aggressive seaside environment.

According to scholars Borges, Santos Silva, and Veiga, in the article, Durability of Ancient Lime Mortars in Humid Environment, argue that traditional Portuguese mortars utilised air lime, even in more extreme sea conditions, as they found no evidence of hydraulic lime in the samples they collected.

Now reinvented, the fortress and its neighbouring estate, Casa de Santa Maria, are contemporary destinations for both leisure and culture. The still operational lighthouse continues to serve as a guiding beacon for those at sea while doubling as a museum to educate visitors on the local area and seafaring traditions.

8: Wheal Coates Mine, England

A testament to a mining heritage that dates back millennia, this quintessential Cornish tin mine sits along the cliff’s edge of the dramatic north Cornish coast.

One of the most famous, Wheal Coates, is a small part of the broader post-industrial landscape of mines, engine houses, ports and more known as the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape.

Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2006, restoration works across these remarkable locations have included projects spanning repointing and void consolidation to complete restoration. Cornish Lime are proud to have been able to advise on the care and repair of Wheal Coates, along with our partner Saint-Astier®.

View our range of Saint-Astier lime binders

9: La Rotonda Villa, Italy

Perched upon a hilltop near the city centre of Vicenza, La Rotonda is rumoured to be the inspiration for Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and possibly the White House itself.

Built as a home for a local nobleman, the renowned 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio channelled his passion for Greek and Roman architecture to inspire this villa, now famed for its square plan, domed central circular hall with creamy white columns. These four symmetrical and identical facades were built with an elegant combination of stone, brick, and lime plaster, creating a marble-like appearance.

Fans of Renaissance architecture or Andrea Palladio can visit this remarkable building, now privately owned by the Valmarana family.

Image of a classic style New Orleans building.
Photo by Aya Salman on Unsplash

10: Vieux Carré, the French Quarter, United States

Known for jazz music, Creole cuisine, and the world-famous Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, or “Old Square” of New Orleans, is a charming mix of French, Spanish, Caribbean, and American influences.

Louisiana writer Stanley Clisby Arthur describes in “Old New Orleans, A History of the Vieux Carré” notes that two fires led to the rebuilding of the quarter by the Spanish. Using local resources, the Spanish paired bricks from the Mississippi with lime mortar made from burnt clamshells, and then plastered with stucco.

Today, the Vieux Carré Commission (VCC) oversees the historic district to safeguard its distinct architectural and historic character. So, if you ever visit Louisiana, take the time to take in all the world-world charm it offers.

Summing It Up

Over the centuries, architects, builders and masons alike have harnessed the versatility of lime in its many forms. Across the globe, limes have been paired with earth or additives to ensure their characteristics and performance are fit for purpose. From the majestic Great Pyramid of Giza to the quaint streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, lime has been instrumental in the construction of enduring structures that continue to inspire us today.

As structures and buildings age and inevitably require maintenance or restoration, it’s essential to remember these historical materials and methods. As conservation efforts persist and knowledge-sharing and innovation in lime technologies advance, this versatile material is poised to remain crucial in safeguarding architectural heritage for future generations.

The information provided by Cornish Lime is for informational purposes only and does not amount to a specification. Every project is unique, so please consult a professional before undertaking a project. Use of this site and reliance on any information on the site is solely at your own risk.

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