The First Floors: Ancient Options
The very first floors used in interior construction consisted of the ground itself. This was often cleared and leveled off before the structure was erected around it. In some cases, hay or straw was used to soften this surface and make it slightly warmer in the winter. Cured animal skins may also have been draped over the earth to provide some level of padding.
Some ancient families would drop trash and refuse directly on the floor and then walk over it to compress it down into a solid surface coating.
In rural areas, the interior of the house was often shared with livestock. When they got into the living areas, they would sometimes leave waste, which would then also be walked over and compressed down into the floor. The result was a surface that was as hard as concrete.
There were numerous variations on this practice, as well as methods of ensuring that the floor would set better, or in a more pleasant way. Animal blood, most often taken from a slaughtered pig, was commonly sprinkled over these tramped refuse surfaces in order to harden them faster. Mint was also used in many European floor surface mixes as a deodorizing agent, to help counteract the smell of waste and feces.
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Early North American Flooring
Tribal peoples in North America would often pour large amounts of sand down across the ground of their structures and then smooth it out.
Over time this sand would collect waste, refuse, and would turn mucky, much like a giant litter box. At that point, it could be swept clean of the structure, and then replaced with a fresh coat of sand, creating a warm, soft, relatively sanitary ancient floor covering.
Another practice common in this area was to spread peanut and sunflower seed shells across the floor.
As they were walked upon the oil would coat the peoples feet and then smooth out across the dirt floor, hardening its surface while making it more compact, stable, and free of dust.
Ancient Indian Flooring
Traditional dirt floors were given a new twist in this region, with the addition of an array of decorative colorful sands. These could be strewn across the floor, and mixed with rice powder and flower petals to tint and color the natural surface of the ground randomly. They could also be arranged in intricate patterns and designs, in an art form known as rangoli, which is still practiced to this day.
The History of Natural Stone Flooring
Stone construction was first developed in Egypt over 5000 years ago, with the building of palaces and monuments using large bricks of mountain cut material. In fact, the pyramids at Giza have some of the oldest still existing instances of natural stone flooring in the world, proving the long-term resilience of these surface coverings.
The usage of stone in flooring continued to develop over time, and we have evidence that the Greeks were creating pebble mosaic floors as early as 3000 years ago. These were made by placing hundreds of small, rounded stones into a mortar bed in order to form an image.
Eventually, they traded pebbles for flat pieces of colorful stone tile.
We see other instances of natural stone materials being used across the ancient world. The Greeks prized marble as a flooring material for its translucent abilities which made the lighter versions of this stone seem to glow in the sunlight. The royal families of the Carthaginian Empire also had a special Turkish marble that they built all of their palaces from as a sign of prestige.
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Roman Heated Stone Floors
During the Roman Empire the art of natural stone flooring reached a new height of innovation. These masters of architecture were able to design a series of floors that actually glowed with toasty warmth from below.
These were the first below surface radiant heating systems.
This process made use of large tiles, propped up on joists, so that a gap was created beneath the surface of the floor. A furnace would then be placed at one end of this gap and lit, while a vent would be placed at the other end. This would draw heat continuously across the bottom of the floor, warming it considerably. These heated floors were used in the homes of the wealthy throughout the life of the empire.
After the fall of Rome, the art of making intricate stone and mosaic flooring was largely lost to Western Europe. While these skills would be preserved to some extent in Byzantium and through the Islamic world, European use of stone flooring was often relegated to scavenging pieces of material from old monuments and palaces that had fallen into disuse.