Block of the Week: Clay

Or if it's hardened clay, terracotta!

Next time you're exploring a dank, mushroom-filled swamp, or sailing along one of the majestic rivers that wend their way across Minecraft's blocky landscape, keep an eye out for one of the most versatile building materials the game has to offer - clay!

Clay was added in the Seecret Friday 6 update on 23 July 2010 alongside paper, slimeballs and milk (together at last!) It's usually found at the bottoms of lakes and rivers, almost always underwater, and can be harvested with any tool (though for speedy results, pack a shovel). When you do so, it'll break into four clay balls - which can be recombined in a crafting grid to turn them back into a clay block.

Clay in the lousy so-called ‘real world’ is a mineral that forms when teeny-tiny particles of rock and soil meet water. When wet, it's smooth and can easily be shaped into whatever you like - something that our ancestors discovered is very handy indeed!

Ancient human cultures used clay in all sorts of ways - first as pottery, shaping it into pots and bowls and letting it dry in the sun until it hardened. The result was a waterproof vessel that could store grains or liquids - very useful in early agriculture. You can do a similar thing in Minecraft by putting clay balls into a furnace and then shaping the resulting bricks into a pot that can hold flowers. Or a pot that holds nothing, if you hate flowers. But come on, who hates flowers? What’s wrong with you?

Clay is also commonly used as a building material. Some cultures around the world smear clay over frames made of reeds and wood and use the ol’ sun-drying trick to form a tough, waterproof coating. One that keeps a home warm in the winter and cool in the summer! In Minecraft, you can do something similar by baking clay blocks in a furnace to make hardened clay (which can also be occasionally found in the world, and dyed into 16 different colours). In the next major Minecraft update, version 1.12, hardened clay has been renamed terracotta - and you'll be able to smelt it again into a new substance - glazed terracotta - that forms beautiful patterns. Magnificent!

Other human societies in history formed clay into bricks that they carefully built into more intricate structures. Bricks are one of the longest-lasting and strongest building materials available - the Romans used them in their famous roads, and the factories that powered the industrial revolution were built of brick. Even today, bricks are one of the most common components of houses, both in Minecraft and the real world (don’t smash up your walls to check - just trust us on this one).

But the uses of clay don't end there. It was the very first writing medium - when scribes living in what is now Iraq about 6,000 years ago used reeds to mark clay tablets with a code of tiny wedge-shaped indentations, recording knowledge for future generations. We’re imagining having to write Block of the Week like that instead of just yelling at our laptops to write it for us and the hypothetical effort involved is making us tear up...

Clay has also been used in the cores of dams to keep water from seeping through, in folk medicine to absorb poisons in the stomach, in landfills to stop toxins getting into the soil, in Iron Age warfare as sling ammunition, and to make everything from art and musical instruments to smoking pipes and cement. You’re probably surrounded by things made of clay right now as you read this! Hopefully bricks or instruments, and not sling ammunition aimed at your delicate face.

So next time you find yourself knee-deep in a Minecraft swamp, dodging witches and slimes, be sure you pick up some clay. It's a pretty useful substance!