Mortar is a workable paste used to bind construction blocks together and fill the gaps between them. The blocks may be stone, brick, cinder blocks, etc. Mortar becomes hard when it sets, resulting in a rigid aggregate structure. Modern mortars are typically made from a mixture of sand, a binder such as cement or lime, and water. Mortar can also be used to fix, or point, masonry when the original mortar has washed away.
Mortar holding weathered bricks
The first mortars were made of mud and clay. Because of a lack of stone and an abundance of clay, Babylonian constructions were of baked brick, using lime or pitch for mortar. According to Roman Ghirshman, the first evidence of humans using a form of mortar was at the ziggurat of Sialk in Iran, built of sun-dried bricks in 2900 BC. The Chogha Zanbil Temple in Iran was built in about 1250 BC with kiln-fired bricks and a strong mortar of bitumen.
In early Egyptian pyramids constructed about 2600 2500 BC, the limestone blocks were bound by mortar of mud and clay, or clay and sand. In later Egyptian pyramids, the mortar was made of either gypsum or lime. Gypsum mortar was essentially a mixture of plaster and sand and was quite soft.
In Pakistan, multiple cement types have been observed in the sites of the Indus Valley Civilization, such as the Mohenjo-daro city-settlement that dates to earlier than 2600 BCE. Gypsum cement that was "light grey and contained sand, clay, traces of calcium carbonate, and a high percentage of lime" was used in the construction of wells, drains and on the exteriors of "important looking buildings." Bitumen mortar was also used at a lower-frequency, including in the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro.
Historically, building with concrete and mortar next appeared in Greece. The excavation of the underground aqueduct of Megara revealed that a reservoir was coated with a pozzolanic mortar 12 mm thick. This aqueduct dates back to c. 500 BC. Pozzolanic mortar is a lime based mortar, but is made with an additive of volcanic ash that allows it to be hardened underwater; thus it is known as hydraulic cement. The Greeks obtained the volcanic ash from the Greek islands Thira and Nisiros, or from the then Greek colony of Dicaearchia (Pozzuoli) near Naples, Italy. The Romans later improved the use and methods of making what became known as pozzolanic mortar and cement. Even later, the Romans used a mortar without pozzolana using crushed terra cotta, introducing aluminum oxide and silicon dioxide into the mix. This mortar was not as strong as pozzolanic mortar, but, because it was denser, it better resisted penetration by water.
Hydraulic mortar was not available in ancient China, possibly due to a lack of volcanic ash. Around CE 500, sticky rice soup was mixed with slaked lime to make an inorganic organic composite mortar that had more strength and water resistance than lime mortar. 
It is not understood why the art of making hydraulic mortar and cement, which was perfected and in such widespread use by both the Greeks and Romans, was then lost for almost two millennia. During the Middle Ages when the Gothic cathedrals were being built, the only active ingredient in the mortar was lime. Since cured lime mortar can be degraded by contact with water, many structures suffered from wind blown rain over the centuries.
Laying bricks with portland cement mortar
Portland cement mortar
Portland cement mortar (is very often known simply as cement mortar) and is created by mixing Ordinary Portland cement (OPC), hydrated lime, and aggregate (or sand) with water.
It was invented in 1794 by Joseph Aspdin and patented on 18 December 1824, largely as a result of various scientific efforts to develop stronger mortars than existed at the time. It was made popular during the late nineteenth century, and owing to the First World War, by 1930 it had superseded lime mortar for new construction. The main reasons for this were that Portland cement sets hard and quickly, allowing a faster pace of construction, and requires less skilled workers. However, as a general rule, Portland cement should not be used for the repair of older buildings constructed in lime mortar, which require the flexibility, softness and breathability of lime if they are to function correctly. Mortar mixed inside a 5 gallon bucket using clean water and mortar from a bag. When it's the right consistency as in the photo (trowel stands up) it's ready to apply.
In the United States (and other countries), one of five standard types of mortar (available as a dry premixed product) are generally used for both new construction and repair. The ratio of cement, lime, and sand included in each mortar type produces different strengths of mortar. The formulations for each type are specified by the ASTM standards organization. These premixed mortar products are designated by one of the five letters M, S, N, O, and K, with Type M mortar being the highest strength and Type K the weakest. These type letters are taken from the alternate letters of the words "MaSoN wOrK".
Polymer cement mortar
Polymer cement mortars (PCM) are the materials which are made by partially replacing the cement hydrate binders of conventional cement mortar with polymers. The polymeric admixtures include latexes or emulsions, redispersible polymer powders, water-soluble polymers, liquid resins and monomers. It has low permeability, and it reduces the incidence of drying shrinkage cracking, mainly designed for repairing concrete structures. For an example see MagneLine.
The speed of set can be increased by using impure limestones in the kiln, to form a hydraulic lime that will set on contact with water. Such a lime must be stored as a dry powder. Alternatively, a pozzolanic material such as calcined clay or brick dust may be added to the mortar mix. This will have a similar effect of making the mortar set reasonably quickly by reaction with the water in the mortar.
Using Portland cement mortars in repairs to older buildings originally constructed using lime mortar can be problematic. This is because lime mortar is softer than cement mortar, allowing brickwork a certain degree of flexibility to move to adapt to shifting ground or other changing conditions. Cement mortar is harder and allows less flexibility. The contrast can cause brickwork to crack where the two mortars are present in a single wall.
Lime mortar is considered breathable in that it will allow moisture to freely move through it and evaporate from its surface. In old buildings with walls that shift over time, there are often cracks which allow rain water into the structure. The lime mortar allows this moisture to escape through evaporation and keeps the wall dry. Repointing or rendering an old wall with cement mortar stops this evaporation and can cause problems associated with moisture behind the cement.
Pozzolana is a fine, sandy volcanic ash, originally discovered and dug in Italy at Pozzuoli in the region around Mount Vesuvius, but later at a number of other sites. The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius speaks of four types of pozzolana. It is found in all the volcanic areas of Italy in various colours: black, white, grey and red.
Finely ground and mixed with lime it acts like Portland cement and makes a strong mortar that will also set under water.
An international team headed by bo Akademi University has developed a method of determining the age of mortar using radiocarbon dating. As the mortar hardens, the current atmosphere is encased in the mortar and thus provides a sample for analysis. One major challenge is various factors that affect the sample and raise the margin of error for the analysis.
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