Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

The anonymous architecture of dry stone walls

In the beginning there was stone, the oldest material on earth. The launching of human culture is inseparable from the use of stone to make implements and this inaugural stage in our history probably provides a material link with pre-human species.

 

Puntid Bridge, Foroglio, Ticino. Photo by Michael Rast

Sean Sheehan

 

The building of a dry stone wall does not require any implements so perhaps this ability represents the very earliest moment in the history of humanity.

Astonishingly, the skill set required to build a dry stone wall – one without cement or mortar – has not changed since, over 7,000 years ago, humans began to cultivate crops, domesticate animals and build permanent dwellings.

Stone tools were used for agriculture and stone walls were built to contain animals, create fields and erect places of shelter from the elements.

Céide Fields in Ireland is the site of an entire field system that was made from dry stone walls and preserved by peat for millennia. Firmly dated to around 3500 BCE, it is the earliest excavated example of its kind in the world.

Dry Stone Walls is testimony to the culture that created Céide Field. The dry-stone-wall landscapes of Switzerland are its particular concern are but it covers the broader aspects of its subject matter and engages the reader’s interest throughout.

Sassal Masone. Photo by Michael Rast

The book’s colour photographs show the rich variety of different types of walls and line drawings are used to illustrate aspects of building them.

The text is shared by a set of writers with a shared interest in the subject but coming at it from different directions: environmental, cultural, scientific photographic, architectural and hands-on builders who continue to build dry stone walls.

The different varieties, styles and masonry patterns of dry stone walls are well covered and there is nothing to stop readers, other than having the necessary stones, emulating their pre-historic forebears. This amazing book is also a DIY manual, right down to detailed advice on how to lift and move stones.

The architecture is vernacular and elementary in its form  –‘a wall and a wall / Leaning together’ as the poet Norman Nicholson puts it– and those who built the walls are and will remain anonymous. These are factors which have contributed to a sustained neglect of its importance by academics and the public at large.

History tends to celebrate events in terms of individuals but dry stone walls are a collective art.

Susten-Pass. Photo by Michael Rast

In the words of a twentieth century architect, Pietro Belluschi, it is ‘not the product of a few intellectuals or specialists but rather emerges from the spontaneous and lasting activity of an entire people with collective heritage acting under the influence of a common experience’.

Dry Stone Walls brings together in one beautifully produced book a series of articles and photographs that will change your perception of  stone walls so casually passed on a countryside walk or briefly glimpsed through the window of a speeding vehicle.

“Dry stone walls: fundamentals, construction, significance”, by Environmental Action Foundation, is published by Scheidegger & Spiess

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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