The Oldest Stone in the Country

The Art of Dry-stone Walling in Coastal Croatia

Drywall on Kaprije island by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board

Across Croatia's Istrian peninsula and the Dalmatian coast, islands and hinterland, stone walls crisscross the terrain and form an iconic part of the landscape. Constructed of dry stone, meaning they’re made without mortar or other binding material, the walls have been built in the region for millennia.

Their role as a characteristic part of the landscape of coastal Croatia, as well as the diminishing number of practitioners of this technique earned the art of dry-stone walling inscription in 2018 to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Istrian Peninsula

Modern day view of the region

Man making the drywallCroatian National Tourist Board

Dry stone walling (Suhozid)

Dry-stone construction in coastal Croatia is not limited to walls. Small buildings, either intended as rough shelters or for storage, are built entirely from dry stone. In Dalmatia, they have round roofs and are called bunja. In Istria, these small structures are built with conical roofs and are called kažun.

Closeup of a man making a drywallCroatian National Tourist Board

In addition to adding a picturesque mystique to the regional landscape, the dry-stone walls and structures of coastal Croatia require impressive technical know-how. They are composed entirely of stacked stones, assembled by expert craftsmen with knowledge of how to create stable, erect, tightly built walls made to withstand weather and time. Called suhozid or gromače in Croatian, the stone walls are assembled to fit together with the exactness of interlocking puzzle pieces.

Putting stone on its placeCroatian National Tourist Board

With some walls and structures, the stones are cut to square or rectilinear shapes before being stacked. In countless others, stones have been incorporated as they’re found in their natural, non-uniform shapes. Particularly with these non-rectilinear stones, stonemasons must carefully choose and place each stone in relation to the other in order to achieve a straight, stable wall.

Bushes in the drywallCroatian National Tourist Board

The earliest dry-stone walls and structures in coastal Croatia were built by the Liburnians, the ancient tribe that populated the area from at least the 9th century BCE. They built defensive hill forts, walls and structures—typically square, single story buildings.

Numerous examples of these still exist on several islands in the Adriatic, including Krk and Hvar. On Hvar, the dry-stone walls and buildings of Stari Grad Plain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, date to the 4th century BCE and the Greek occupation of the area.

Drywall closeupCroatian National Tourist Board

As fixed settlements built up and the cultures of Dalmatia and Istria became more agrarian, farmers built the dry-stone walls out of necessity. In order to cultivate the rugged terrain, they had to clear the stones from their dry, rocky fields. Since the stones were readily available, they were used to demarcate fields and territories.

In some places, the stone walls form networks of grids that stretch for miles. They help prevent soil erosion, serve as windbreaks, and help prevent flooding, mudslides and avalanches.

A field bordered with a drywallCroatian National Tourist Board

In other areas, the construction of dry-stone walls allowed for the cultivation of areas otherwise unsuited to agriculture. The stone walls were used to create terraces on steep, inaccessible land. The protected terraces enabled farmers to plant crops and prevent soil erosion.

Drywall with mountains in behindCroatian National Tourist Board

On the Dalmatian island of Pag, known for its inhospitable terrain and extreme winds, the dry-stone walls were built by the island’s sheepherders. The walls served as a wind buffer and provided a barrier against which livestock could huddle during the most violent winds and storms.

Pag Island

Modern day view of the region

Drywall grid in Primošten by Damir FabijanicCroatian National Tourist Board

Elsewhere, the dry-stone walls were, and continue to be used to protect crops. On the mainland, the best-known example of this practice is the Primošten vineyards. Here, small grids, the largest 2 by 6 meters, protect low-lying vines from the wind, and also keep the red soil from eroding.

Olives in drywall fieldCroatian National Tourist Board

Though the current dry-stone vineyard walls are thought to date to the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice of small walled vineyard plots may date to as early as the 8th century BCE. The Primošten vineyards are currently on the Tentative List for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Baljenac, the island of drywallCroatian National Tourist Board

One of the most famous examples of dry-stone walling in Croatia is the tiny island of Baljenac, near the larger island of Kaprije. Though it’s just over a tenth of a square kilometer in size, it’s covered with 23 km of dry-stone walls, mostly from the 19th century. When viewed from an airplane, the intricate grid of walls resembles a fingerprint.

Drywall slopeCroatian National Tourist Board

The 2018 UNESCO inscription has fueled a renewed interest in dry-stone construction. The annual lavender festival in Velo Grablje on the island of Hvar features a dry-stone building workshop. Dragodid, on the island of Vis, is a center for dry-stone study and preservation, with workshops and educational programs dedicated to the craft.

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