The Walls That Shaped Our World

How the ancient art of dry stone walling helped to create the modern world

By Google Arts & Culture

Quinta do Fornelo (2007) by Egídio SantosMuseu do Douro

It might not sound glamorous, but did you know that dry stone walling is a UNESCO-protected art? Like the Byzantine Chanting of Cyprus and Greece or traditional carpet making in Turkmenistan, it's a treasured ancient cultural practice to be preserved. 

UNESCO particularly highlighted the stone wall building of Croatia, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Slovenia and Switzerland. But it is a practice used for centuries around the world, from the rolling hills of the British countryside to the Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan and Great Wall of China.

What is dry stone walling?

These days, if you want to build a wall, you use bricks, mortar and a spirit level. You can use a cement mixer to lighten the load and get your materials dropped on site. But in the days before builder’s yards, levels and even bricks, what were your options?

Dry stone walls were a convenient solution, constructed by stacking stones on top of each other, without using any other materials (except some soil to bed the stones). The stability of the structure is created by a careful stone selection process combined with good placement. Therein lies the skill and, as you might imagine, it’s not as easy as it looks. Try it yourself next time you’re around some loose stones. 

How stone walling shaped our world

From the prehistoric days to the dawn of the modern age, if you needed a wall, you built it out of stone. Entire landscapes were created and shaped by dry stone walling. And while the type of stone used and dimensions differed, the basic principles of dry stone walling remained the same, wherever in the world you found it.

Coração do Douro, Portugal (1940) by Mario CostaMuseu Nacional de Belas Artes

The principles of building, animal husbandry and farming all relied on the dry stone technique. Whole valleys were turned from steep sided ravines into fruitful vineyards, such as the stunning Douro Valley in Portugal’s north. This allowed the reclamation of vast tracts of fertile land for agriculture and production. 

Existing stone structures, like the walls of the Douro, testify to the effectiveness of these methods used for millennia to organise resources. The walls also play a key role in the combating erosion and desertification, and create biodiverse microclimatic conditions. They are made in harmony with the environment and exemplify a peaceful coexistence of humans and nature. Not bad for a pile of old stones. 

Hanson Toot, View in Dovedale (1815, reworked, 1846, 1854, and 1870) by John Linnell, 1792–1882, BritishYale Center for British Art

Rebuilding our wall knowledge

Walling technique was once an essential part of life for most humans. The practice was passed down, primarily through application in the specific environment in which it was used. But with the increasing urbanisation of life following the Industrial Revolution and dawning of the modern era, much of the knowledge was lost or simply forgotten. 

The secrets of dry stone walling have been preserved by a precious few craftspeople and artisans. Following on from the UNESCO recognition in 2018, new projects have been set up around the world to preserve the techniques and rebuild the knowledge base. Why not give it a go?

Stonehenge, England (2006-05-23) by John FoxxGetty Images

Want to know more about ancient stone-building techniques? Discover how modern day tech is throwing a light on the mysteries of Stonehenge.

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