Words and Photos by Mara Papavasileiou
TAMING THE LANDSCAPE
When life gives you rocks, you’ll find a way to put them into order. Drystone walls, the tool and method people used to tame the mountain slopes, stand as strong testimonies of a harmonious relation between manmade and natural landscape while providing a glimpse to the vivid past of rural life of Greece.
IN SEARCH OF A METHOD TO CREATE CULTIVABLE LAND
The Greek landscape, mainly in the islands but also in the mainland, is filled with dry stone walls. “Ksé-ro-li-thi-à” or “dry-stone” are walls created uniquely by stones, without the use of any connecting material, perhaps soil in some cases.
Their presence is anchored to ancient rituals of everyday life, as the development of local words reveal: in Tinos they are known as “skà-les”, “ha-là-kia” in Naxos, “pa-ra-vó-lia” in Crete and the list of local vocabulary is long.
Their primary and vital role is to preserve the soil: the walls emerged as a need to organize the slopes and provide land for cultivation in a generally harsh environment. Terraces are formed by retaining walls in order to ensure agricultural land close to the rural settlements of the Mediterranean area.
Olive trees, pulses, wheat, barley, vineyards: these crops have all been accommodated on the terraces retained by dry stone walls. The mountainous sides would suffer from erosion and desertification if it weren’t for the retaining walls to protect the soil and provide the conditions to grow life. But these walls are not only standing rocks.
They provide much more to the local ecosystem. Each wall can be considered as a biotope, offering shelter to various species; porcupines, snakes and lizards, ladybugs, butterflies and spiders, as well as birds. Drystone wall system has also been used for road networks, paths, bridges and several vernacular constructions.
A CONSTRUCTION TECHNIQUE LOST IN CENTURIES
The recipe to create a drystone wall is simple: all you need is stones and patience! As a perfect example of the Mediterranean mindset of respect to nature and wide use of available resources, these walls give value to what is already in place in order to preserve the precious land. Every stone serves to protect even the last spoon of soil. All stones used are found in the surrounding area, so while the wall is built, the plot is also cleaned.
Drystone walling reveals a deep knowledge of the place, the type of soil, the prevailing winds, the possible rainwater floods: all these parameters are taken into consideration by the local masons during construction. For every meter of dry stone wall of 70 cm of thickness and 1-meter height, it is estimated that almost one ton of stone is needed. The skilled workers would build between 2 and 4 sq.m of walls each day, while the most skilled would reach 5 sq.m. Imagine there were even competitive games among builders looking for the quickest, but also the most efficient one.
Each stone has a soul; as old workers would feel. Every stone has a character and multiple faces that are used accordingly. Larger stones are used for the foundations, the most usual ones for construction, smaller ones for filling the gaps, longer ones for connecting the walls and the flat ones for the top covering layer. As if solving a puzzle, stones should be put together in a way that one “locks” to the other and creates a compact, yet flexible, whole. The technique is usually transferred orally, among the generations of workers.
REVIVING AN ART IN THE EDGE OF DISAPPEARANCE
Until the late 50s these walls were maintained as part of the annual routine of rural life. Ensuring a vital part of the land organization, communities depended on these walls. Whenever there was a gap in agricultural activities, farmers would themselves maintain dry stone walls by rebuilding the broken parts, piece by piece.
However, the years that followed the second half of the 20th century witnessed a decay of this habit. Industrialization of agricultural production meant abandonment of these small plots in favor of larger ones, easier to handle with large equipment, while the fall of population of rural communities reduced the workforce.
Still, the return to local techniques and traditional crafts in recent years has sparkled interest in the art of drystone walls. In 1997 the International Scientific Society for Interdisciplinary Studies of Drystone Walling (SPS – Société Pierre Sèche) emerged as a result of the international conference on the topic, organized in Liguria, Italy.
Since 1987, when the first international conference of drystone walling took place, almost 14 have been held, each one hosted in a different country around the Mediterranean. Workshops are organized in different areas in order to spread the idea and technique and raise awareness on the need to preserve these precious monuments of vernacular architecture.
THE ART OF DRY STONE WALLING ACKNOWLEDGED BY UNESCO
The increasing awareness for this vanishing art has led to its inscription since 2018 in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Following an application of the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, joined by Cyprus, Croatia, Italy, Slovenia, France, Spain and Switzerland, countries where dry stone walls are also dominant on the landscape, the art and knowledge of drystone walling has been placed among the Mediterranean gifts to the world, next to the Mediterranean Diet. Indeed, the close relation of man and nature materialized through this humble, still wise technique, is an example of respect and optimization of all available resources.
DRY STONE WALLS SHELTERING RURAL ACTIVITIES
Apart from the retaining walls, the art of drystone walling has been applied to multiple structures linked to rural and agricultural life, scattered in the landscape. On the island of Folegandros, the fragile lemon trees are protected in their lemonhouses (lemonóspita), which are practically enclosed gardens of almost 2-meter height, keeping away the strong winds.
Farmhouses, known as “katoikiès” in the Cyclades or “mitata” in Crete, shelter activities linked to the needs of storing or transforming the agriculture of livestock products. Drystone walls offer thermal stability and mild ventilation through the gaps between the stones, being ideal for preserving and drying cheese, curing meats, or drying aromatic herbs such as oregano, thyme or throubi.
The spherical roof of “mitata” has on top a circular opening, ideal for ventilation. It is the place where a spider will knit its web. The web will catch the curious fly or other insects, protecting in this way the stored product. The perfect equilibrium between man and nature.
Mara Papavasileiou is fascinated by all things Mediterranean, especially gastronomy, crafts and architecture. She currently lives in Athens (GR) where she works as an architect mainly on hospitality and residential projects. She seeks to capture the spirit of place (“topos”) and the various expressions of Mediterranean life into her designs, creating spaces with a deep contextual, still unique and timeless identity.