Dry stone walling on UNESCO's intangible heritage list

Dry stone walling, the ancient building method used in Slovenia, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Switzerland, France and Spain, has been included on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The bid had been submitted by Cyprus together with the other eight countries in March 2017 and the decision was taken on 28 Nov 2018 at a session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Dry stone – the Karst region’s trademark

People had to adapt to their environment if they wanted to survive. Deforestation and earthmoving, along with removing excess stones, are techniques that have been used for centuries to increase the area of farmland. As the pastures did not yield sufficient feed, other areas were designated and maintained as meadows in order to collect hay for storage and feed during the winter. All hay meadows were maintained in the spring. The rocks were removed and put it in a pile. Such walls were built to fence gardens, meadows, vineyards, graveyards or to separate land or roads. Often dry stone walls protected people's assets from wind and fire.

People living in rocky terrain have always used dry stone techniques to shape their environment. The Karst region was no exception; after all, “in the midst of a storm, the sea hardened into stone”; nor was Istria, the Slovenian region with an abundance of stones, and the place where dry stone techniques were the most widespread building practice in the country. People in these regions didn’t remove stones for aesthetic purposes, it was necessary for survival. The rocks that were removed from the meadows were disposed of and stacked; one of the stacking methods was a dry stone technique which was used to build walls and other buildings. “Old men dug out rocks and used them for building,” notes a Sveto local. Just like chess, the rules of stacking dry stones are incredibly simple, but it is very important to follow them consistently. The main structure is a dry-stone wall, stable due to the careful selection of stones and their correct placement. The stones overlap one another both horizontally and vertically, and this, along with the pressure they exert on each other, contributes to a wall’s structural integrity.

Dry-stone walls are the simplest structures and the easiest to build. They were created by moving stones that were removed and dug out from areas intended for farmland or meadows, and stacking them in a pile. When building outside of villages, the stones were not prepared in any way. The builder thus had to adapt to the various materials on hand and create a practical construction without using anything to bind the stones together. 

The shaping of the region

The cultures of the Karst and Istrian regions are the results of human habitation and the use of the environment from prehistoric times to the present day. Dry-stone techniques and dry-stone walls helped shape these regions. The knowledge of dry-stone techniques was one of the basic conditions for survival in this part of the world. The dry wall in all its shapes is a result of people’s efforts to improve the land, and it has thus affected the lives of generations. At the same time, dry walls turned out to be firm and aesthetic solutions that would outlive many modern structures built according to modern engineering regulations. 

The skill was passed on from generation to generation until WWII. But then traditional farming was increasingly abandoned, so this building method fell into disuse and is now known only to generations born before the war. While the original practical value of dry-stone walls is being lost today, the awareness of their aesthetic and sustainable values – which contribute to the appeal of the Karst and Istrian regions – is growing. The knowledge of dry-stone techniques enables the maintenance and restoration of existing dry-stone walls, which is one of the conditions to preserve the landscape and revive the original use of the environment in the future.

Source: Sinfo magazine, Ministry of Culture

Photos: Ministry of Culture archive