Sicilian Dry Stone Walls: Why They are Important and UNESCO Protected.
Who would have thought a wall could receive a UNESCO heritage designation?
That’s right. Anyone who has ventured in Europe has seen these dry stonewalls lace the land. From Ireland to Croatia, Spain to Sicily, you can’t drive five kilometers without spotting these beautiful stone constructions crisscrossing the countryside.
What gives? Why are they so important to deserve a UNESCO nod?
First, some of these walls are thousands of years old. As ANSA states, stone wall crafting is a technique that dates back to prehistoric times yet many areas in Sicily attribute these constructions to the Greek presence of the 8th C. B.C.
There is little doubt the original Siculi, Sicani and Elimi tribes created most of the walls. With the presence of foreign invaders, Frost’s idea of “good fences make good neighbors” became popular. The walls allowed foreign populations living close together to maintain livestock and protect their boundaries.
These ancient structures mirror the harmonious union of man and nature where human beings—without ruining the countryside—use natural elements to enhance the environment.
Yes, I said, “enhance the environment.”
The ancients constructed these dry stone walls without the use of any building material except dirt and stone. There is no cement, no concrete and no mortar holding these barriers in place. This may not sound impressive, but when you’re in Sicily and you see miles and miles of dry stone walls—dropping plumb-line straight down a hillside—you understand how remarkable it is they are still standing.
They are still there because the ancients built them to release the flow of water. Environmental enhancement comes from a naturally occurring filtering system. With the absence of binder within the wall, the water goes where it needs to flow. Yet the rock system traps the dirt and stones from sliding away. This system is anti-avalanche, anti-landslide, and anti-erosion, preserving the agricultural integrity of a landscape. The ancients knew this.
Keeping It in the Family:
In addition, the limestone rock comes right out of the fertile soil. Thus, in the 16th Century when the nobles granted leases to the Sicilian country folk to work the land, they removed all the rocks (obviously) to create more terrain for crops. The rocks they pulled out of the ground they used in dry stone wall construction. They subsequently planted crops that had the longevity to pass onto future generations (crops like almonds, olives, and carob). As a result, the family preserved the crops and the land for centuries guaranteeing work for future generations. If the stones weren’t employed in such a manner to prevent the earth from slipping away, the economic future of the family would be uncertain.
Don’t think you can just throw don’t a few rocks and call it a “wall.” The Sicilian massru – masters in the art of dry stone wall construction – continued this tradition for centuries. Depending on the land topology and the grade of the slope, these experts at making dry stonewalls built them in the most ludicrous places and they lasted for centuries.
Too many centuries, perhaps.
Yesterday and Today:
Many of these walls lasted for so long that the technique has almost been forgotten. Few modern stonemasons have the knowledge (or the youth) to lift heavy rocks and place them in unique positions allowing the flow of water and preventing movement of topsoil. Most of them don’t know how to strike a stone and splinter it into the desired shape and pieces. It is a running joke in the Val di Noto: walls built 300 years ago are still standing, while dry stonewalls built last year have already crumbled.
Learning and preserving the techniques of the ancients does not interest the local people. These days, customers and builders are rushing to finish construction projects. Therefore, many modern masons are using cement and concrete to reinforce stone walls and hasten their completion, compromising their integrity. The result of which (as I mentioned earlier) could cause blockage of water, redirection of runoff and risk destroying the land.
So the next time you’re in Sicily make note of the volume and quality of dry stonewalls you see around you. They are an amazing subtlety of the countryside and protected by UNESCO. Whether you’re hiking, biking or enjoying a glass of nero d’avola on the terrace of Arucimeli, they are a small characteristic of the Sicilian countryside with a rich history.
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