The Technology Before the Wheel: A Brief History of Dry Stone Construction

A collection of stones piled one on top of the other, dry stone is an iconic building method found just nearly everywhere in the world. Relying solely on an age-old craft to create sturdy, reliable structures and characterised by its rustic, interlocking shapes, the technique has deep roots that stretch back even before the invention of the wheel. Its principles are simple: stack the stones to create a unified, load-bearing wall. But the efficient, long-lasting results, coupled with the technique’s cultural significance, have lead to continued use and updated interpretations all the way to contemporary architecture today.

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Pre-dating the wheel, pottery, metallurgy and writing, dry stone as a structural concept has been around since at least the 10th millennium BC. Prominent in north-west Europe, the historic walls that are left are normally dated between 7000-1600BC, whereas in Southern Europe early examples are traced back to the first Bronze Age settlements - around 1350BC. Latin America and Africa’s dry stone heritage is slightly more recent, dating back to roughly 800AD. And as the Northern European nations colonised the Americas and Australasia they brought with them the storied tradition.

Although on first glance you may dismiss dry stone as a simple, quick building solution, once you attempt to build something similar you are left with a deep, burning question: how do you make it stand up?

© Museu Valencià d'Etnologia licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The core idea is to interlock the stones in such a way that they cease to act independently; creating the effect of one large stone acting under gravity. Achieving this takes a lot of skill, with many dry stone wallers investing years to perfect their craft. Covering each joint with a stone on top—similar to a standard Flemish brick bond—is key, while the bottom is always wider and contains larger stones to provide support. This secure base sits upon the subsoil in a shallow channel, transferring the weight directly into the compact earth below. Templates are often used to maintain a consistent layering and batter (the gradual thinning towards the walls top), and in more complex projects molds can be utilised to ensure a secure, safe structure.

© TR001 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Popular in specific areas, its surge to prominence is usually dependant on an abundance of rocky outcrops, alongside a high proportion of large stones readily found in the topsoil. Harsh conditions—whether too hot or too bleak—also encourage the use of dry stone, where the context calls for a more steadfast solution than hedges or wooden fencing.

This direct relationship between what is found and what is built creates regionally specific dry stone aesthetics. The construction technique is extremely emotive as a result, showcasing an intense sense of historic and environmental place.

© RobertSimons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In the British Isles, where dry stone walling is common for denoting land boundaries for farmers, herders and churchyards alike, the walls are jagged, lateral and grey. Most of Britain’s 125,000 miles worth of dry stone wall were built in the early 1800s, a response to the Enclosure Acts. They are often capped with a run of vertical, thinner stone. Other building types used the construction method, too—in particular the mysterious brochs of Scotland, hollow round structures with an unknown, much-debated function. Regional heritage groups ensure the craft remains an essential part of the vernacular.

© Anne Burgess licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Greeks, in their ancient cities of Mycenae and Tiryns, used dry stone as the primary load-bearing structure. Due to the rounded stones available in the area, a cyclopean aesthetic was created, differing to its Northern European counterparts.

© David Monniaux licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Building double leaf walls to compensate for the chance of earthquakes, the Incans used dry stone walling in their settlements, as seen in the famous Machu Pichu. Their technique is carefully decorative,each stone being perfectly chipped to assure as little gap as possible, which leaves a jigsaw-like facade. More prolifically, however, was their use of dry stone retaining walls, used to help flatten the mountainous landscape of Peru into usable, farmable land.

© Alexander Fiebrandt licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In Zimbabwe, a key historic settlement in the south-eastern hills showed an extremely skilled use of dry stone. Spanning an area of 7.3 square kilometres, the stone structures of Great Zimbabwe date as far back as the 11th Century AD. Their prowess remains today in the circular walls and conical towers of the Great Enclosure, one of Southern Africa’s most significant ancient courts.

© Jan Derk

Modern examples of dry stone walling, other than as a cultural practice and general maintenance of existing feature, are hard to come by. Landscape architecture skilfully uses dry stone for terracing, where nowadays more manufactured, decorative motifs are found, lacking the original, organic sense of place.

However, there are still some examples where the principles are applied to delicate, sense driven projects. The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre by Peter Rich Architects also uses dry stone walls (which have historical relevance in the area) in a showcase of local material and craft, creating a project deeply ingrained within its context.

© Iwan Baan

Eduardo Souto de Moura’s pavilion at this years Venice Biennale uses dry stone to create a sunken sanctuary space, where the scars and tactility of the stone are exhibited and celebrated.

© Laurian Ghinitoiu

An alternative manner of utilising the concept, the Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog + de Meuron has a mortarless brick facade that creates the effect of a free-standing structure supported under its own weight. While not technically dry stone, it maintains the essence of the method, showing how the technique has a place in the future of modern architecture. The mesmerising close ups seen throughout the building leave you with the same head-scratching notion of when you see the ancient, seemingly loose walls: just how do you make it stand up?

© Iwan Baan
About this author
Cite: Tom Dobbins. "The Technology Before the Wheel: A Brief History of Dry Stone Construction" 25 Aug 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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