The Timeless Art of Dry Stone Walling: History, Use and the Unesco Recognition
Dry stone walls are a common feature throughout Europe, particularly in Tuscany, where they can be found in various locations ranging from Chianti to Valdarno. In Valdarno, these walls were constructed to cultivate arable land and have since been recognized and protected by UNESCO. These walls are collectively known as the Setteponti and Valdarno dry stone walls.
In 2018, Italy collaborated with Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland to achieve UNESCO recognition for the art of dry stone walling as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This recognition is a testament to the cultural significance of this international craft.
“The art of dry stone walling concerns the knowhow related to making stone constructions by stacking stones upon each other, without using any other materials except sometimes dry soil“, Unesco explains in the justification for the measure. “These structures are always made in perfect harmony with the environment and the technique exemplifies a harmonious relationship between human beings and nature. The practice is passed down primarily through practical application adapted to the particular conditions of each place“.
In this article:
What is the dry stone used for?
The construction technique of these walls involves the careful arrangement of local stones on top of one another to create vertical support structures, without the use of any binding material. This practical knowledge has been passed down through generations in rural communities and has deep roots. While there may not be a formal manual for constructing these walls, there is a legendary tradition that dates back to ancient times, in which the elders of the community pass on this knowledge to the younger generation, ensuring the preservation of this important cultural practice.
To create an authentic dry stone wall without the use of cement, it is crucial to select stones that fit together precisely, leaving minimal gaps between them. When choosing stones, there are two main types to consider: Base stones: these are typically wide and heavy, providing sturdy support for the weight of the wall. They are approximately 30 centimeters in length and have a square, regular shape; Wall stones: these stones can range in width from 25 to 35 centimeters, with the wider stones placed at the bottom of the wall for added stability.
Today, dry stone walls are mainly created by specialized companies. However, Tuscany is very attentive to the care of these. In 2020, the region funded a specific course to learn how to make them.
Dry stone walls perform the important function of geomorphological stabilization of slopes to which is added that of an element capable of preserving the ecological integrity of the territory and thus the biodiversity of local flora and fauna, as underlined by the Fondo Ambiente (FAI).
An important ecosystem is created by the dry stone walls, with spontaneous vegetation growing between the stones or close to the walls themselves. This creates a special microclimate that is favorable to Mediterranean plants, allowing them to overcome the summer crisis thanks to the greater availability of water. Numerous botanical species can be found growing along dry stone walls.
Dry Stone in Tuscany: where to find
As previously mentioned, dry stone walls can be found throughout Tuscany, but the most renowned area for these walls is the Valdarno region, specifically along the Via dei Setteponti. Here, the small walls often serve as boundaries for fields of olive groves and vineyards. The Vigna delle Sanzioni in the Gropina area is a notable example of the exceptional dry stone wall artistry found along the Setteponti route.
In every village along the Setteponti, there are still individuals who possess extensive knowledge of dry stone wall construction. These masters learned the skill from an early age out of necessity as a part of their livelihoods, and they pass on this valuable knowledge to younger generations.
Cover Photo: Jacques Gaimard / Pixabay