Drystone Walls Are Handmade Wonders
Made from the simplest of materials following techniques passed down through the centuries, the walls that have shaped Greece’s landscapes are true treasures.
These masterpieces of folk architecture, crafted using the simplest of materials, invariably enrich the environment, turning rugged landscapes into cultivatable, fertile land.
In 2015, drystone construction was included in the Ministry of Culture’s national catalogue of Modern Cultural and Intangible Cultural Heritage. Greece, in cooperation with Cyprus, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, submitted a proposal to UNESCO to inscribe the art of drystone walling in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – a proposal which was approved last November.
Their method of construction is what sets them apart: as the name implies, drystone walls are made from stones stacked on top of each other without any mortar to bind them – their stability comes from the method with which the stones are overlaid and wedged together. These walls help protect against flooding, as the terraced slopes absorb rain and release it gradually, as well as against soil erosion. At the same time they serve to bolster biodiversity, providing habitats for reptiles and insects. In Greece the technique is known as “en xiro” and the stones used are gathered from the immediate environment.
The craft which is passed on from generation to generation, the shaping of the landscapes over time, their environmental benefits as well as their social aspects are all reasons why UNESCO embraced them.
While the use and construction of drystone walls has shrunk worryingly as they demand manual labour both in their construction and afterwards, as modern agricultural machinery cannot be used on the terraces – their value is unquestionable. It appears that the same technique has been used since prehistoric times – and not only in Greece. From the Balkans and other Mediterranean countries to the rice fields of Indonesia and cultivated land in Ethiopia, the craft is widespread.
Among the oldest drystone structures are the so-called “drakospita” (dragon houses) which were used as places of worship or inhabitation by quarry workers, but these belong in the category of monuments. Some drystone agricultural structures on the islands and on Crete have tentatively been dated to Roman times, although more certain methods date the oldest to Venetian times.
Drystone walls are built according to the slope of the ground, the orientation of the slope, and the quality of the soil and rock. Craftsmen take into account the wind, sun and rain.
What is valuable with drystone techniques, however, is that at the same time the stones can move. This means that if it is damaged in one spot, it won’t bring down the entire structure as with conventional walls, and it will be easy to repair.
MITATA, CRETE: SEASONAL RESIDENCES-SHELTERSFOR
SHEPERDS AND THEIR ANIMALS
Mitata: Cretan ‘igloos’. They are bulky stone constructions that functioned as dairies of the mountainous countryside. The dairy men spent many days in the mountains, so they needed a residence to stay and protect themselves from the winter weather conditions.
They are built from hard stones found in each area. Their circular shape symbollises the communal way of life, the equality among its members and the interaction they have with each other. They all work as a team, sleep together and warm up by the same fire. They often have visitors, friends or passers-by, they welcome them and treat them with their traditional cheese and wine.
We find them in the prefects of Chania and Rethymno, especially in the villages of Psiloreitis (here lies the oldest mitato, built in 1841!)
Two great celebrations take place every year there: in mid-May until mid-June is the cutting of the sheep’s wool, and in July is the celebration of Saint Mamas, protector of the animals.
The Archaeological service, due to their cultural value, has declared the niitata in Anogeia as preservable monuments.
‘’The stones and rocks in the empty houses hide and do not tell the hell of yesterday, the crying and screaming from the pain in the bodies of hundreds of sufferers’’.
The island is in Crete, in the prefecture of Lasithi. After its occupation by the Venets it was named Spinalonga (meaning ‘Long Thorn’). Since 1903 it has been used as a leprosy ….., where the first 251 lepers from Crete were taken. The conditions were hard, considering that there was no proper medical treatment, while the leprosy virus was contagious and incurable. After 1913 patients from all over Greece and from foreign countries were gradually taken there, raising their number to 1000. It was turned into an ‘International…..’.
Despite their misery and their fact that the place was a large cemetery with a deadline, the patients developed their own social rules and values. They married each other (although it was forbidden to do so due to their illness), and even had children (some of which were healthy).They created coffee houses, and with a small allowance the State gave them they bought the necessary food from a small bazaar which was set at the entrance of the island by local producers. The money used was especially sterilized. Those patients who were strong enough cultivated small gardens or dealt with fishing.
In 1936 the 3rd year Law student Epaminondas Remoundakis went to the island. He founded the ‘Brotherhood of Spinalonga Patients’ and fought to better the living conditions of the patients. (After 1957 he was hospitalized in Athens).
In 1948 the medicine that treated the virus of leprosy was found in America. From 1948 until 1957 the number of patients was largely reduced. In 1957 they were transferred to a hospital in Athens.
Today, Spinalonga has been characterized as an archaeological place and some buildings are being restored.
|Stone, the oldest building material.|
|Stone is the oldest building material. Since the ancient times, it has been the main construction material for all kinds of buildings. Historically, we see that until the 20th century most of the buildings were made from stone. Churches, palaces, forts, residences, bridges, aqueducts, mitata, windmills, watermills, barns, oil presses, drywalls, wells, laundry rooms etc. that we find in the islands of Cyclades and elsewhere are a main part of Greek island life and culture. The inhabitants of the islands created them with an artistic sensitivity, covering their needs with local natural materials, in wise and economical ways, without affecting the natural landscape. Stone as a building material in Greece In our country the underground soil allowed the extensive use of this material. The possibilities that stone has – the variety of colour and texture, the great mechanical resilience – have contributed to its wide use until today. The stone mason Historically, the building technique was passed on from generation to generation, and stone buildings were dominant in most parts of Greece. Most of the Greek traditional architecture was defined by unknown architects. The traditional masons, originally isolated and then organized into groups, travelled from place to place and built houses, bridges or millsτα and participated in every other construction. As a result, there came traditional settlements. With the passing of time, they created constructions with common features throughout the country. The fact is that stone constructions remain a product of human art and experience of people who have the relevant knowledge, and maybe this is why they remain competitive in comparison with modern constructions techniques. Advantages of stone constructions The greatest advantage of stone constructions is their timeless architectural aesthetics, which respects the environment and harmoniseswitih the natural landscape. They are still considered a timeless investment. Many elements contribute to this, among which are the excellent soundproofing and the better living quality they provide. Way of stone construction Traditionally, the way to build a stone house was an excellent combination of stone and wood. To create a floor, the builders incorporated the wood into the stone walls, so that it would be strong enough to holds loads. In stone walls, they started building simultaneously, peripherally all around the house, going upwards to the roof. In older times, almost all stone houses were covered with plaster. In some areas, like in the islands, they used plaster both inwards and outwards, something which made the house completely waterproof.|