The Art of Drystone Walls: A Testament to Sustainability and Craftsmanship

I recently came across a post on Mastodon showcasing a home in the UK with a short retaining wall. The builder mentioned that the earlier wall had failed after 30 years. While three decades is quite a respectable lifespan, it pales in comparison to the endurance of drystone walls, which can often stand for centuries. A wall like the one in the picture below, can easily last 200-300 years. The greatest threat stone walls face are children and tree roots. They very often withstand earthquakes and floods better than other wall types and come with built-in fire retardants…

Growing up a bit in Mexico, I had the opportunity to explore the countryside extensively with grandparents, who were passionate about pre-Columbian history. It was during these road trips I learned about their traditional practice of building drystone walls. As farmers plowed their fields, they would unearth stones and incorporate them into walls. Walking through regions like Michoacan and Jalisco, I observed the varying quality of these walls—some crumbling with time, while others stood strong for generations. Even the fallen stones were repurposed to mend the walls, a testament to their resilience.

What fascinated me most were the stones themselves. Due to Mexico’s volcanic history, these walls were often composed of unique rocks, including obsidian and other eruption-related stones. Occasionally, historical artifacts like headstones would be discovered and integrated into the walls, their significance often overlooked by those who built them.

Similar practices can be found in the United Kingdom, particularly in regions like Ireland and Scotland, where stones found in the path of plows were utilized in construction. One of the most famous examples of drystone construction is Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in the early 2nd century AD. Stretching approximately 73 miles across northern England, Hadrian’s Wall served as a defensive fortification, showcasing the remarkable durability and craftsmanship of drystone construction.

Despite years of road trips crisscrossing through the Western States of the US, I have rarely encountered drystone walls longer than a few feet, which is a pity considering their durability and sustainability compared to other materials like wood. I don’t do masonry stone work, although I have dabbled and smashed a couple of fingers along the way.

In a world increasingly focused on sustainability, investing in a drystone wall built by a skilled mason or stonemason is not only a practical choice but also a nod to the timeless craftsmanship that has endured for centuries. Whether you reside in Seattle, King County, or anywhere else in the world, the longevity and eco-friendliness of drystone walls can make them a worthwhile investment for many properties.


Author Since: March 21, 2023