The History and Art of Building Traditional Dry Stone Walls

The definition of dry stone walling is a wall made with stones that fit together firmly without being stuck together with mortar.

The history of dry stone walling dates back to time and memorial. The ancient Mayans and Incas built enormous temples and places of sacrifice to worship the gods and observe the universe using this method. Machu pichu in Peru was the sacred home of the Incas where this highly evolved and spiritual civilisation extensively terraced a whole mountainside so that they could farm the land and grow their crops. 

The Romans built Hadrians wall in the far north of England to fend off the marauding barbarians, and farmers in Cornwall built double-sided walls filled with soil and hedging plants planted along the top, to act as windbreaks and protect their crops from prevailing winds. Coincidentally, this is known as a Cornish hedge.

Machu Pichu, the sacred home of the Incas in the Peruvian Andes 

Hadrians wall on the border between England and Scotland, built during the Romans' occupation

Traditional dry stone wall in the Yorkshire dales in England.

This very traditional method of building walls is still alive and well today, and has been passed down from one generation to another. Landscape gardeners who are skilled in this ancient art can create beautiful gardens using natural rock to effectively retain and terrace difficult slopes, which makes gardening a great deal easier. Aesthetically speaking, dry stone walls are often considered a lot more attractive and natural than modern concrete structures and (providing they are built properly), they will stand the test of time. These walls are also free draining, provided you back-fill with fine soil and coarse sand, not clay. It is also imperative that you compact each layer of soil behind every course to avoid subsidence, or the wall will collapse.

Construction of a dry stone wall

Plantations estate in Hillcrest, KZN. The traditional dry stone wall is in keeping with the Tuscan theme.

Dry stone walls provide a wonderful refuge for wildlife. Skinks, lizards and amphibious creatures inhabit these walls and live between the rocks. Drought-resistant succulent plants such as sedums, echeverias, crassulas and vygies will happily grow between the stones and enhance and soften the face of the wall. Architectural plants such as Aloes, agaves and other indigenous or Mediterranean type plants look great planted in the level terraces above the wall.

A very creative circular dry stone wall using much thinner pieces of slate, top-dressed with individual pieces lying on their side along the top of the wall. This wall incorporates a circular cobblestone feature, show garden and a sphere.

You can plant succulents and other hardy, drought-resistant specimens in all the natural cracks and crevices.

Finally, if you wish to build one of these walls for yourself you should prepare a shallow foundation:

  • Approximately 200mm deep x 300mm wide.
  • Hand source a selection of large, medium and small boulders or rocks that are a uniform square or rectangular shape.
  • Place the largest ones on top of your foundation - either in a straight line or in a curved manner, depending on the shape you want. Then backfill with your soil and compact.
  • Repeat this process as you build up layers, using medium size rocks and then your smaller stones at the top -  always maintaining your levels.
  • Dry stone walls should not exceed a height of 1.5 meters. If you have a much higher gradient to retain, you need to create level terraces between walls. These are normally 1-1.5 metres wide.
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