Earliest Forms of Dry Stone Construction

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Rocks and stones can be effective building material. But what can you make with them? In this lesson we'll explore some of the earliest forms and examples of dry stone construction.

What is Dry Stone Construction?

Have you ever built a small shape along a riverbank by piling stones on top of each other? If so, you've done a basic form of dry stone construction.

Dry stone construction is done with nothing but stone. You carefully stack stones on top of each other to create a wall or other structure. Unlike other types of stone or brick construction, dry stone construction doesn't use mortar as a binder. Mortar is a substance made of sand, cement, and water that's put between stones or bricks to help hold them in place. But mortar can crack or be affected by weather fluctuations.

In dry stone construction, the stones fit tightly together and gravity helps them lock in with each other. It's also a type of building that can be done without complicated tools. Dry stone construction, when done correctly, is very durable and long-lasting. It's even resistant to earthquakes.

Early Forms of Dry Stone Construction

Dry stone construction has been done in many places. Let's look at a few of these.

The British Isles

People have been building with stone for thousands of years. Some of the earliest examples of dry stone construction date back to the Neolithic period (roughly beginning around 9000 years ago). At a site called Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland, built around 3000 BC, a cluster of homes was found made with horizontal layers or courses of close-fitting stone slabs. The structures were started by laying the stones right into the surrounding earth and then building up. This region of Scotland didn't have many trees so the early people used stone to its full advantage. Even furniture in these ancient houses were made of stone.

Inside one of the structures at Skara Brae
Skara Brae

Other examples of Iron Age dry stone construction can be found in Scotland's Shetland Islands. Hundreds of tall round towers called brochs exist throughout the islands, some better preserved than others. The towers might have been used for military purposes or agriculture, though no one is really sure. One of the best preserved of these towers is called Mousa Broch, built between 300 and 100 BC. It's made of inner and outer concentric stone walls. The walls were thicker at their base, and in some areas the walls are connected by long stones that run through both walls, called tie stones. The method makes the structure more stable.

Example of a Scottish broch
Example of a broch

The Aegean and Other Places

Examples of another early form of dry stone construction can be found in areas around the Mediterranean and the Aegean. A people known as the Mycenaeans, who lived around roughly the 14th century BC (before the ancient Greeks), built structures using a type of stone construction that came to be called Cyclopean masonry. The name 'cyclopean' comes from the Greek mythical figure Cyclops, reputed to have been the only being strong enough to lift such heavy stones.

Example of Cyclopean architecture from Mycenae
example of Cyclopean architecture

Cyclopean masonry used massive boulders of limestone, cut roughly into different sizes, to create large walls and other structures. The stones fit so tightly together that few if any gaps exist wide enough to stick even a very thin blade through. Later, the ancient Romans used a type of dry stone construction before the use of mortar became more widespread.

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