Structures of Stone: powerful landscaping tools

By Willa WIck in Arts & Music, Places, Events, & History
Willa Wick is shown studying the underground Kiva Annette Tilden photo

Willa Wick is shown studying the underground Kiva
Annette Tilden photo

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings, Colorado Willa Wick Photo

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings, Colorado
Willa Wick Photo

Stone offers a charm that no other material can equal. One of the more quickly recognized artifacts, the Inukshuk, has been widely used in modern landscaping. In the Inuit (Eskimo) languge inukshuk, means “in the likeness of a human.” Normally these are figurines made of slab stones. Originally the Inuit used piles of rocks for communication to indicate, “someone was here”, or “you are on the correct roadway”. These monument forms are among the oldest objects placed by man on the vast Arctic wilderness.
A human shaped inukshuk is part of the logo for the 2010 Winter Olympics. This is intended to portray friendship, and ‘welcome to the world’ for these games.
The first ever Inukshuk Gallery in Canada was opened in Waterloo in 1971. It has since been relocated to Stratford under the name Gallery Indigena.
In the January issue of The Rural Route, we covered the ancient art of dry stone stacking. There was also mention of a blackhouse. With walls we are familiar, but a blackhouse delves back into the annals of time. It’s hard to even fathom that in medieval days the crofters (poor peasant farmers) lived in dwellings akin to the igloo, only made of stone.
We know about these ancient dwellings through archaeological diggings, and many blackhouse ruins have been unearthed in the British Isles. A blackhouse was usually a long narrow building, often with one or more additional buildings adjacent but sharing a common wall. The walls were of the double dry stacked stone construction. The roof, a wooden frame, rested on the inner part of the wall. It would be covered with either peat blocks or thatch. Because the trusses balanced on the inner portion of the wall, the outer half provided a walkway for workers as they thatched the roof.
The roof had no chimney so the smoke from the fire filtered out when and where it could. The roof would have to be replaced every couple of years and the old thatch was recycled to fertilizer.
These ancient peasant homes had a toft and a croft – a toft being a small garden area for growing food. The croft was a larger area of land used for farming.
The blackhouse, which often held animals as well as the farm family, had but one opening – and through that door entered both man and his cattle.
As I try to imagine these ancient buildings in a land I’ve never visited, I remember standing in awe at another site – the prehistoric dwellings of Mesa Verde. This National Park is situated in Montezuma County, Colorado. There are over 4,000 known archeological sites at Mesa Verde, 600 of which are cliff dwellings.
Adjacent to this clan type housing was the Kiva which appeared around the 13th century. The kiva could be either round or square, but since it was below ground, the only entrance was by a ladder through the smoke hole. These subterranean pit houses were for religious rituals for the males of the clan. Women were
not allowed to enter.
We also saw walls of structures made with the typical terra cotta stone of the region. Unlike the dry stack construction of the blackhouse, these pit houses had mortar between the rocks. The bonding agent copied the color of the stone – either terra cotta red or sandstone beige. Some of these walls have been reworked for restoration purposes but care has not been taken to match the mortar colorant with the original stones. Except for the mortared walls, the structural design is very similar to that of an extensive blackhouse.
From Colorado we’ll zip down to Mexico. The Mayan civilization was one of the most sophisticated cultures in the western hemisphere, and their scholars were renowned for their impressive knowledge of mathematics and astrology. The cities were full of huge and intricate stone structures. Chichen Itza, is the largest of the ancient Mayan ruins These stone ruins were almost completely overgrown with jungle when excavations began in 1920 and revealed magnificent temples, palaces, columns, and pyramids.
One of the most fascinating is El Castillo, a towering pyramid linked to the Mayan calendar. This “step pyramid” has an architectural plan of square terraces with a staircase up the centre of each side leading to the temple on top. Each staircase has 91 steps, making a total of 364. The stepping off platform makes the 365th, the number of days in the solar calendar.
Although high on Mexico’s visitors’ list, the climb is not to be contemplated by the faint of heart. A thick rope runs up the centre of the staircase for a grab bar. Going up is easy. Coming down is more difficult. Most people either backed down, or sat and slid forward one step at a time.
Owing to a fatal accident, climbing the stone staircase is now closed to the public.
Going north a few thousand miles, we find another ancient hidden treasure, this time right here in Canada. L’Anse aux Meadows, a buried Viking village on the northern tip of Newfoundland, is the oldest known European settlement of the new world. L’Anse aux Meadows was only recently (1960) excavated and revealed buildings that had walls and roofs of peat blocks laid over supporting wooden frames. Although not stone like other ancient dwellings, they had the same pattern – large houses with fireplaces in the middle for heating, lighting and cooking. As my mother would say, “they were the same only different”.
This community represents a failed Viking colony of Norse adventurers who inhabited the area for approximately 10 to 15 years.
After they left, the buildings decayed and nature reclaimed the land. Much of the village still has to be excavated by archaeologists, but a portion will be left intact to show how it appears centuries later.
Until recently we had nothing to compare to the ancient Blackhouse. But now, practically in our own back yards, we have two different examples. One is east of Grand Valley on the farm of Eric Landman. The biggest part of this one was constructed during Roctoberfest this past Thanksgiving weekend. A group of professional dry stone wallers from around the world met for this annual festival and assisted in the creation of this structure.
Meanwhile, even closer to home, is another Blackhouse under construction on the farm of Dean McLellan at Holstein. Dean is a certified Dry Stone Waller and excels at this craft which promotes old fashioned skills. Building with stone is both meticulous and labor intensive. Most important to realize is that without mortar, it’s the friction between the rocks, plus gravity, that locks everything together under their own weight.
In the spring Dean will be hosting a work bee as he leads volunteers in the construction of a Longhouse (different from a Blackhouse). This will be erected on the property of Raymond and Suzanne (Ross) Love and will commence during the annual Maple Syrup Festival. The Longhouse will compliment the many other old fashioned buildings already on the site, and will eventually be a museum of local artifacts.