Traditional schist field walls of Andros

by Paul Donnelly
Powerhouse Museum Curator, Design and Society
and Archaeologist

Path to Zagora (seen in the distance)
Path to Zagora (seen in the distance) © PHM; photo by Paul Donnelly
If there is a way to do something more quickly and efficiently then usually human ingenuity comes up with the answer! Andros is criss-crossed with hundreds of kilometres of dry-stone (without binding material) field walls snaking their way up and down the, often very steep, landscape. The walling separates land between different owners and defines walking tracks between fields – the 50 minute walk to the Zagora site is one such access track.

The ingenuity of these walls is found in their response to the availability and nature of local materials – in this case schist stone – which is formed in layers and splits into thin sheets. These can be very large sheets and in the making of the field walls a large (often triangular-shaped) schist slab was inserted into the ground every two metres or so standing upright horizontal to the wall and boxed in by (often two) smaller slabs placed across each edge.

Standing schist slab, boxed in
Standing schist slab, boxed in © PHM; photo by Paul Donnelly
The gaps between the upright slabs were then filled with smaller schist blocks laid horizontally as with more conventional and labour intensive dry-stone walling.

The effect is very distinctive and their beauty changes with the passing of the day and its changing light: Early in the morning or late in the day the shiny nature of the vertical schist slabs reflect the sun in ways that resemble garlands of giant necklaces draped over the shoulders of the hills.

Making walls in this manner must have saved around a third of the time it would take to make a full dry-stone wall, and further time was saved in not having to gather and transport the smaller stones that would have been required in place of the vertical slabs. As the Zagora team found to their cost however, using vertical slabs wasn’t all plain sailing: the lifting of a large schist slab to form a table in the dig HQ took six archaeologists to move it!

A dried holme bush barrier on a schist wall
A dried holme bush barrier on a schist wall © PHM; photo by Paul Donnelly
This experience suggests that large teams of farmers were, and are, involved in these distinctive features of Andros (or at least it suits our egos to imagine this!) Of the variations on Andriot walling perhaps the arrangement of prickly dried Holme bushes under capping stones along the top of a wall is one of the most intriguing. The bushes resemble miniature holly and the spiky dried branches form a natural ‘barbed wire’ that is a deterrent to trespassers or helps keep animals penned. The appearance of an ‘afro’ hair-do to the wall is probably coincidental!

It is sobering to realise the use of schist stems from Andros’s deep ancient past. The walls of the Early Iron Age buildings of Zagora extending back to at least 850 BCE were made of layers of schist, while the square altar of the Zagora temple is composed from slabs of schist laid on their sides, 2700 years ago.

Schist slabs reflecting sunlight
Schist slabs reflecting sunlight © PHM; photo by Paul Donnelly
Six people carrying a schist slab that will be used as a table top
Six people carrying a schist slab that will be used as a table top © PHM; photo by Stephanie Snedden

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