Gozo is the proud guardian of a millennia-old craft: the building of drystone walls known as ħitan tas-sejjieħ.

Such walls are built with pieces of stone fitted together without mortar. They are also referred to as rubble walls because the masonry is constructed of rough unfinished stones.

These walls serve several purposes. First and foremost they break down the slopes of hilly Gozo into manageable fields. The walls prevent the soil from being washed away by the rain. A breach in the wall was to be raised by the tenant of the holding if it was smaller than two metres. If it was wider, the burden for its repair fell upon the landlord. Whoever did not respect these regulations risked imprisonment.

On flat ground, where they are built very low, these walls mark the boundaries of various holdings. In some areas they also serve to protect vegetables and saplings from the withering north westerly wind. Along lanes and foot paths, they prevent trespassers from stealing or damaging crops. Next to farms they form enclosures to impede farm animals from roaming away.

A small axe called imterqa and a piece of string to mark the limits of the wall being built were the only tools used in the building of these walls. This tool is similar to a hatchet with a short handle and a heavy metal head for use with one hand. It has a flat edge on one side and a sharpened edge on the other.

The traditional way of constructing a field consists in first levelling the ground by removing protruding rock and filling in any cavities with stones and then spreading a layer of soil about a metre deep over the evened surface. The terrain is then divided into small parcels by an extensive network of rubble walls.

The mason's task consisted in raising a wall by placing the rough pieces of stone without taking any measurements whatsoever, basing his judgment solely on experience, able hands and eagle eyes.

Every piece of stone is laid with its flat face downwards to create a strong base. The space behind the pieces and between one layer and the next is filled with stone chippings known as maskan as this eases the passage of rain water through the wall without damaging the structure. Rubble walls were built caving inwards and resting upon the soil for sturdiness.

Every three and a half metres, or less if the wall was fairly high, the mason placed a column, with a fairly large stone heading into the soil and the one above stretching upon it along the wall. This column-like chain shored up the wall from collapsing through the movement of soil after heavy rainfall.

This craft and the most fascinating dry-stone walls in Gozo are being showcased by means of 40 photographs at the national archives in Triq il-Vajrinġa, Victoria tomorrow between 7.30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight as part of Lejlet Lapsi Notte Gozitana, which extends into the following day.

Rev. Dr Bezzina is assistant director of the National Archives Malta and head of its Gozo section.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us