Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The falling walls

(Picture: the polygonal Lesbian wall at Delphi)

A very long time ago, many centuries before we started counting the years, there was a Lesvorian building style that was famous far beyond the borders of the island and was even mentioned by Aristotle: the polygonal Lesbian walls. One of the eye catching attractions at Delphi is the same kind of polygonal wall. The stones have irregular sides and form a dazzling mosaic. A few years ago digging at the archaeological site of Xanthos (close to Antalya, Turkey) where they uncovered the ancient capital of Lycia, they also found the same kind of polygonal Lesbian wall.

Finding such a very distinctive old wall means archaeologists can immediately date it: 7th-6th centuries BC. Special to the polygonal walls on Lesvos are their curved sides. Imagine how the builders made these walls: no stone was square, no stone the same size, no stone with the same sides, and then all those curves! Imagine how much time it took to find stones that could match each other. Well, they also did a bit of chiselling to make them fit, and the seams were not always millimetre perfect, so sometimes there were gaps which were filled in with little stones.

It is thought that building these complex polygonal Lesbian walls was a sign of luxury: you could show off with them. So when you find such a wall, do not think that it was used just to separate two gardens. Behind such there might have been a sanctuary or some other important building.

On Lesvos these walls have been found amongst others at the acropolis of Eresos, in Mythilini, at the harbor of Molyvos, in Xirokastrini (close to Parakila) and the finest preserved polygonal wall of Lesvos you will find at Apothiki. The archaeologist Nigel Spencer has been wondering why this wall was at Apothiki. Apothiki is in the middle of nowhere, far from the six ancient cities of Lesvos: Arisve (now a suburb of Kaloni), Mytilini, Eresos, Mythimna (now mostly called Molyvos) and Andissa. In ancient times did they build those walls to keep the neighbours out? It is known that these city states of Lesvos were often at war with each other. Mythimna took Arisve and one of the multiple little wars between Mythimna and Mytilini is mentioned in the romantic story of Daphne and Chloe, written by the Lesvorian writer Longos.

Nigel Spender also discovered traces of many towers, especially in the west and the central part of the island. The towers did not seem to be for any military or agricultural purpose. In his book ‘Time, tradition, and society in Greek archaeology: bridging the 'great divide'’ Spencer suggests that the towers were probably built to impress their neighbours. But he does not think that the polygonal walls were built for the same reason. He thinks that the wall at Apothiki was used to protect an important sanctuary.

Most of the original polygonal walls are lost but the landscape of Lesvos is littered with other walls built in a different style that is also now a threatened species: the drystone walls that meander over the mountains and through the fields. They separate different lands, they support the olive and fruit or nut tree terraces, or they are made to keep out the animals.

One of the conclusions of the study ‘Agricultural landscape dynamics in the Mediterranean: Lesvos (Greece) case studying evidence from the last three centuries’ by Thanasis Kizos and Maria Koulouri is that these drystone walls will slowly disappear. Although lots of them still function, not much care is taken of them; they are neither maintained nor repaired. Most of them are left to the sheep and goats to wear them away and to the passage of time that will assist their eventual decay into rubble. (TB: People, of course, like to ‘borrow’ stones for their own purposes).

If you take a good look at them, you will notice how they are made without any kind of cement. There are not many Greeks left who have the skill to build a drystone wall, and to get them repaired means going to a lot of trouble: you have to find somebody who knows how to build them; sometimes you have to rebuild a whole wall for which you would need ‘new’ stones. As the art of making drystone walls is lost so, of course, all this work costs more and more. There are plenty of modern alternatives: building walls with cement or surrounding your land with iron fences that you can put in yourself. Poor farmers, or people who do not want to spend money on fencing, will use old iron beds, parts of cars, rusty washing machines and any garbage that can fill a hole. (TB: up behind Molyvos one shepherd has made a wall using a couple of those ancient polygonal stones mixed up with stones from the beach). But happily enough this is also an ‘art’ that may itself disappear as most Greeks realize that garbage has no place any more in the Greek landscapes.

And so the landscape of Lesvos, once filled with polygonal walls and still threaded through with hundreds of dry stonewalls, will slowly change. More houses will decorate the hills and mountains, agricultural land will be abandoned, terraces will slide down the hillsides and one day a landscape without walls will appear...

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

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