Why Do Stone Walls Exist ?
Garden wall built stricttly for show at Southern Maine Botannical Garden, Boothbay Harbor, ME.
Answer? Stone walls were built for many reasons, which have changed through the course of history. Speaking broadly about the regional phenomenon, the majority stone walls were built during the 18th and 19th centuries in association with a widely distributed, agricultural economy. Beginning in the mid 19th century, however, much of this rural land was abandoned, allowing forest to return. Near cities and centers of wealth, however, walls continued to be built, but for architectural, rather than agricultural reasons.
To understand the purpose of stone walls, we must discriminate between the word "purpose" which implies intent or volition, and the word "function" which describes how the wall "works" or what it acctually does, intentional or otherwise. Back then, the function of walls was purposeful.
Initial wall-building efforts served three purposes, all of which operated simultaneously. The principal purpose however, varied from wall to wall, farm to farm, and time to time.
DISPOSAL . Walls were built to hold the non-biodegradable agricultural refuse we refer to as stone or rock. They chopped, burned, and skidded away the trees. They picked and scuttled the stone, usually to the nearest pile and fenceline.
CONTROL. Much of the stone was used for some expedient purpose having to do with private property. Most of it was used for subdividing property (boundary markers, field subdivisions, and livestock enclosure). Most of the remainder was used for the construction of foundations, retaining walls, and other engineered structures.
EXPRESSION. Nearly all stonework reflects a personal/cultural overlay, which involves conscious and subconscious patterning and style of the stone in the form of folk art.
Historically, the purpose of disposal usually preceded the purpose of control, which preceded the purpose of expression. Historically, walls were usually built for just one purpose, but served all functions simultaneously.
An abandoned wall no longer has a purpose. Instead, it has a function. After the wall was constructed, and especially after the wall was abandoned, the wall served functions that may not have been originally intended.