It is not hard to spot a retaining wall unless you live on a salt flat such as Lake Ayer in Australia or the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. They are the stone structures that support tonnes of soil and make flat areas for building, farming and civilization possible. Today there are many kinds of retaining wall, from simple block walls to Gabion mesh blocks filled with crockery to modern link block that require no mortar.
Modern mortar free retaining wall technology is impressive as it allows the creation of complex structures with no need for messy mortar. These amazing blocks are a little like Lego, using interlocking flanges to create walls in straight, curved or cornered shapes. The best thing about them is that if a mistake is made in the construction the blocks can easily be ‘unlinked’ and restructured.
As amazing as this modern technology is, you need only look back in history to see some truly remarkable retaining wall technology.
At it’s height the Inca Empire spanned nearly two thirds of the Andes mountain range and had made great advances in the fields of math, astronomy and engineering by the 15th century, when they dominated the South American continent. An extensive network of paved roads wove through the Andes connecting the vast expanse of the Inca Empire. There is a story told in Cusco of an Incan King who ordered fresh fish from Chile and was presented unto the King less than 24 hours after his order.
Yet the greatest marvels of the Incan Empire are surely the monolithic stone structures and terraced fields of the Peruvian high lands. The Valle Sagrado or Sacred Valley, are the lands surrounding Cusco and Macchu Piccu. Terraced foothills overleap one another to bind the towering peaks with ribs of stone. Reaching to the gods step by giant step. The temple of Macchu Piccu was built as close to the Apu’s – or spirits of the mountain as possible. Whilst this pursuit of the highest ground was one of a spiritual nature, the realisation of that aim is a feat of engineering that baffles great minds even today.
A grand temple created from hundreds, if not thousands of tonnes of earth and stone, with retaining walls that could not only support the temple itself but also survive the frequent earthquakes that plague the region and still be standing today. That the largest stones, some up to 70 tonnes and irregular in shape, were crafted so well that they aligned seamlessly with one another.
I have walked amongst those terraced fields and climbed the giant steps, breathed the thin air, marvelled at the megaliths, tried to pry between those immovable stones. Not a slip of paper or knifepoint would slide betwixt. I do not profess to understand how the stones were joined in such a seamless fashion, but I do know that some times Modern Technology isn’t a patch on Ancient Mystery.
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