Ancient Hawaiians were prolific when it came to building walls. Remains of these ancient rock walls date back to the 12th century, and can be found in places like Place of Refuge at Honaunau (Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park) as well as along highways and in commercial and residential areas.
The Big Island has a plentiful supply of lava rock, making it the perfect place for residents to build a rock wall. Hawaiian blue rock is the staple for use in creating the walls, and although they can be created using the dry stacking method (see below) most are constructed using a mix of cement and sand in order to hold the rocks together. Placing the rocks is like building the perfect jigsaw, and it’s a skill that takes stone masons years to perfect.
Not just walls
There are two main types of rock walls. Moss rock walls and blue rock walls. Moss rocks have a particular rugged, aged appearance and often come in different color tones, giving the wall an interesting patchwork aspect. The Hawaiian blue rock is so-named for its natural blue color. Other types of lava rock include a’a lava, and pahoehoe lava. Lava rock can be used to build retaining walls, terraces, garden paths, driveways – the list is endless. The interior of rock walls are usually filled with rubble. The top of a rock wall is either finished with cement or flat pieces of lava rock are found and fitted together to form an even, flat finish.
Walls that have been created using the dry stacking technique litter the Big Island. They run across ranch land, form the remains of important ancient Hawaiian cultural sites and remind residents and visitors of the skill of ancient Hawaiian stone masons.
Dry stacking or uhau humu pohaku (pohaku means rock) is to make a construction without any mortar or joinery. Dry stacking requires a high degree of skill as the rocks must be fitted in such a way that they lock together like a series of interlocking teeth.
Dry stacking, as it’s practiced today, involves setting foundation rocks into the ground at a depth of about half a foot. The exterior of the wall is created by stacking the rocks on either side while filling in the center with smaller stones. All of these rocks are wedged together without any assistance from cement.
The Great Wall
Place of Refuge is the site of the Great Wall, or Pā Puʻuhonua. This wall stretches along the eastern and southern sides of the puʻuhonua, the ancient site where Hawaiians who broke the law could avoid almost-certain death by seeking refuge within the walled space. The wall itself is about 12 feet in height and 18 feet wide, with a length of almost 1000 feet!
The wall served to protect the ancient Hawaiians within the area from the outside world. The wall is especially notable for it’s evidence of two dry stacking techniques. The first is paʻo (caverned), a technique involving laying lava slabs on top of columns. Evidence of this technique has not been discovered anywhere else in Hawaii. The second is the classic haka haka construction technique in which stone rubble is used to fill the interior space between the two outer walls.
Rock wall construction has a strong tradition in the Hawaiian Islands and continues to remain a popular choice for walls and gardens. Get up close to an awe-inspiring example of an ancient Hawaiian rock wall with a visit to Place of Refuge on the Kona Coast.