The craft of stone splitting: from millstones to traditions in home construction

Stone crafts

Stone splitting (stone hewing) is an old craft which at first only had practical application, when stones were just an excellent building material. However, thanks to this craft various monuments have been built and are still being built today.

Not just a building material

Stone is not just one of the oldest and most durable building materials. There are ritual stones and a wide variety of archaeological monuments that have survived to this day. Stone structures that are thousands of years old – like the pyramids, sphinxes, obelisks and temples of ancient Egypt – are still in good shape and attract thousands of tourists every year.

Stone and earth monuments/burial mounds and several rows of stone wreaths from the times of primitive society have been found in tombs to remember the dead. They were decorated with ancient Lithuanian pagan symbols – the sun, the moon, stars, horseshoes and grass snakes.

Chapels, wayside shrines and sculptures also used to be hewed from select natural, intact stones according to the examples of wooden monuments and sculptures. However, only a few stonemasons were engaged in artistic stonework, since this was a rarity due to the prevalence of wooden cross-crafting. The craft of stonemasonry is believed to be related to the spread of iron and the development of blacksmithing.

More and more fields of application

Stone has long been used for work of a practical nature. People used to make tools from stone, and stones were used in Lithuania for paving roads, constructing kūlgrinda (hidden underwater roads used for defence), and building defensive structures.

With the advancement of stone splitting tools, the potential of stone using increased. Stone houses, outbuildings, churches, fences and bridges began to be built. Millstone cutters hewed and sharpened millstones used for grinding and milling grain. Stone hewers hewed stone projectiles at weapon foundries.

Lithuanians adopted some of the secrets of the old craft from the Russians. Russian Old Believers fleeing from the tsar after the 17th century settled in the Zarasai region – since they were not able to buy land, they eventually became good craftsmen. They built houses, shod horses and hewed stones. The Lithuanians who lived there learned the craft of stone processing from them.

Younger generation is in no rush to try this craft

Modern-day stone splitters mainly work with sculptures, and tombstones in particular.

A good few decades ago, monuments began to get smaller, but their composition became more elaborate and complex. Due to the tombstones alone, today’s cemeteries are very different from the interwar period, when people marked places of eternal rest with wooden crosses.

There are currently only four certified stone splitters in Lithuania. The younger generation is in no rush to try this craft, because the work is strenuous and requires patience. These days, only a handful of stonemasons are carrying on the experience of their ancestral stone sculptors, carving sculptures to decorate homesteads and towns.

Financed by the European Regional Development Fund