Up north in the Cape Karoo an architectural feature seems to jump out from the scrubby landscape: corbelled houses. In South Africa these unusual stone structures are found mostly here in these arid parts of the Northern Cape province.
Stone houses may look harsh and uninviting. Yet, they date back millenia – home to our early ancestors.
‘Hearth’ is usually defined as the paved floor of a fireplace in a house, often extending into the room. The fireplace was there for cooking and to generate heat to warm the inhabitants, especially in cold climes.
In time, the phrase ‘hearth and home’ came to embody family and the love shared among those living in the glow of the firelit room. It exuded coziness and the embracing comfort of the home.
Of course, this does not mean that life was easy – on the contrary.
This type of home dates back thousands of years. Houses as we understand them today, dwellings with different rooms, are a relatively new design. When humankind first started to construct a living space, it often consisted of a one-room structure in which the entire family lived in safety. Here they slept and prepared meals.
The dwelling was built with whatever material was readily available in the immediate environs, sometimes wood but in many instances stone.
In the area around Carnarvon, Fraserburg and Williston, there are numerous stone corbelled houses (Afrikaans: korbeelhuise). They are built of overlapping flat stones, tapering to a point at the top. The unusual conical shape, looking somewhat like a beehive, gives the structure incredible strength to last a very long time.
A National Geographic article, contributed by local writer-photographer Chris Marais in 2014, explains that the first white migrant stock farmers – trekboere – built such dwellings and granaries in the northern Cape Karoo in the early 1800s.
Importantly, these dwellings offered a safe living environment and in times of inclement weather, the inhabitants could make their cooking fire inside. By simply removing the last flat stone at the apex, the smoke could escape through the roof.
Somewhat similar constructions of corbelled houses are found elsewhere in the world, around the Mediterranean in Spain and Portugal, Italy, Turkey, and even the Middle East. Italy’s famous trulli houses in Alberabello have Unesco heritage status.
Bestselling author Carol Drinkwater writes – in her entertaining travel book, The Olive Tree – that she came across “igloo-like stone huts” in Catalonia that reminded her of the bories in Provence in France. These bories were thought to be built by the Ligurians, and dated to 600 BCE; that is more than 2 600 years ago.
Corbel is an architectural term from Old French that derives from Latin corvellus, the diminutive form of corvus, meaning ‘raven’, because the shape brings to mind a bird’s beak.
South Africa’s corbelled homes, many with official heritage status, are now much sought after as tourist accommodation. Farm owners have converted some of these houses into lodgings – something quite different for the visitor travelling in these parts of the country.
A project is under way to document the existing corbelled structures, using digital 3D scanning, in an effort to preserve this precious heritage.
My thanks to fellow Safrean Denise Mhlanga for editing assistance.