Women in Karst Quarries and Stonemasonry

Works in the Kopriva quarry, 1950. Personal archive of Marta Širca

The 19th and 20th centuries were the golden age of extracting and cutting stone in Karst. Women played a supporting but nevertheless essential role in this craft that is today being revived precisely by them.

In Slovenia, the tradition of quarrying and cutting stone spans more than a thousand years. Karst, in particular, is well known for its rich history of quarrying and stonemasonry – this rocky and windswept landscape in Western Slovenia has given name to other similar landscapes across the world (Kras in Slovenian, Carso in Italian). Merely a century ago, most Karst villages had at least one small stone quarry or java, as it was called; cut stone, used in construction and masonry, was being extracted at a total of 150 stone quarries.

The growth of quarrying was accompanied by the development of stonemasonry, a craft of working and designing stone. At any one time, Karst villages boasted a number of trained and skilled stonemasons, who contributed to the unique aesthetic of the typical Karst house. The traditional house is embellished by beautiful and, above all, functional stone elements, still highly regarded today: štirna (well), porton (arched portal), konzola (pier or load-bearing support for balconies), baptismal stones, and various markers.

Apart from physical strength, quarrying and stonemasonry have always also required mental prowess. Because of the physically demanding nature of this craft, it is still widely considered that stonecutting is not suitable for women and that quarries only employed men. It is true that, until recently, records show no evidence of women stonecutters or stonemasons. This absence, however, is a consequence of prejudice rather than women’s frailty – because of the widespread bias that women could not sustain such heavy physical labour, traditionally only men were allowed to study the craft.

Women operated the lime kiln and the winch, worked the blacksmith bellows, and cleared away surplus stones.

Recent studies show that the history of stonecutting was shaped by the so far unacknowledged contribution of women. In fact, women played a vital and oftentimes indispensable role. They worked in quarries in administrative roles and took care of the food, which no mountain of a man can go without. If the kitchen was not close by, the women would bring lunch to the quarrymen from remote villages on foot or by bicycle. Their wicker baskets, which they placed on rolled-up cloth on their heads, contained pots with up to 30 litres of hot food; additionally, they would carry two more pitchers, one in each hand. Their journey could take an hour or more; when they came to the quarry, there was no time to rest. Instead, they did hard manual labour, working the lime kilns or operating the winch (a pulley used to lift slabs of cut stone). They also worked the blacksmith bellows and threw away surplus stones: picked them up, wheeled them away, and stacked them into carts, which they used to throw the stones into the valley. In 1946, women rebuilt the whole stretch of road between Štanjel and Podlasi, which means that they dug, broke stones, filled, and completed all the necessary roadway construction works.

In the past, women mainly performed a supporting role in Karst quarries. Nowadays, however, they are becoming increasingly recognised as master masons. To a large extent this is due to the Higher Vocational College in Sežana and its programme in stone design. Over the past years, its intake of women students has exceeded the intake of male students. Young women, who come to this school from all over Slovenia, are thus taking on a leading role in the industry. In this way, this once nearly extinct craft is being revived and given renewed respectability. The success of young women stonemasons proves that women’s hands and heads are no less skilled than men’s. The stone elements embellishing the urban theme park at the Sežana square, Trg 28. avgusta, are the work of two graduates, Špela Šedivy and Matej Župec. They were awarded the first prize at the open competition held by the Higher Education Centre Sežana, an umbrella organisation of the Higher Vocational College in Sežana. The second and third places also went to women stonemasons.

Trg 28. avgusta

The urban theme park in the centre of Karst capital is decorated with stone sculptures. They were made by two stonemasons, a male and female student of stone design at the Higher Vocational College in Sežana. There are five quarries still active in Karst today: two in Lipica, and one each in villages of Vrhovlje, Kopriva, and Povir. Trg 28. avgusta is accessible to people with limited mobility.