OMG, They're not cobblestones!

Photo by Constance Chatfield-Taylor
Workers position setts in a mixture of sand and dry cement, then finish with a blue stone dust.
Workers position setts in a mixture of sand and dry cement, then finish with a blue stone dust.

Exciting times on P Street as the tracks and cobblestones are being repositioned on the finished roadbed.   But wait – as it turns out, they’re not cobblestones at all, but setts.

Setts?  In the 17th century, river stones used as ballast in ships were dumped in ports upon arrival, and ended up being used to create roads.  These river stones, or cobblestones, varied in shapes and sizes and had been smoothed by the flow of water.

Cobblestones on Prince Street in old town Alexandria may have been ballast on a ship from England in the 1700s (Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor) Cobblestones on Prince Street in old town Alexandria may have been ballast on a ship from England in the 1700s

The cobblestones were set in sand and had the advantage of being permeable paving - of flexing rather than cracking with extreme weather and movements in the ground.  But because of the excessive noise of horse’s hooves and carriage wheels on the irregular stones (and the rough ride!), builders switched to granite setts, sometimes referred to as Belgian block.

Alley off 34th street in Georgetown, combining cobblestones and setts (Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Talylor) Alley off 34th street in Georgetown, combining cobblestones and setts

A sett is a quarried rock, usually cut into the shape of a brick. Sett paving is believed to have originated centuries ago with the Romans, who used the specially shaped rocks for road paving, and called the quarried stones ‘sanpietrini,' or little stones of St. Peter‘s.

Setts, Belgian Blocks and in Scotland – cassies or nidgers  (Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor) Setts, Belgian Blocks and in Scotland – cassies or nidgers

In most historic cities in Europe, South America and Mexico, granite block has been used for centuries.  Laying setts is not an art that has been revived in these cities, but one that has been ongoing for hundreds of years.

Prague, April 2011 (Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor) Prague, April 2011

Moscow, October 2011.  Working next to the Bolshoi (Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor) Moscow, October 2011. Working next to the Bolshoi

(Photo by: Constance Chatfield-Taylor)

Georgetown 2012 – Ramiro Batista (above) and supervisor Abel Pereira.  Having moved from Portugal 26 years ago, Abel Pereira is from a family of stone paving experts.  Abel learned the craft from his grandfather and father, and his brother is currently working on a similar project in Braga, Northern Portugal.

0 Comments For This Article

Anonymous

What a fascinating article that shows the international aspect of our new P Street paving. Love the picture of the 34th St alley!

Anonymous

Fascinating. Loved seeing it in the different cities and so glad Georgetown is sticking with it.

Anonymous

This is great work, Constance, and excellent photography.

John Lisle

Thanks Constance. I learned something! I knew when I called them cobblestones on our Flickr page I was probably "sett-ing" myself up (sorry for the weak pun) and you've confirmed it.

John
DDOT

Karen Monaghan

Now I know why you were so interested in the work they were doing on the Bolshoi! Great article and pictures Constance! -Karen

Poll

Do You Favor a Gondola Across the Potomac?
Yes
96%
No
4%
Total votes: 917