Tufo | Volcanic Kung Fu

©2008 Turtle Heart

Kung Fu Tufo, or Restoration of the Roof of a Damussi

Here on Pantelleria we live in an ancient style of house called Damussi. Follow this link to see a slideshow (flash) of the project.

Even though we rent our home here, we have continually made improvements. The whole island is an archaeological park. Parts of our home go back 400 years or more. All the old homes are made with volcanic rocks. The roofs are a water gathering system. There is zero fresh water on the island, rain water only. Inside the house the high domed ceiling is one of the treasures of ambiance and personal space in all this wide world. Living in a damussi is like living in a stone bell.

The island,s structures are in a constant state of restoration and enhancement. We hope to buy this house. The land lord is cooperative and so we have enhanced it when we can. We went from abandoned land that was around the house to a well conceived garden in two years. Today we started work on a vegetable garden area. My sculpture workshop and what is the main “magazino” or strage room is a very old damussi building. Half of the roof was missing its traditional covering. We hired some local workers, all young men, to make the restoration of the roof.

It was a revelation. After cleaning the roof very well, some soil was added to a level of about 2 more inches. Previously a fine grained white stone gravel had been gathered. This is the mysterious tufo. It is found only in a particular art of the island. Our tufo came from Bujeber, which is above the one seawater lake we have here. This is mixed with small amounts of water and turned around and around in a big cement mixer.It is put in 10 gallon buckets and carried by several young men up the hill of our house and onto the roof. There it sat for two weeks. “Why does the tufo need to sit for two weeks after being pounded and mixed with water?” “Bo” (I don’t know, that is how it has always been done). Later it is shoveled onto the roof. Then it is pounded with a big flat piece of wood with a handle on it. For days. It ends up being a rich, luxurious layer of inches of pounded and polished stone dust. This is the roof. Finally it is painted with a particular pain, which must be renewed every two years.

The story of how they achieve the high domed roof is another story and strange geometries, lavish use of rare wood and an inspired architecture by ancient Arabic culture (before the Muslim religion)…is for another day. Today the work is almost finished. It took our crew about 8 visits over one month to finish the work. Total cost about $1,000.00 plus $800 for the tufo, which is not cheap. However, we got our tufo at a steep discount owing to the complex and traditional system of favors upon which Sicilian culture is based.

Like Indians on a reservation, the local Pantesche people are a shrinking population. Their population is about 2000 people. Those who have the knowledge to maintain the traditional architecture is less than 100. The island has many damussi. At one time 50 or 60 thousand people lived here and there are about as many Damussi as would house such a population.
Most of them are tourist homes now. Occupied a few weeks each year. Most of the time the island is very thin with people. Our total population seems to be about 8 thousand people right now. We have about 100,000 tourists coming through in a good year.

The Italian government is pursuing a program that would designate the entire island as an archaeological site.
What is most likely the oldest temple yet found dedicated to Diana is being slowly unearthed one layer at a time near to Buzeber. The island has given up very few artifacts. Those few that are being revealed are quite surprising and intense. One part of the island contains a long and high sheer wall (which survives intact in many places) and which has been compared to many of the great works done by the workers who did the great wall of china. It was built in near paleolithic times. Before metal tools. The whole island is a maze of terraces and stone walls representing millions of stones and tens of thousands of man hours in arrangeing them. Their principle consistent content, in combination with other volcanic minerals, is obsidian. Obsidian in gigantic amounts and various mixtures dominates the mineral life of Pantelleria. Massive amounts of obsidian have a strong effect on dreaming.

Dreaming beneath a domed roof, inside a stone bell, a stone roof hand-pounded by the last surviving descendants of a forgotten and obscure culture….tufo is “pumice”, pulverized pumice stone. The old damussi house is a breathing house. The walls are three or four feet thick, stacked stones with no mortar. The roof is pounded pumice. The entire damussi structure is organic, at least originally. The roof breathes, the walls breathe. There is so much humidity here, that it is by far the best suited architectural style for the island life. These days there is a tendancy to use cement. Even for the roof. Sicilians love cement. However, we are determined, as are many others, to use traditional methods where it is possible and practical.

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