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The Ritten Earth Pillars, Italy

Updated on September 14, 2019
John Welford profile image

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

The Ritten Earth Pillars

These extraordinary structures can be seen in northern Italy, in wooded ravines on the Ritten plateau, which is near the city of Bolzano. There are three groups of these pillars, in separate valleys. They are at a height of around 3250 feet (1000 metres) above sea level.

Jagged, tapering clay spires, some of them coloured in shades of red or violet, stand up to 130 feet (40 metres) high, most of them being crowned by a block of stone.

These pillars were created at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. As glaciers moved across the land they carried rocks of various sizes hundreds of miles from their original locations, as well as vast quanties of softer "boulder clay". When the glaciers stopped and melted, the rocks were left in place on a thick layer of boulder clay. Rainwater then carved gullies in the clay, but where there was a rock, the clay beneath it was protected. The pillars seen today are the result.

One factor that could have accelerated the formation of the pillars was the development of agriculture in the region in the 13th century. Clearing the forests to create pastures and vineyards could have laid the land open to the erosive power of rain.

Not surprisingly, pillars like these - and they are found in a few other places around the world apart from here - have gathered a certain amount of folklore and superstition around them. They are known in north Italy as "little men" and "earth mushrooms". In France there is a group known as "young ladies with their hats on".

The pillars have been there for thousands of years, but they will not last for ever. If a rock falls from the top, the rate of erosion of the pillar will increase considerably until there is nothing left. This will eventually be the fate of all the pillars.

However, a fallen rock may then serve to protect the boulder clay on to which it has fallen and a new pillar will form. This process could continue until the base of the boulder clay layer is reached.

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    • punacoast profile image

      Viet Doan 

      8 months ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      These pillars are so bizarre! They remind me of a place called Orgues d'Ille-sur-Tet in southern France (visited a few years ago) which is famous for the tall organ-pipe like rock formations. Thanks for sharing!

    • Teszra profile image

      Tess 

      8 months ago from Hawaii

      Mother earth never ceases to amaze me. Great article.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      8 months ago from UK

      These look amazing. It is fascinating to see what great structures nature creates.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      8 months ago from Norfolk, England

      It would be interesting to go, I think. I've never been to Italy unfortunately, but would certainly love to.

    • John Welford profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      Louise, Thanks for your comment. I haven't been there myself, but was fascinated to find out about this place.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      8 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I've never seen this before. It's quite magnificent, isn't it?

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