|MadSci Network: Engineering|
In my humble opinion loose earth and rock filled structures made of wicker, woven mats, strips of bark, small tree limbs and so forth have probably been around for as long as some poor fellow in a hole or ditch someplace needed a way to retain the dirt he had piled up for a bit more protection.
Gabions are not only a product of the battle field however and may not have had their origin there. Their use over 2000 years ago by Egyptians for erosion control along the Nile is an example of what is still their primary use today. In fact there are companies today that still produce gabions of all sizes and shapes for the stabilization of earthen and rock walls. ( http://www.africangabions.co.za/products/gabions/gabions.asp is an example and also mentions the Egyptians) These modern gabions are usually made of heavy iron mesh and filled with rock.
As far as warfare is concerned I suppose the most common modern equivalent would be the sandbag. I say modern because up until the late 1800’s woven textiles were not all that cheap to use for such a purpose. See details about the fortifications of the US Civil War at Vicksburg for instance. As an example of what might or might not be called a gabion depending on how strict your definition there is also the earth filled palisade to consider. The most famous example of this in American history is Moultrie’s defense against the British fleet in our Revolutionary war. He had a double wall of Palmettos (a medium sized palm tree with a fibrous trunk common in that part of South Carolina) built about 16Ft (4.5m) apart and filled between with sand. His forces not only withstood a 100 gun assault but returned fire and repelled the invading forces. As a result of this first real victory of the Revolutionary War the Palmetto is remembered to this day as one of the emblems on the flag of South Carolina.
Thanks for an interesting question. Who would have supposed on first thought that keeping dirt in a pile was such a big deal unless they were perhaps a civil engineer?
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