Thursday, February 09, 2006

More about vocabulary

James Gage writes as follows:

I have been working on a detailed classification of stone cairns and other stone structures (expected to be completed this year). In the ten years I have worked on the project, a relevant distinction has emerged between the terms "cairn" and "pile". Cairn is an intentionally made structure, generally for a specific purpose. In contrast, a pile is byproduct of other human activities like field clearing, stone wall building, etc. Piles are created by the unceremonious dumping of stone from a wagon, stone sled, rock picking machinery, etc. This results in a loose, and poorly constructed mounds of stone. Generally, the process of dumping results in the scattering of stone around the edges of the pile. Cairns are generally compact, tight, and carefully constructed mounds of stone (some cairns no longer retain these characteristics due the natural process of deterioration, or from vandalism). The terms cairn and pile can further be defined or characterized by their context. For example, cairns come concentrated groups with a variety of different styles of cairns within the group. Field clearing piles occur along the edges of fields (or occassionally one large pile in the center), dumped down steep embanks or hillsides, or dumped over the stone wall. The terms "stone heap" and "stone mound" are from the 18th and 19th centuries. These two terms are used occasionally, but, are largely antiquated. The term "mound" has in modern times tended toward being a reference to earthworks rather than stone construction. The alterative term "ditch & embankment features" used by a few archaeologists to denote an earthwork has never gain wide spread acceptance.
Not withstanding what terminology is used, there is a growing need to make a scientific distinction between stone features created as the result of agricultural activities since 1600 A.D. those stone features created for other purposes and by other cultures.

Please click on "COMMENTS" to read my take on this.


pwax said...

James has done a good job explaining his use of these words. But I do not wish to use that vocabulary for several reasons, some good some bad. First the good reasons: I prefer a neutral term, which does not sound too fancy and which does not pre-suppose that I have figured out what it is. For me the piles are humble and so is the word I use for them. Less good reasons are: I grew up using the word "cairn" for rock stacks along the trails in the White Mountains (a vocabulary that is well established in the AMC literature); secondly I have been using the phrase "rock pile" for 7 years in my published work (see NEARA Journal 1998) and I have grown fond of it.

pwax said...

Don't get me wrong, I think James is being clear and insightful about these definitions. And he is right about common usage.

The last sentence almost implies that ceremonial rock structures mostly pre-date 1600. Personally I doubt this. I think post-1600 was a period of intense Indian ceremonialism overlayed on and interspliced with farming practices. I think a lot of those farmers "piles" [In James's vocabulary] were ceremonial as well as practical. Without knowing which is which or which is when, I prefer the humbler term.