Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rock piles in Gloucester RI

Reader Chris writes:

Last year I discovered what I believe to be a very interesting and significant cairn site in Glocester RI. Maybe you know of it or have been there? I have made a few visits and have many photos. I am just getting started building a web site that will feature articles about historic and prehistoric lithic sites. Today I started a photo gallery that features some of the photos I have taken, to see a few photos of the Glocester site I am talking about go to The few photos show only a fraction of what is there. Have you heard of this place? If not, would you be interested in going there? To me, the place is mind-blowing. In my opinion it is right up there with Parker Woodland in terms of magnitude.

Demonstrating Design

Once you get to know what something looks like you can see design intent where people, who are not used to looking at that sort of thing, might just see a random object. Sometimes the difference between intentional design and randomness is so dramatic, so extreme, that you think: "not being able to see this is absurd!".

For example, here is one of my favorite rock pile pictures (from JimP's article "The Queen's Cairns" [see here for the article and some other fine examples of rock piles])
And here, by contrast, is what I believe is a field clearing pile:
How could anyone maintain that these are the same sort of phenomenon as the Queen's Cairns above? Further, why would you ever want to argue with somebody about it? To exaggerate and emphasize this idea: it would be like trying to argue with someone who was convinced that the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris just happens to be a large peculiar cliff and rock formation that happens to spring, conveniently, from the Island of the City in the middle of the Seine river.

It seems absurd to talk about but, unfortunately, the subject of archeology is routinely providing examples of man-made objects that shade off from the obviously man-made into the barely recognizable - even for the expert. Most would not questions that a well-made arrowhead is the work of man (although I have shown some perfect arrowheads to people from -say- Mumbai, India, who ask: how do I know that is not just a rock?) but, for example, when a gentleman named Boucher de Perche first found primitive flint tools [see here] along the banks of another french river, he was ridiculed by people thinking he was just making up stories about rocks.

An intuitive judgement depends on the person's level of experience. Plainly put: if you have not encountered something before, you might think it is random because you do not know how to recognize the elements of design, or the elements of manufacture that are a clue to an item being man-made. Sometimes I want to make this point with some examples: a broken shredded piece of tree branch I pick up off the ground versus the whittled point of a stick. Most of us used jack-knives when we were kids and made pointed sticks; so we recognize them - there is no confusing between the smooth knife cuts versus shredded ends of a naturally broken stick.

But you do not want to have to rely on intuition, especially when communicating to people who do not have the needed background. So you wonder: how can you prove there is design intent and signs of manufacture? How can you demonstrate design? Usually the question does not come up; no one questions that Notre Dame is man-made and proving it doesn't seem necessary. Similarly with beautifully crafted arrowheads: No one thinks about proving they are man made. Some academic archeologists (and I can tell you that Steven Williams of the Peabody museum at Harvard is a perfect arm-chair example, because we had this conversation) are so used to seeing the beautiful items of the past, the fancy Wyoming arrowheads and freshly dug up ceremonial items, that they also have little experience recognizing the non-obvious; and certainly never pose the question: How is design recognized, outside of a reliance on intuition?

I spent years looking at rocks under foot in the fields of Concord. I thought I was finding stone tools at least a year before I found something that was obviously an arrowhead. I filled drawers and closets with old stone tools [I believe] and only stopped collecting them when I learned where to find the good stuff. Also I realized no one was interested in those junky old tools. But before I moved on to being an amateur archeologist and arrowhead collector, I did spend a good deal of time showing people those old things and trying to explain the, to me, clear signs of manufacture and design that were present. Poor George Carter had a much worse time of it [see here].

After moving on from old stone tools, I found a different subject matter with the same problems: rock piles. Almost no one has any experience comparing the structured intent of a well made rock pile and the loose scatter of a edge-of-field rock pile dump. Just to make the intuitive point again, take a quick look again at these magnificent rock piles from Norman Muller [click here]. Also a destroyed, smeared-out rock pile is not too different from field clearing pile and, sure, there are some tough cases that may be too far gone to have any visible design.

In any case, the question of demonstrating design remains. Is there a way to quantify the amount of design? Any way to measure the amount of design? Any way to make the point without relying on the experience level of the listener? I had a few thought about this. For example here is an old stone tool (something like a spoke-shave) from Silicon Valley.
The lower edge is worked. Not only are the removed flakes concave - indicating percussive force, but also there are about 8 removed flakes, done in a sequence of decreasing size across a very small portion of the lower edge. You could get into a discussion of the impossibility of random forces producing such an object but there is something much more quantitative here to use in discussion: you can count and size the removed flakes, compare their number and location to the overall perimeter dimension of the rock, and you can start defining a kind of "entropy" number to reflect the degree of non-randomness of these attributes you have selected for measurement. I thought, for sure, someone must have already discussed this sort of thing and went looking online to see what I could find. Maybe I did not get all there was to get, using Google, but the only place I saw a discussion of similar topics was in the original papers on "Intelligent Design" - way back before the religious politicians disgraced that discussion. I do not want to alienate any readers with a discussion of life forms or mechanisms for how changes to the forms occur through time. But I do want to mention that the topic of quantifying non-randomness does have a genuine history. I am just not enough of a scholar to know a lot about it. For example, there were efforts made to quantify the degree of bi-lateral symmetry of an object. I think it was Weyl? [Update: yes it was].

I have, however, worked professionally on software that was intended to perform pattern recognition. A sad truth learned from that effort is that effective pattern recognition was only possible when the pattern was previously defined. You could not expect a piece of software to discover new kinds of patterns. Take the notion of a straight line. That can be defined and you can write software to detect sequences of dots that line up in a straight line and even a curve (for fun, mention that when semiconductor wafer defects show up in a line this means the wafer was scratched, permitting diagnostic support for manufacturing). In our subject of New England stone work, we see stones in a line, and accept that these are man-made, a stone wall, built for one of several well-known (and also not so well known) reasons.

If you wanted to, you could quantify "linearity" of a stone wall [I tried here]. If there was doubt, you could haul out this measurement and settle a question or, at least, have something objective to fall back on during a discussion. If you wanted to, you could do something similar for rock piles. And what kinds of "patterns" would we need to have in advance, like "linearity"? I am not going get to that in this discussion here.

In general there is a question: where do the designs come from? I am not going to discuss that philosophically but there are certain concepts of quantifying existing patterns that I do want to mention. One kind of pattern, like the flake sequence in the stone tool above, is inherently non-random. There is a reasonable proceedure for measuring (counting, sizing, locating) the flakes and a reasonable quantification of the overall randomness of the item. This approach uses the statistical likelihood of such things - in themselves. Another kind of pattern comes about by comparing an item to other similar items found in proximity. The pattern comes from noticing traits in common. Once identified, the traits can be detected on a number of proximate items (like the different rock piles in Jim P's photo above). Once a collection of traits is determined, that can be used to quantify whether or not a new item has those same traits. That is a different way of quantifying design. Besides that, for multiple rock piles, the site itself is non-random in a measureable way that can be used to compare different collections of rock piles.

I always wanted to show this example. I found these two within a few feet of each other in a pile of rubble at the Concord Waste Water Treatement Facility.
The right hand one has some slightly more evident man-made flakes in it. But it is the striking parallel between these two item, and the fact that they were found so close together, that convinces me that this is design. It must be possible to quantify this (for example using chi-squared on the flake positions).

This last example brings up a final point: Not all the flakes match between these two rocks. If they were used as tools, their function did not require them to be identical and what the variations are gives a clue as to the function. Similarly, the rock piles at a site that seem structured are still not identical with each other - they might vary in height or in the number of rocks, or etc. In that context, the "pattern" that is to be quantified needs to leave out those attributes that vary and, at the same time, address the question of the proposed function of the objects. In this superficial overview, lets leave it at that: you have to come up with the pattern that you wish to demonstrate and you need to identify which elements of an object are included and which are expluded in a way that is consistent with a proposed function.


What do you see here?

Foreground to back, I see a testudinate boulder, an archeology club, possibly a zigzag stone row at the edge of a field - being dismantled and carelessly piled up (over by somebody's shovel), a possible rock pile behind a guy with a pad, perhaps sitting on a rock pile, and alot of looking down for specifics without looking around for connectedness...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Orange County, NY arrowheads

These are arrowheads that a farmer friend has collected. They are from the black dirt region of Orange County, NY which is not far from the Black Creek, NJ site (about 8 miles apart). They were collected many years ago, when the black dirt was first plowed with larger tractors, around the 1950's or 60's.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are these ceremonial? Some rock piles at the Hale Rerservation, Westwood MA

Went for a walk in the beautiful fall colors at a large conservation land down Rt 128 from here - the Hale Reservation in Westwood. But I did not see anything until we were leaving, when I thought I spotted something off to the side just before the trail to "Split Rock" and on the same side of the road as that trail. There were some rock piles in a gully next to the road but also some suspicious earth movement, ditching sorts of disturbances. I did not trust those first rock piles. But when I went in there and looked around I saw this one, slightly uphill, and it was much more covered with moss:I believe this is an effigy.

The trail to "Split Rock" goes in to the right of a stone wall. The "effigy" was on the far side of the wall. But continuing in along the trail you come, in a moment, to another rock pile next to a pine tree.
Is this ceremonial or were there practical activities going on here? Remains of boulder quarrying? I had already spent too long exploring earlier and had to go without giving this area on the way to "Split Rock" a thorough looking over. There were other traces in there and it would probably be worth exploring more but I am afraid it is a bit of a drive and, now, the prospect is too uncertain for a repeat visit. A pretty place.

In Search Of . . .

by JimP

I hadn't seen this episode since I was a kid, and I thought it would be of some interest here. It's the TV show In Search Of narrated by Leonard Nimoy. The episode is called Strange Visitors and it first aired on April 24, 1977. It's about Mystery Hill (America's Stonehenge) in Salem, NH.

It's a good study in what the scientific community believed about Indians -- and stone structures in New England -- just three short decades ago.

The episode is posted on YouTube in three parts. Just the first part is embedded below. Follow the links to see all three parts. (Warning! Barry Fell alert.)

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:

Friday, October 24, 2008

Just nothing going on

I am sorry. I'll try to find something to report this weeked. Any of you want to submit something?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An Unusual Crescent-Shaped Cairn and the Significance of Quartz by Norman E. Muller.

Just was re-reading this. [Click here]

Odd and Ends

I am not sure if I was tresspassing on Rattlesnake Hill in Berlin, MA but I can tell you that it is a quarried hill with not a lot to see. Coming in from Rt 62 on the south side of the hill, there were a couple of rock-on-rocks and one pile. The leaves were colorful.There is an interesting symmetry to this pile visible in the picture. Another view:Definately could be a creature.

What about the structure in this one:
So, I guess, there was something to see after all on Rattlesnake Hill. Fifty years ago this hill would have been more bare and, before that, it is easy to imagine it as a hill covered with loose broken rock on the surface - man made - left as debris from quarrying. There used to be occasional timber rattlesnakes on rocky hills like this. That is what we were told as children. Today this hill is a young forest.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Little to report

I am afraid that although I drove more than 100 miles last weekend getting to and from likely woods, I only managed to see a couple of rock piles and rock-on-rocks. Perhaps the photos will look nice. Meanwhile, things are afoot in the politics of rock piles.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Henry's Hill - Framingham, MA

I believe this is Sudbury Valley Trustees land. I was off trail and then back on again as I approached a knoll and spot a rock pile (there are at least two in the picture):How can I describe this place? Here is a view of the knoll and, to the right of it, a vale between it and, still further to the right another hill.I saw rock piles on the knoll and went up to see, first some simple arrangements:Then a clearing with some rock piles in lines - rock piles with near vertical sides:All the piles were visible from a high point. A short stretch of wall led up to this highpoint from the west:Here is a view of it's upper end. Here is the top of the knoll with the upper end of the short stretch of wall the the rear left.And a view back down the wall, facing west:
And below this summit, all to one side of the line defined by this wall were rock piles. Not to either side of the wall just -is it- north of it. Some of them were still in nice shape:
You can go to a hundred places like this - woods with little undergrowth and trails between knolls with outcrops but never see rock piles. Look at this place with the early fall light:Here is a view to the north down into the vale between this knoll and the other larger part of the hill.I walked down that way because I thought I saw a pile on the other side. I found something I have not seen before:This pile is at the foot of an outcrop and it was the last of a sequence of rock piles, that looked like marker piles to me, evenly spaced in a curve going up the side of the outcrop. Here are the best pictures I could get of the overall collection.You get a sense of how these piles lie in this detail of the upper end of the line (left in the panoramas above):I like how the light falls along the lines of the piles. It is suggestive. These piles, almost in a line, are not forming a line of sight. Perhaps,instead, they are subdivisions of a horizon seen from near where I photo'd the overall outcrop?

Back down to take a last look at the knoll. With the nice piles there:Here is a picture of three pile, in an exact line:This was the second marker pile site of the weekend. Surprisingly similar to but in better shape than the outcrop site ("Far Golden Run") in Bolton from the day before.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Far Golden Run - the upper site.

Here are some photos from the knoll above the brook shown in the previous post. First the prominent boulder looking down over the lower site:As soon as I topped the ridge I started seeing rock piles. A little outline or enclosure: The yellow leaves are pretty. Look at the spacing, position, and directionality of these piles: Something going on there. Here are a couple of panoramas.Let me emphasize the pile positions:The piles line up along lines radiating from the high point.
Some more shots:A quiet spot.

Far Golden Run - the lower site

I parked in Bolton and cut into the woods heading north. I saw a few tumbled boulders that might have been rock piles but mainly just zig-zagged back and forth between the brook to the east and the houses to the west, looking for rock piles. When I got to the northern extremity of this (inside the curve of the brook shown in the topo fragment) I saw a few traces of things: a large rock on rock, and another.Then just where the brook was pinched out from a higher swamp, just in the narrows before opening up into a lower swap, there was a rock piles or three. First we see the tumble of rocks where the brook comes down:

We climb up this a little higher and there are some piles. I thought I saw a pile-gap-pile arrangement.Here is another view from in there. The sound of gurgling water was never far. Other places in Bolton have the same sounds of water nearby. Another view:And we come right up against a rock outcrop, towering over this tumble of rocks in the brook. And we look up there and see this looking out over the rock piles:This boulder is shimmed into position.

We'll climb up there in a second. On the far side, beyond the boulder, are about twenty or so rock piles in lines.