Friday, May 22, 2009

Insomnia, site classification, and a wetland's edge in Carlilse

Can't sleep, I find myself thinking about the sites I looked at over the last several weekends. I am falling into the habit of making a longer drive to explore far from home on one of the weekend days but making a shorter drive to explore somewhere near to home on the other day. This has had me exploring far away in Sterling and also near to home in Carlisle for several weekends in a row. I am seeing different types of rock pile sites in both places but, by coincidence, there have been some interesting parallels between the sites in both places. So one weekend I am at a cellar hole in Carlisle and the next I am at a cellar hole in Sterling. One day I am looking at rock piles clustered along a wetland's edge in Sterling and the next day I am at the same kind of place in Carlisle. And this helps me notice similarities that I would probably miss otherwise - if the observations had not happed so closely together in time to make the connection.

So I just reported on a site in Sterling at the headwaters of Rocky Brook where I noticed a few things that might barely be noteworthy:
  • small rock piles clustered along the edge of a wetland
  • at the headwaters of a brook
  • split rocks
  • an elongated triangular shaped rock-on-rock
These features would not naturally jump out as particularly noteworthy or significant in their coincidence, except that I saw the same things together the next day in Carlisle. Having driven to Sterling the day before, now I was near home up at the north end of Two Rod Road [Two old dirt roads run north south through Estabrook Woods; one to the west called Estabrook Road and one to the East called Two Rod Road. Kibbe's place from two weekends ago was on Estabrook Rd.]; and exploring near the "Malcolm Meadow" conservation land, and I headed off in a new direction into the woods, to explore along the very northernmost fringes of the large wetland there. Maybe this is the northern fringe of Yellow Birch Swamp but I think it might, instead, be called the "Great Carlisle Swamp". Anyway, it was wet and soggy and I had the most abysmal brook crossing possible: taking a hard fall in the middle of the brook. This threw me off a bit but I was taking some nice pictures in the drizzle.

Here was a magnificent split wedged rock:Then after my fall I spotted a rock pile and...away we go. I photo'd this little combination:
Had I not just last night been blogging about "elongated triangles" I would not have noticed that the upper rock in the picture is the same triangular shape. Maybe I am just imaging that this is significant.

Here are two rock piles in the ferns, at the wetland's edge:The near pile had a very interesting and distinct feature (and not something I saw in Sterling). It had a vertical "fin".(Further away)I see these finned rock piles occasionally. I am remembering one I saw at the Conant Land in Carlisle a while ago, also at a wetland's edge.

What a beatiful spot with the piles in the ferns:Most of the piles, unlike these visible ones, were so low and covered with dead leaves that you had to step on them before you noticed them. I started a bit west of the northernmost edge of the wetland but worked my way around to the eastern side, and stopped seeing piles. But I continued southward on the eastern side of that swamp (hey how about a map fragment?)
After not seeing much I did see one quite different type of rock pile: a larger oval mound, completely buried, perhaps ten feet long:A trail and a couple of long boardwalks took me back across to the western side of the swamp, then north and back to my car where (not atypically) the police were waiting to snarl at me about where I parked.

But let's come back to that first cluster of piles on the northwestern extreme of the swamp and some characteristics:
  • a wedged rock
  • small piles clustered along a wetland's edge
  • an elongated triangular shaped rock-on-rock (propped up at an angle)
  • a finned pile
You'll have noticed that this is largely the same list of features I wrote down above for the Rocky Brook site in Sterling. This similarity in features is the basis for thinking these sites are examples of the same thing, the same type of rock piles site: A type of ceremonial site occurring at a wetland's edge. But more than just this nice little comparison one can see the outlines of a methodology that might be useful and might not rely on noticing similarities only because they are seen on adjacent days of a weekend. Namely: listing the observed features and keeping track of such lists. I am probably too lazy to do it but it makes sense to try. Because there are things that would not seem particularly noteworthy but if you wrote them down, made a collection of feature lists, and occasionally took the lists out to examine them for similarities, would help to see subtle similarities that you would miss otherwise. For me, I would not have thought those elongated triangular shapes would be significant; and perhaps they are not. But I am definitely going to keep track of that pattern and notice it, even look for it, in the future.

So I think we are making some progress towards recognizing certain basic site types. Let me list the ones I can think of and let me work on tidying up the ideas over time - eliminating them, modifying them, so to speak: savoring them. I don't know to what extent these classifications are real or generalizable outside of my Eastern Massachusetts/ Middlesex County sampling territory.

Wetland's Edge Sites - sites with small piles clustered along a water's edge, etc.

Monumental Pile Sites - big rock piles and short stretches of stone wall, mixed with smaller piles; all with a sense of overall site organization and layout.

Cellar Hole Sites - with piles on boulders around a cellar hole and pile-gap-pile features.

Marker Pile Sites - with piles evenly spaced and somewhat in lines. Some piles with vertical sides, etc.

"Burial Pile" Sites - sites with low circular ground piles not in any pattern, having one or two pieces of light rock (usually quartz), with a few piles built on boulders near the edges of the group.

I do not know where effigy rock piles fit into this, they might be mostly a feature of the wetland's edge sites and I failed to see that perspective last weekend. That big oval pile on the western side of the Carlisle swamp was something different again. I have seen things like that in a few other places but they are not part of a more comprehensive feature list; not that I can describe anyway. It seems to me there may be some merit to writing down these feature lists, or at least thinking about them collectively when looking at a site. It makes sense to include topography and other landscape features in the list. There may be some merit to writing down minor observations - since they may turn out to correlate with other sites, but you wouldn't notice, you wouldn't remember where you saw that before. All of which may, in the long run, help to get a sense of the different uses and different cultures that left these rock piles in the woods.


Tim MacSweeney said...

The first photo (that looks like a great big turtle to me) you say is split and wedged, but I can't see where...
Also: Down in Woodbridge, I got kicked out of Sperry's Falls by the water authority police yesterday...

pwax said...

I remember the spot. If someone is not being accosted occasionally by the Police maybe they are not tresspassing enough:)

Norman said...

Ever since I became interested in the lithic anomalies of the Northeast, I have kept a list of the unusual features I have come across over the ten plus years I've been at this. The first connection I made was between a split connected boulder at the Oley Hills site and a similar boulder in Montville, CT. I described each in a web article I wrote in 1999. "Stone Rows and Boulders." With this similarity, I recognized I was looking at an identical response to split boulders, one that has been repeated over and over as people like Peter and Larry have recorded examples throughout southern New England. It is by making these stylistic connections that we can demonstrate that these unusual manmade features are not restricted to one locale, but are distributed throughout the Northeast and beyond. And maybe, just maybe, archaeologists will begin to pay attention.

pwax said...

Norman: I thought one of the most important things you said in that early article was that perhaps the stone rows functioned to connect the boulders or, in the case of split boulders, to connect the separated pieces. My speculation about the meaning of split-wedged rocks is slightly different and I do not think this is the same phenomenon (although it certainly could be).

Norman said...

The comment I made about stone rows connecting with boulders comes directly from Philip Smith and his study of Indian walls in the South. When I saw the same thing happening at the Oley Hills site and later at Montville, I could see that something interesting was going on. Further research has only confirmed this.

As for split boulder fills, I realize there are various ideas on what this signifies. David Whitley in his study of Sally's Rockshelter in California believes that the quartz stones jammed in cracks was meant to propitiate the gods -- a gift -- and not meant to block. I think he is right. It could also be a way of connecting with the underworld spirits, and something apart from a gift.

pwax said...

I think whichever tribe was at Sally's Rockshelter was very different from the Eastern Algonquian. I have see 0 examples of quartz in split-wedged rocks, and am informed by Doug Harris that quartz does not have its own properties so much as passing along the properties of other things. So if a cracked rock is leading into the underworld it would be a very weird act indeed to amplify the crack with quartz. Personal observation together with Doug's statements suggest that Sally's Rockshelter is not a good model for understanding the thinking in New England.

It is all speculation anyway, but the speculation is internally consistent.

pwax said...

I should add that not only did I never claim that quartz "blocked" but on the contrary, I have emphasized the possibility that it transmits and amplifies.

Norman said...

Quartz does have one unusual property, and that is its being piezoelectric: take two smooth quartz stone and rub them together and they'll produce a photon light glow. Indians called quartz "lightning stone," and not simply because it could produce sparks. At a split boulder in Pomfret, VT, a semicirclular ring of stones linking one split half to the other contained one piece of quartz, and it was touching one of the split halves. I viewed this quartz cobble like a electric light plug, with the quartz transmitting power from the other stones to this one boulder. Since filling cracks with stones is so widespread throughout North America, I felt that what Whitley described, supported by ethnographical information from the Indian tribes themselves, could be an answer for the many other examples we find. Maybe it isn't the sole answer, but how do we prove the validity of other hypotheses?

Also, the idea of stones "blocking" comes from the Gage's website. It is not my idea, though it may have some validity in certain instances.

pwax said...

Actually it does not come from their website but from my article on split wedged rocks.