Friday, February 26, 2010

More reflections on rock piles by Johannes Loubser

Norman Muller writes:

Below are excerpts from a message I just received from Johannes Loubser. From this message you will see that he is not a wild-eyed archaeologist, but one who looks very carefully at the archaeological and ethnographic evidence before coming to any conclusions.
Best wishes,

"When tied to local/regional ethno-historic accounts, such as those collected by Mooney and others before him in the southeastern mountains, then interpretation of the production and use of stone piles and stone walls by the Native American Indians cannot be dismissed as speculation – in this part of the world these features were made to honor and communicate with the dead. Piles mark locations where the dead have fallen in battle. These battles were real and/or in certain cases were very likely terrifying vision quest-like encounters with spirit beings from the world of the dead. Subsequent visitors honored these locations by adding rocks and leaving trinkets. Walled rock enclosures and walls were used as vision quest blinds. Hard physical labor and physical effort was part of the spiel.

"Out farther west, on the Columbia plateau for instance, rock cairns had a slightly different production and use sequence – either piled by successful vision questers to demonstrate the “burial” of their old status or piled by grieving family members to cover the remains of a dead relative. Abandoned pit houses, disused camas (a wild tuber-like plant) storage pits, and newly dug depressions served as vision quest blinds. Overall these were isolated locations, even if some occurred on previously occupied settlements. Again, physical effort to reach these places was part of the “self-sacrificial” spiel. So all-in-all there is no real mystery involved with these features; they merely reflect practices that sound and look weird to people who deny the validity of Native American Indian experiences, beliefs, and practices.

"Yet we also know of instances where Euro-American rock piles occur among Indian ones, a phenomenon that emphasizes that reality is messy and that each case should be evaluated on its own merit. In certain cases you do get agricultural field-clearing piles and construction stock piles, sometimes with live-stock pens and pasture walls, among earlier Indian rock features.

"In order for rock feature studies to become respectable I guess it becomes necessary not only to look very hard at the archaeological record but also at the archival ethno-historic record. Rigorous assessments are needed.

The association of cairns with rock art is also an interesting one (see attached jpg from an article by R. Edging and S. Ahler 2004. Rock-Art and Late Woodland Settlement in the Northern Ozarks. In C. Diaz-Granados and J. R. Duncan (eds.) pp.90-109. The Rock-Art of Eastern North America. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa). Out west both rock art and stone piles are associated with vision questing. Evidence in the SE mountains seem to point at the likelihood that stone piles and nearby rock art are doorway posts to the spirit world access points on high-lying locales several miles upslope."


Tim MacSweeney said...

Sitting here about equi-distant from a Late Woodland/Contact Period Village and a rockshelter or two, a stone fish weir in the middle of a floodplain that used to be a glacial lake, stone rows and associated stone heaps radiating outward from the heart of the village, I have to add my two cents that stone piles (petroforms) were present in(at least) this habitation site as well...

JimP said...

"I guess it becomes necessary not only to look very hard at the archaeological record but also at the archival ethno-historic record. Rigorous assessments are needed."

This is an argument I have made many times on this blog. We're not going to do this without the ethno-historic record.

James Gage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Norman said...

If you had a chance to read all Loubser has written, you would find that he is very professional in all that he does. As I have mentioned before, Loubser has not visited the Northeast, nor has he read much of what we have written. I've opened a dialogue with him, and he will undoubtedly pay more attention to our research in the future.

I'm pretty familar with archaeological methodology, and I would like to know what techniques other than digging might be used to date a mound and provide a cultural affiliation.

pwax said...

I firmly believe that when intelligent scientists with the right skills and access to technology take an interest in the question of dating rock piles, that a large number of dating techniques will emerge - with the possibility of cross corellations. For example:
- c14 dating of lichen growth
- c14 dating of soil samples (from the soil in and around a rock pile, "spooned out of the pile" to use that phrase from the N. Smithfield story)
- palinology (study of pollen types and type distributions)
- the photon emission stuff Tim Fohl talks about
- Magnetometry where the degree of alignment of molecules to the magnetic field shows how long since the rocks were moved
- techniques where the amount of bombardment by cosmic rays has occured at the surface of the stone. (This might be done by examining the top versus bottom of a rock in a pile which can be examined and put back carefully.)

There are a lot of possibilities - not all of which are destructive. I hope it is only a matter of time till someone academic gets interested in the topic.

Norman said...

All fine and good. Some of these techniques are already being used, but the question of cultural affiliation still remains.

pwax said...

What do you mean?

pwax said...

Separately: Here we are for the first time seeing these things in New England in large numbers.

Norman said...

Some of the techniques you described might work. C14 dating of soils is a problem, according to Tom Stafford, who analyzed soils at the Oley Hills site and said that carbon from plants is being renewed constantly. Therefore, only bones or charcoal can be used for dating.

While dates are very important, I would also like to know who constructed a particular stone feature, and therefore my mention of cultural affiliation. And for that you would need some diagnostic artifact, such as a point or potsherd. A potsherd could also give one a date by thermoluminescence.

Tim MacSweeney said...

Hester Davis (1971): “You can’t grow a new Indian site.”

Norman said...

I'm not talking about destruction, such as taking a backhoe to a site, but about investigation, the acquisition of knowledge. And this can be done sensitively and with respect. Obviously, this is not what others think.

JimP said...

I cannot blame native peoples for not wanting any kind of in depth testing done. What good can it do them? Historically, when results are found in favor of these mounds having an ancient origin, the science gets questioned and the scientist discredited. And any kind of modern intrusion or addition into these mounds will result in a false negative on any investigation.

pwax said...

[Writing in late 2013] There is a missing part to the account given by Loubser: a part about the mounds with depressions ("hollows") which (I believe)represent the graves of these people. From Canada to Georgia.