Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Rock Piles from a Comparative Perspective"

Norman Muller writes:

Jannie (Johannes) Loubser is an archaeologist and rock art expert, formerly from South Africa, now living and working in Georgia. I thought you might like to read this little article/statement from him.

[Quoted with permission. I hope we can have a discussion in 'Comments' - PWAX]

Rock Piles from a Comparative Perspective

Having had personally observed traditional rock piles in South Africa, Bolivia, the Dakotas, California, Oregon, and Hawaiʻi, it is clear that the identification and interpretation of rock piles is far from clear-cut. As in the piedmont and mountains of the southeastern United States, rock piles are often interacted with, modified, and even robbed, both by traditional peoples and modern-day developers. Conceptions of people who make the rock piles at times might also differ from archaeologists’ expectations.
Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists in South Africa have an ancient tradition of stacking stones along trails, particularly at transition points on the landscape, such as within gaps of mountain ranges. As travelers pass a pile they add another stone in reverence to the spirits of the land. In the past farmers avoided these piles that occurred on the edges of their agricultural fields or blocked a jeep track going through the mountains, mainly to avoid damaging their plows and tractors. With heavier and better machines, however, these piles are increasingly being destroyed.
With improved technology farmers in the Dakotas have moved proto-historic stone tepee rings of the Plains Indians to the edges of agricultural fields. At least some of resultant rock concentrations on the edges of fields now resemble ancient rock piles, a phenomenon which, like crop-circles, has confused those avocational archaeologists who ignore anecdotal evidence.
In Bolivia elderly Quecha-speaking women living in valley-bottom farms annually scale a 3,000-foot high mountain peak to plant potatoes in honor of a female deity known as Pachamama. At this high altitude and extremely rocky terrain with hardly any soils, the women have cleared fields and created numerous rock piles and extensive terrace walls. None of the potatoes are ever consumed by humans. Ritual labor of this kind on marginal land goes against conventional wisdom as to the degree of effort geared towards non-subsistence ends and what qualifies as tillable terrain.
The lava flow landscape that characterizes the arid west coast of Hawaiʻi is another example of inhospitable terrain that stretched the imagination on how it ever could have been cultivated. Traditional Hawaiian cultivators piled lava cobbles that litter the barren landscape to create mounds in which they then placed mulch for the planting of crops, such as drought-resistant sweet potato. Yet other piles were cairns to mark a variety of features, including trails and boundaries between family-worked land-units. Rock piles were also shrines and in many instances covered discarded artifacts or buried human remains. Even the most extensive data recovery excavations cannot sample all the rock piles to determine what is within, so archaeologists have to act as monitors for developers when the ground surface is finally cleared for construction (by developing around burial locations, human remains are preserved in place).
Rock piles in states such as California and Oregon also need investigation prior to starting ground disturbance activities. Native American Indians of the American west are known to have constructed various vision quest cairns as part of their rites of passage. In many instances rock piles also cover human remains. As in Hawaiʻi, grave piles in the American west do not always take on a formal appearance; many are barely perceptible heaps that blend with the underlying talus slope or other types of rocky terrain. It is only the trained eyes of a very experienced observer that can examine a pile and perhaps observe water-worn rock or bleached bones within.
Overall then the message of this brief tour to other geographical areas is that a look below the surface is imperative; material remains and behaviors are not always what they appear to be on the outside. For this reason then it seems unlikely that relying solely on surface inspections or on our own pre-conceptions would yield conclusive answers; excavation of one kind or another, together with consultation of ethnographic sources, are currently the only ways to properly assess rock piles.


pwax said...

I replied to Norman's email as follows:

Interesting reading. At first I thought the writer was a little naive - making everything out to be a donation pile or else a bi-product of some other activity (clearing Tipi rings, or potato farming in the mountains). Then he got a little closer to the variety of the phenomena when he was talking about shrines and burials. But in the end his conclusion is based on a failure to observe any distinguishing above ground characteristics. If all rock piles were smeared, un-structured remnants, then this final sentences would be correct.

However, as you know, there are plenty of very specific above-ground characteristics that both differentiate one from another kind of rock pile, as well as suggest possible functions. We would all like to dig but other approaches are possible, including side scanning radar and chemical analyses. Also there are un-told many possibilities for re-contruction of sub-soil structure that rely on remote sensing and tomography and not on destruction of the rock pile. So, in the end, I reject his conclusions.

pwax said...

Some simple, above ground, observables that provide information for interpretation:
- Pile shape and size
- Size of component rocks in pile
- Site layout
- Topographic setting

James Gage said...

I agree with Peter on this one. I appreciate this archaeologist's willingness to consider and evaluate non-European/American origins and use of stone cairns and other stone structures. However, this article illustrates one of the fundamental weakness of current archaeological theory and methodology - An overwhelming emphasis on artifacts, soil stratigraphy, and features to the detriment of the "architecture" of the stone structure itself. Ironically, historical and industrial archaeologists have long appreciated and fully understood the importance of the structure itself and its relationship to the landscape as a critical part of understanding an archaeological site. Sadly, this perspective is not shared by many traditional archaeologists.

In New England, most excavations of stone structures especially cairns have failed to yield any diagnostic artifacts. The excavation approach which has worked on the West Coast to identify these structure's purpose and cultural affiliation would failure in over 95% of cases in New England.

Finally, this excavation approach fails to consider the fact that it destroys the structure just as much as a developer's bulldozer destroys a cairn. Not to mention that excavation of graves and destruction of cairns and other sacred ceremonial features is disrespectful to the Native American tribes. I am deeply bothered by the total lack cultural sensitivity expressed in these remarks.

The willingness to consider Native American cultural origins for these structures is admirable and good first step. But, this is only the a first step and there is much room for improvement.

James Gage

Norman said...

It would be wonderful in a perfect world if we could just look at a cairn and figure out exactly what it was used for and what might be inside, if anything. But of course, this is not the case, and we are often put in the awkward position of scratching our heads wondering just what it is we are looking at. And sometimes, after all avenues of scientific investigation have resulted in very little, we have to get down on our hands and knees and do a little digging -- but carefully and sensitively. In certain circumstances,such as a developer intending to destroy a stone mound site because it is in the way of a development, we need evidence to prevent this from happening, If we can establish that the mound site predates the colonial period, through soil analysis, radiocarbon dating or whatever, then this will often suffice. And if we can prove that a stone mound represents a burial, this is even more powerful evidence. No amount of talking or discussion among ourselves, however, can provide the clear cut evidence that archaeologists and developers need to set aside a cairn site. Perhaps in the future the type of non-invasive research we now do can be a model acceptable to all parties. But we are not there yet.

Having been examining platform cairns and other carefully constructed stone features throughout the Northeast for the past twelve years, I really have no solid evidence what they were used for, who built them, or when (yes, I have my own ideas, but they don't constitute hard evidence). And since these structures are sometimes destroyed just because they are in the way and most people are ignorant about them, I really want to know more about them -- meaning dates and cultural data. Because with this ammunition, I can better educate the public and help save the stone features. Isn't that a proper goal?

pwax said...

Norman: Indeed!