Monday, February 13, 2006

Fieldtrip to the Hill of 500 Cairns

I organized a field trip with George Krusen because I wanted to see the piles Tim Fohl found on the Hill of 500 Cairns.Here is the group, from left to right: George Krusen, Tim Fohl, Phillipe (a friend of Bruce), and Bruce McAleer. We parked at the end of Whitcomb Rd, off of Sugar Rd in Bolton. From there we walked north along an access road parallel to Rt 495 with the noise of cars only a few feet to the left. As we continued we diagonalled slightly to the right and uphill, passing over a small subsidiary hill and then continuing on to the main hill.
This map fragment shows the end of Whitcomb Rd at the lower left, shows the two lanes of Rt 495, and shows a haze of blue dots representing the parts of the hill where we found rock piles. I am publishing the location of this hill because (a) it was public knowledge in the past; and (b) the site has already been largely destroyed.

But for all of its publicity the un-answered questions about this hill grow rather than contract. The original mystery, which previous investigators did nothing to resolve, included the question of who made the piles and when. The principal investigator in the past, Cheney, (see George Krusen's notes below) rejected all possible builders of these piles in favor of the "Red Paint people" - the maritime archaic group who used lots of red ochre (hematite) in their burials. It seems absurd today that he didn't consider more recent Indians as possible builders. Apparently he "knew" that Algonquians "never built in stone" and hence his absurd conclusions. He claimed to have studied these unique piles for many years yet came to no apparent conclusion about their function; his excavations did not lead anywhere: he found no bodies and no artifacts [compare for example with Mavor's excavation of a rock pile in Freetown]. Also, if he had visited any of the neighboring hill and looked around carefully he would have seen his site is not as unique as he thought. He should have known that five or so hills within 3 miles of this place have very similar sites - or at least they are very similar to what is left at the Hill of 500 Cairns. He also should have known and mentioned that there is a significant limestone quarry about one mile from the hill. Now, rather than resolving these older mysteries, we have new ones to add:
  • Was there an ego conflict between the Harvard professor group and the DWP Italians?
  • Who carted off the limestone? Was it really limestone?
  • Where are all the pictures and the reports?
  • Why didn't anyone comment on the extensive "cairns" further uphill
  • Where did the number 500 come from?
So it continues to be a good story and it remains relevant today. Somebody (mostly in Stow, hint hint) should really make sure that destruction does not occur at the other sites nearby.

Meanwhile, back to my story: we proceeded uphill and as we got near the top with a steep slope to the west we started seeing low ground piles. Look closely at these examples:
This first one has an elongated rock lying flat next to a pointer rock sticking up. My approach to rock piles is to look at these details and assume they are deliberate. In this case it is a patten I have seen before. That type of a pile fits the definition of "marker pile". So also does this next one.
Note the pointer rock on top. Note also that this style of pile might be supported on a boulder or could be directly on the ground. I do not know if these pointers were to look past or if, rather, they create an interesting shadow somewhere. You can see from all the pictures I took that there is a strong interplay between light and shadow on this hill. So, after seeing a few marker-type piles, I started looking from pile to pile to see if any lined up to form three-in-a-row. There were plenty of vestiges of this but no good photograph-able examples. In anycase I concluded that this was a typical marker pile site. Bruce, who has been with me at many of the nearby marker pile sites, agreed. Nearer the top of the hill the marker piles were stacked higher - I presume this is so they remain visible from lower down looking uphill.
Here is another nice example. It has a lot of structure and I believe that rock in front leaning up against the pile is important. But what role did it play? Was it occasionally moved into a slot in the pile? It is certainly not visible at any distance from the pile.
Here is one more from up there. It reminds me of the "crossed pair" examples discussed earlier. So finally we left the western slope and moved around to the eastern slope where there were more piles.
For now, here is a panorama of the western slope. This is the way it looks up there. I'll continue with the western side in a subsequent post.


Bruce McAleer said...


There were also "leaner" stones at 500 cairn hill. That is, one elongate shaped stone leaning against the pile. See the 3rd from last photo for an example. I saw at least 5 or 6 other piles with leaner stones.


pwax said...

Yeah, these are some kind of marker pile. My question is could this "leaner" be moved temporarily to some more prominent position on the pile?

pwax said...

There are at least two "cairns" left in the median of Rt495, just below the hill - about 1/4 mile north of the Sugar Rd overpass, visible as you drive south on 495. Whizzing bye at 70MPH it is hard to spot the piles and even harder to answer the question: were they really made of limestone? All I could glimpse is that the constituent rocks were pale enough that they might be limestone.