Monday, May 21, 2007

Academic Thinking re North Smithfield - from the ASNJ bulletin board

Norman Muller forwarded this comment. Unlike some comments by people who know nothing about archeology and nothing about rock piles, this opinion at least has the benefit of being informed with real information At the bottom, I added some personal comments.

I looked at a similar site in Freetown, Mass., about 20 years ago, and about 30 miles from North Smithfield. My feeling was that someone started clearing a field or pasture and then changed their mind. All of the piles were about a convenient wagon-load in size, and were on soil that was naturally very stony. At that one, there were some folks who claimed that the whole thing represented Bronze-Age astronomical alignments, and a Sioux who thought they were burials.

Piles of stones don't characterize archaeologically recovered Native American burial sites in Rhode Island. Period. Not at West Ferry in Jamestown (dug by William Simmons), not at RI 1000 in North Kingstown (dug by Paul Robinson, among others), and not at Burr's Hill in Warren, salvaged by on-the-ball amateurs in the early 20th century. When I did a statewide survey of Rhode Island's 75 known native cemeteries and burial finds in the early 1980s, stone piles did not characterize any of them, from any period. Historic cemeteries, even those dating to the 17th and early 18th centuries, had small, unmarked stones, with carved stones appearing on some sites in the 19th century. Some recent graves had decorative stone borders, but that was it.

There is some ethnographic evidence that cairns could build up over time at culturally significant sites along trails, as travellers added stones, but as I recall, nothing specifically linking them to burials, never mind fields of burials.

North Smithfield was historically between the Narraganset to the south and the Nipmuck to the north, while the Wampanoag (or Pokanoket, as many prefer to be called) were further east, east of Narragansett Bay. As documented consultation with native groups is a required part of the review process up there, at least the Narragansett will have the opportunity to comment.

Lauren Cook

PWAX Comment:
I tend to agree with Ms. Cook that cairns are not burials however she is incorrect that they could not be memorials. On the one hand, the idea of a donation pile is well documented, for example at Monument Mountain in Mass. On the other hand, there is a growing body of evidence and personal communications with the Native American community indicating that cairns or some other similar marker (eg rock-on-rock and cedar) would have been placed where a person died in battle. Further substantiation of that idea can be examined physically by anyone who explores "King Philips Woods" in Sudbury, MA. While we are waiting for academic archeologists to catch up with the facts, on the ground we can discuss why they have been so systematically confused about these topics in the past.

PWAX Comment #2:
To try to put my finger on what is wrong with Ms. Cook's statements, here is one problem: the burials that she excavated are very probably from the mid-Archaic, namely 3-5K years ago. Rock piles are a modern, possibly historic period only, phenonemon. There is no connection with what was happening 4K years ago. Ms. Cook should not be so sloppy as to dismiss a modern phenomenon because of its lack of connection with burials from such a distant past. Taking some of her other points: the cartload sized piles may be true in some cases but so what? This is pretty un-systematic information. Also we all know there are field clearing piles. The point is that there are also some others that are not (no field, non-glacial ledge-rock, well built, structured sites, etc...). There are thousands of pictures on this blog [I think there are probably that many] with small piles and with very large ones. For sure, some are intermediate sized. Finally, I keep seeing people referring disdainfully to Bronze-Age visitors from Europe. Academics like to tar people with one simple-minded brush but they are not real scientists when they consider such topics as relevant. If they want to be scientists, they need to go look at all of the data, not a selective sub-set of it, and give up the idea that attacking a person is a valid form of scientific discourse.


JimP said...

Typical of an archaeologist to dismiss all these sites because they visited one. I challenge any true scientist out there to visit as many sites as I have, or Peter has, or Norman, or Larry -- or any of us. Then, if you still think they were all made by farmers, I'll eat my meter stick.

Tim MacSweeney said...

Then there's Cothren's Woobury History, an ethnography. Pages 881-885 mention several graves, several sizes. What I "read between the lines" is that people robbed the known ones for the grave goods - and probably the bones. It was fashionable to have a curio cabinet in the house in those days. Mark Twain, whose curio-cabinet in Hartford I've seen, writes about American tourists knocking off pieces of Ancient wonders with hammers to bring back home for their curio-cabinets...

Tim MacSweeney said...

I just wanted to add something about "cartload sized piles" - isn't it a waste of time and energy to make a pile of stones to put on a cart? Somewhere in an Eric Sloane book, he's got a nice drawing of a "rock sledge" - a low to the ground sled pulled by horses or oxen that farmers levered big stones onto (the sledge, not the animals)and then dragged to edges of fields and then rolled the stones off of, often leaving a u-shaped outline of stones...

Tim MacSweeney said...

A stone boat is another term for a rock sled or sledge: