Monday, July 02, 2007

Emails between me and Norman and West Viginia archeologists.

[Updated below]
Norman M started this off. After this blog posted some photos from W.VA he was trying to put the photographer in touch with someone from W.VA. Then an email exchange occurred between people in the "West VA Council of Archeology", and their Yahoo Group "CWVA Yahoo Group" at one end and, I think, me and Norman at the other. At first the West Virginians seemed somewhat open-minded. But as the exchange continues we get someone postulating rock piles formed 1/2 down hill by random rocks rolling into position [i.e. rather obvious nonsense]; as well as someone else with first hand experience (of hearsay) about Farmers making stone piles (except they were actually stone walls not piles). An interesting difference emerges between the field observations, made in some cases by non-archeologists, and the arm-chair philosophers who already know it all. Last weekend, walking in the woods I was having an imaginary conversation in my head to the affect that: "Lots of conventional wisdom and hearsay combined with an un-willingess to go out and look at data is not a recipe for science but a recipe for hot air". To be fair, the people who do not leave their arm-chairs and come up with ideas about what the aerial photograph "should" show (without looking at the aerials) have not seen the data Norman and I have. But to be fair in the other direction, they have no business pretending knowledge about things they have never seen.

Here are some of the emails exchanged:

The pattern of smaller rocks stacked upon a large rock base is occasionally seen in eastern WV. Guess I'm still skeptical about the Native American origin of these features. I remember seeing a feature of this sort that I know had been very recently made... However, I'm not claiming that they are all the result of historic clearing activity. For another rock site of interest, check out p.114 of September Blood: The Battle of Carnifex Ferry (WV) by Terry Lowry, 1985, ISBN 0-933126-59-X, Pictorial Histories Publishing Co. 4103 Virginia Avenue, Charleston, WV 25304. Mr. Lowry is an historian w the WV Div of Culture & History.

Could I add that Indians still exist today and that evidence of modernity is not by itself evidence that something is non-Indian. In other words "recent" and "Indian" are not mutually exclusive.

Those are not prehistoric cairns....
...The possibility that seems most likely to me that they are part of ahistoric fence line along a property boundary.

The 1945 aerial photographs from our region should show the fence linedelineating cattle pastures.

Another possibility is that the fence line relates to 1862 Battle of Carnifex Ferry, which is really a misnomer, since the "battle" occurred in the uplands closer to Kesler's Crossing rather than at the ferry crossing, which is at the confluence of Meadow River and Gauley River.
One other even less likely possibility is that the rock mounds may relate to early 20th century logging in the Gauley River, which transported logs down to railroad cars via overhead cables.

While not precisely the same (rocks piled on top of a sandstone slab), these, particularly image #3, are reminiscent of rock piles that I encountered in my first couple of months at Baker in Buchanan County, Virginia. We were conducting several surveys for coal methane gasification pipelines. One of our wetland biologists ran into them on an upland bench, flagged them, and contacted me. My crew and I dug a couple of shovel probes immediately around the edge of the rock piles. First, the small bench had been plowed, second, the plow zone ran up to and apparently under the rock piles. So much for the Indian burial mounds.
In any event, I ultimately recorded several clusters of these in Buchanan County before we had to leave. They were essentially always on upland (mountain side) benches and often were associated with linear runs of rock walls. The piles seemed to be field clearing and the walls more for water run off control. I ran into a reference to them in a CRM report (I think by CRAI) in Kentucky. I think the author of that survey report tracked down an old lady in her 90s who remembered building some. In reply to why they had been built so symmetrically particularly for field throw, she replied that her daddy would have hit her upside the head if they hadn't been. Chuck may be able to help you with this.
I also ran across an article in Maryland Archeology (I think) at a place called Polish Mountain. They were in Garrett or Allegany counties. Also ran across a reference to some in one or another New England state archaeological society journal. Actually, somewhere at home, I have a file on info on the rock mound phenomenon. Let me know if you need more info.

Me: [sent off essentially same email about "Indian" and "recent" not being mutually exclusive].

I agree that cairn is a generic term. Cairn, however, is not the word archeologists in West Virginia and surrounding states use to describe what you showed me. I also refer you to the West Virginia State Site Record Form, which does not use the term, cairn, to describe these rock mounds. The term also obfuscates the fact that there is a complex of prehistoric rock mounds in the Gauley River drainage that contain Late Woodland burials.

In short, cairn is the wrong term to describe these historic structures, especially given that they are better described as historic rock mounds.

HL: [a long quote from book on Neolithic Wales re mound burial]

I guess I was a little cryptic in my response. Sorry for that. I just wanted to take the point that there is nothing wrong with using the term "cairn" but that is has several different uses. Both David and Norman are correct. We simply need to be more precise in OUR meaning of the term. There are cairns, field clearing piles, throughout Appalachia that over time have been misinterpreted as prehistoric burial tumuli. That said, the latter also exist but with far less regularity. When these prehistoric rock mounds are encountered it has been my experience that the occur on promontories with commanding views, high ridge fingers, and generally on mountain tops.
Field clearing piles occur more frequently on mountain sides, especially on benches. When the ground was plowed in the 19th century, stones would becomedislodged, roll down hill, and come to rest at the first fairly level spot.As more and more stones ended up on benches they became a nuisance to farmers. The solution was simply to gather them up into piles and plow around them.

Here in the Northeast, field clearing consisted of gathering stones in a sled or stone boat, transporting them to the edge of a field and dumping them. Piling them in neat piles didn't make sense, with all the other important activities farmers had to do.

Since I am getting CC'ed on these emails I guess I'll weigh in. There is a pretty limited set of observations being discussed here and an even more limited set of hypotheses. There is evidence (which you are welcome to question) of rock piles being used for a wide variety of ceremonial purposes and sometime in conjuction with field clearing (imagine an Indian day laborer clearing a field and doing ceremonies in the process). Here is a list of a few possibilities you might consider:
- Field clearing
- Staging areas for selling rock
- Memorials (to the dead or to events)
- Burial mounds
- Trail markers
- Vision quests locations
- Blessing of water (at a spring)
- Archeo-astronomy position markers
- Shadow making piles (like "light daggers")
- Effigies
- Piles which seem to be designed to channel "energy"
In New England, most of the piles are recent as if there was an increase in pile building after European contact. Out West, piles were also used for buffalodrive lines in hunting, as well as for archeo-astronomy. In Georgia there have been several rock pile excavations which turned up nothing other than quartz, deer bones, and Middle Woodland dates. In Mass. a rock pile excavated by amateurs contained several pounds of hematite - a pile called a "field clearing" pile by the local archeologist. With all these possibilities, it is hard to imaging that W.VA is so much more limited.

I don't think the possibilities in West Virginia are more limited, but I do think the photographed examples fit most neatly, clearly and consistently with known examples of field clearing.

Me: [Writing to Norman that I was surprised the West Virginians were still responding to his and my pinpricks.]

Norman (to BJ):
I'm curious to know how carefully constructed stone piles in the Mid-Atlantic states came to be called field clearing piles. Are there written records of this practice? In the Northeast, as I mentioned earlier, farmers simply dumped unwanted stone at the edges of fields and didn't bother to carefully stack them. This was the usual practice, but there may be the occasional exception.Farmers simply had too much to do to bother with careful stacking, which took time away from more important work. I had a waller from Scotland estimate how much time it would take to construct one of the mammoth flat topped cairns in Vermont (measuring something like 28' long, 15' wide and 7' high on the downside -- it was constructed on a fairly steep slope), and he concluded it would take a single worker a good part of three to four months to complete it, which included gathering the stone. And this time period was calculated by estimating that the worker focused on the cairn to the exclusion of everything else.

I'm from Missouri where it is not at all uncommon for field clearing stones to be stacked, sometimes in low walls, sometimes in filled circles or squares. Children often did this at their father's direction. No one should lose sight of the many possibilities and discount an explanation simply because it does not fit their prior experience. After all, I don't think anyone alive today could speak with certainty about any activities of prehistoric peoples or Euroamericans living here a hundred years ago but we like to believe that we can figure out what they were doing, how they did it and why. Happy interpreting.

As a young man in the early 1960s, I talked with farmers in the Missouri hill country. Several told me of their first-hand experiences stacking stone as children. I lived for several years next to one whose farm looked like a park with mixed hardwood forest overstory and native grasses lined with thousands of yards of low stone walls along the slopes. Stones were stacked not to open areas for cultivation but to allow more grasses for grazing.

I have no problem with stacking stone for walls. This is an understandable practice in Missouri and elsewhere. My question below focused on the tradition of constructing stone mounds for field clearing, and whether this was documented somewhere.

[Norman has more patience than I do. What are you supposed to say to someone who "talked to a farmer"? It is ironic that such a conversation should be determining of what is believed in West VA archeology. But in the end all that you can say is: go out and look at these piles, then we'll talk. Also a clear recommendation to us all: try not to give opinions about sites you have not visited or at least wait to see some pictures and descriptions. Otherwise we will start sounding like old-school arm-chair philosophers ourselves].

Update (a couple more):
Hi again:I have to say that we are operating under a different paradigm from you. For us, a rock pile is a mystery until we know more. We are focused on observing not on interpreting and we flatly reject "farmers clearing fields" unless it is well ubstantiated. Up in New England it is often very poorly substantiated indeed. We have been told, even as children, that the Indians do not exist; but curiously, some exist today! When we show them rock piles, many of them know don't know anything. But a small group of traditional Indians do know something. If you can accept that not all Indians are trying to build casinos then you could take a look at some of the recent USET resolutions (Resolution 2007:037) to see just how serious these things are to the Indians.
Back in the field you may find observing and documenting these things to be rewarding. Frankly, studying piles of rock looks to be something that will revive the somewhat tired field of New England archeology.

Best wishes: Peter Waksman

I think all who are interested in these phenomena wish to understand more about them. I don't know how observing something will provide knowledge absent interpretation. Everything we think we know is based on interpretations, from who's your daddy to the color of your car. Flatly rejecting alternatives that are not well substantiated seems a curious means to arrive at knowledge. I noticed that field clearing was on your list of possibilities in an earlier post. Have any of the other possibilities on that list been well substantiated? I believe that there must be multiple "correct" answers to the origins of stone piles for people do things for different reasons that result in similar products. Is it a projectile point or a knife? Context and consideration of alternatives are always important in sorting through our observations. I think that sorting is interpretation.

Happy observing.

[Me thinking]
I will not respond: Happy sitting around.


fmmalves said... my blog

Geophile said...

The thing that leaps out in these exchanges is this sense the others have that they are the adults and the final word, and that you and Norman are somehow immature in scope, and wishful thinkers. I would feel much better about them if at some point they showed respect, for example saying: "What you're saying is interesting. Could you give me an overview of your observations over the years? What patterns would you say you've seen?" A sign that they recognise that your perspective may come from years of study with which they are not familiar, rather than from indulging in seeing what you want to see.

pwax said...

You are right, but what else is new? I did not reproduce all of my emails, some of which had a little bit of thinly disguised contempt in the other direction. At this point I have tired of the game. The lesson I get from this is what I say at the end: there is no point engaging in a discussion with people who have not examined sites at first hand.

These emails provide a good example of armchair conventional wisdom masquerading as scientific thinking. But it is only an act. If you listen carefully to their voices you can hear the whining.

pwax said...

Just one more:

Hi Mr Jackson:

I can tell you are interested in this subject. But I cannot respond to your email because you did not read mine very carefully and you are commenting on thoughts I did not express. For example I did not say I reject field clearing, I said I reject it without substantiation (on a site by site basis). I also do not claim to have substantiated much about rock piles so interpretation has to be pretty tentative. Integrity requires stating observations and hypotheses, followed by attempts at confirmation.

If you are interested enough, please click through to this link, which is the best substantiation I can offer:

The meaning is slightly subtle: two different carefully drawn pieces of paper were created independently. One is a chart of important astronomical directions corrected for the latitude of Massachusetts and for the local magnetic deviation. Another is a carefully done survey of a rock pile site. The hypothesis was that there is a high point from which all the piles at the site were visisble and that this high point was related to looking down lines of multiple piles. The confirmation is that the two papers matched when superposed (the compass center was placed at the suspect high point) and that most of the piles in lines were lined up either with the winter solstice or the summer one. If these piles were made by farmers then they are very peculiar farmers indeed.

The other basic "substantiation" I know of is a county wide map of rock pile sites for Middlesex MA. There are correlations between land types and site density. Like it or not the areas with agriculture are the areas with the fewest rock pile sites. By contrast, the most sites occur where there was no agriculture - rocky, wet, hilly places. This is a fact, not an interpretation.

It takes a lot of non-trivial work to do these kinds of study. So please stop writing condescending emails. We are big boys. I have a Ph.D and I have invested, now, close to 10 years in exploring these sites. There is some very peculiar stuff out there in the woods and if someone thinks they already know all about it - it just ain't so.

Best wishes: Peter Waksman

Geophile said...

Well done, if a little testy. (I mean that in a friendly way.) You've allowed the discussion to be a help to you in a way, challenging you to put yourself in his place and imagine what evidence might come closest to moving you. In the long run, the topic benefits from our having to examine our material that way. As for him, there may be no hope, but we knew there were plenty of them already.

I'm just glad he didn't resort to Occam's razor, a slippery tool at best, usually used by those who think their opinion of what is simple is the final opinion. I've run up against that argument a few times.

Thanks for posting all this. It's been instructive and a solid reminder of the state of the topic in most academic settings.

pwax said...

Writing much later: it is a good thing he did not try the Occam's razor approach, as he would have run into the thorny hedge of confusion between simplicity and over simplification.