Monday, February 25, 2008

Dr. Meli writes in

Rock Pilers:
I have been for some time checking out your page, there is often very interesting photos and comments, I however do not always agree, with the general interpretation of the features in question and do I like the word cairn. It is a very mis-leading term. However, I must applaud the efforts of the group.
Two things; I will be giving a presentation at the spring NEARA Conference on my work at Nipsachuck Swamp, of course within the limits of what I am able to disclose, seeing that main land in question is still in litigation, and the other land is under a gag-order.
Secondly: dose anyone have an idea how many stone piles and features there are in New England, not including those that have been developed. Any help will be greatly appreciated.
Thanks Fred Meli.
Archaeological Services and Consulting
Frederick F. Meli Ph.D Director
Archaeologist/Anthropologist/ Historian
Post Office Box 522 North Kingston, RI. 02852
Member: Archaeological Institute of America, Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Eastern States Archaeological Federation.


pwax said...

Site and pile density is a good topic. I'll take a closer look at my maps when I get home but I would say there are ~1000 piles in towns like Acton, Harvard, Boxborough, maybe ~200 in Concord, and maybe ~50 in towns like Andover that have seen a lot of post-Indian land moving. Maybe ~500 per town would be a good estimate, since most towns are more rural than Concord. So how many towns are there in Massacusetts? Around 500. So ~250,000 rock piles in Massachusetts.

Norman said...

Larry should pipe in with some ideas about the number of cairns in Rhode Island. That state is loaded with them.

JimP said...

Although at this time nothing more than a very rough estimate is possible, it is something I've been thinking about with my current research project.

I think the number can fluctuate rather significantly depending on what you consider a, "feature," and also what one believes is Native American in origin. It's very difficult for even a group of rockpile enthusiasts like us to agree across the board.

According to my guess-timates, there are more than 10,000 piles similar to those at Nipsachuck in the RI/CT/MA area.

If you add in other features such as smaller piles, rocks-on-rock, split-wedged and filled boulders, walls connecting erratics, wall structures, chambers, niches, et al, then the number jumps significantly to probably more than 300,000.

pwax said...

My estimate was only for rock piles, including the smallest.

Norman said...

Meli also asked about "features" in addition to stone piles, so perhaps propped boulders, split-wedged boulders, etc. can be included in this category. But perhaps Fred can weigh in on with what he is specifically thinking about when he mentions "features."

Tim MacSweeney said...

Anyone who knows me at all will probably appreciate how hard it was for me NOT to answer the question of "How many?" with the reply, "That's easy: All of them!"
Instead I guess I will act my age for at least a little while and start compling a list of my known structures, sorted by type.
Like Jim says, we need to figure out the "types" - so shall we begin a disscussion on the types??

JimP said...

It is my opinion that any attempt to type features creates serious problems. The origins and uses of these sites are as varied as the landscape itself -- the elements of the features themselves range from the ultra simplistic to concepts as complex as the abstract mind is capable of creating. Typing features would end up creating more orphaned features than labeled ones. I truly believe each site must be analyzed on an individual basis.

Norman said...

Split-wedged boulder, boulder fill, pedestaled boulder. These are terms that many of us have used to categorize specific features on the landscape. How does this create problems? Or am I misinterpeting you, Jim?

JimP said...

What is a split-wedged boulder? We would have to define it. Such a definition cannot be too broad, but at the same time must not eliminate important related features, such as splits with single stones not wedged, clefts, concavities, holes, etc. as well as outcroppings rather than boulders. And even then you might end up with orphaned features that have no types, but are closely related to split-wedged boulders.

The abstract thought involved, at least according to the historic data, places the importance not on the split or the wedge, but on what may be released from or what might emanate from inside the boulder or outcropping. It could also be about what's believed to be inside the cleft, hole, splt, or concavity, or where the hole was believed to lead, what the boulder or outcropping symbolized, represented, or embodied, et al -- all with local differences and variations inspired by dreams and visions.

But the problems don't end there. My point really was how to type features even less distinct than split-wedged boulders. Once we type all the obvious features, we're left with even more features that fit into no category whatsoever. They're distinct to the location, topography, and biology of a particular site -- and to the personal beliefs of the builder at the time of construction.

Finally, I think the wide variety of features and their functions has been one contributing factor to the failure of the academic community in general to recognize them -- along with lack of research in this area, few resources, years of bigotry, and effective secrecy for self-preservation by the local clans and societies that have cared for and erected these sites through the centuries.

Larry Harrop said...

I have no idea of how many rock piles there are in Rhode Island.
My online photo gallery has approximately 2,300 pictures. Plus I have another 6 GB of pictures on my hard drive. I would say that 90% are pictures of rock piles and other features we contribute to the work of native Americans. On average, I only take pictures of one pile for every 3 or 4 I see at a site. Most of my exploring is done on public land so I've only looked at a very small percent of Rhode Island. My guess-timate would be that I've seen close to 10,000 piles in Rhode Island alone with who knows how many thousands more that I haven't seen ....yet.
It would be easer to count sites.

JimP said...

I think most of us agree that Rhode Island is the, 'epicenter.' There are more sites, more piles per square mile, and more piles of a comparatively recent origin than anywhere else in Southern New England.

And this very much agrees with the history -- with the Narragansett remaining relatively unscathed from the first sweeping illness from 1615-1617, and primary sources that said they held steadfast to their traditional beliefs and resisted conversion with their very lives.

It also agrees with oral tradition which places Narragansett Indians living deep in the woods for at least part of the year and continuing traditional practices as late as the 19th Century. Which also, in turn, agrees with the archaeology which often finds 19th century artifacts in piles near features of more ancient origin.

Which also agrees with several grandfather stories and secondary histories from local residents living near more well-known or alleged Native sites (such as Drum Rock, Rolling Rock, and Queen's Fort) which claim Indians were still using them as late as the 19th Century.

The record is out there -- in stone. All it takes is for one to go out in the woods and see all these sites in person and then you can start to put the picture together.

Norman said...

I'm curious, Jim, how would you go about analyzing a new site so that the data you accumulate can have validity in comparing this one site with another? What methodology would you follow to convince the doubters in the archaeological community, or do you think this is just a waste of time?

JimP said...

Oh, no, it's not a waste of time. I just think we as enthusiasts sometimes place too much emphasis on categorizing features that we often lose sight of the bigger picture. The reality is that it wasn't the features themselves that made these sites important. These are sacred landscapes.

Obviously, the repetition of features establishes patterns. I understand the importance of that. You've seen my short film which highlights those patterns.

I guess I don't want to see features that fail to fit into neat categories become less significant. There are so many of them. A simple rock pile can be categorized in so many ways -- from single rocks on a boulder, to enormous cairns comrprising hundreds of thousands of stones.

Tim MacSweeney said...

I looked back at the "Criterion" from A Field Report (Queen’s Fort) by Frederick F. Meli where he had some definitions of stone features:

● Long stone rows: by highest point, number of stones in the row, composition of the stones there measured fixed point according to the grid they were located in.

● Stone piles: i.e. stacked, piled, size, and composition, fixed point in the grid.

● Stone structures: i.e. spiral, circle, stacked circle, position in the grid plus size shape and composition.

● Condition of the stone rows, piles and structures, through visual documentation.

● Global Positioning System points of Longitude and Latitude plus elevation.

● Contribution stones: any and all stones or rocks that are not indigenous to the area, typed and catalogued.

"We began by using the stone circle up on the complex plateau as our fixed central point. We established this stone structure as the central fixed point of our investigation; this long semi flat stone became our starting point. The group then began to survey and layout areas, 30-meter square. Each area had four 15-meter sections divided again into 7-meter grids. Each gird would be measured and every individual stone would also be measured and the distance from the north point the center point or center stone recorded. Then each stone would be drawn in detail as to its position in the grid, always moving in concentric circles from the north point. Thus, we would then have a complete record of all the stones, i.e. piles, rows and larger Manitou markers." (

So in the report, Dr. Meli has defined these terms for stones:

Long stone rows
Stone piles
Stone structures
Contribution stones (not indigenous)

The "Queen’s Fort southeast bastion" is used in the report but it’s in quotes because of the Eurocentric connotation .
Terms used in the report are: megalithic structures, stone circle, larger Manitou markers, long semi flat stone, arrow stone, small circular pile of stones, large split boulder, Solstice Stone: animal head stone (a snake or turtle), and whatever I missed.

Just in our comments
smaller piles, rocks-on-rock, split-wedged and filled boulders, walls connecting erratics, wall structures, chambers, niches, single rocks on a boulder, enormous cairns comrprising hundreds of thousands of stones…
propped boulders, Split-wedged boulder, boulder fill, pedestaled boulder…

PW has many terms used at Rock Piles and elsewhere:
four "piles" in a line with vertical sides oriented roughly perpendicular to the line of the piles, a "marker pile" site, "rock pile", "stone mound", "stone pile", "cairn", "rock stack", Donation piles and Bison drive piles, crossed pairs (on boulder), underground chambers (souterrain)…and ALOT more.

Then there is all the types of structures the Gages list at:

And in just a few minutes I came up with:
Turtles: small (1-2 ft long), large (3-4 ft long) free-standing single stone carapace with/without head, feet, tail. Often specific species (box, snapper, spotted etc.).
Turtles made with carapaces of smaller stones for scutes, various sizes.
Turtles [large (3-4 ft long)] side by side (front to back) such as those that make up the fish weir, and other "dry land" rows but with smaller stones most often.
Smaller Turtles incorporated into stone rows:
“Turtles on Turtles” – mostly on linear stone rows on steeper slopes.
“Point Turtles” - Large Turtles at points of zigzag rows
“Emerging Turtle” (as if from hibernation) head and forelegs mostly, sometimes very large (6-8 + feet)

Effigy Tobacco sacrifice Stone – rock(s) on boulder (that may or may not be a Turtle)
Stone piles of various size
Stone piles on boulders
Single Stone on boulder
Serpentine stone row
Zigzag stone row
Linear row – wide, narrow, high low, lace etc.

I guess if you can recognize it, describe it, photograph it and compare it to others, it's a definable stone structure, individual as a snowflake but still snow.
Sort of like we are all individuals which makes us all the same, but we're not all the same because we're individuals...
And, early in the morning it occurs to me that the easiest and most accurate answer to "How Many?" is "Nobody knows."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

pwax said...

I want to echo what Larry said: it would be easier to count sites. I can add to that: if we have a sense of the variety of sites then we can apply that to a count of sites to estimate counts of features types.

The above discussion reminds me of the idea that some people like to group into categories while other like to split categories up. One time I asked a colleague how many different kinds of ceremony he thought there were and he said "infinite". I am guessing that is the answer that JimP would give. By contrast I would say that less than ten types of ceremonies would account for 90% of what I see. This is probably a personal preference for how to look at and think about things, although I would be happy to argue for my point of view.

Norman said...

What I have attempted to do over the years is to categorize and record features photographically and chart them on a map, all with the aim to understand how they relate to the landscape. For example, after spending years at the Oley Hills site in PA studying how the features relate to the landscape, walking through the site from different directions in all seasons, it gradually dawned on me that a large, erratic-looking boulder (it is not a glacial erratic but a tor: the Wisconsin ice sheet stopped its southern advance twenty miles to the north) on the summit ridge was the heart of the site, and it was its presence and unusual characteristics (a state geologist concluded that it probably once rocked)that provided the impetus for all the other manmade stone features on the ridge being constructed. Additionally, all the 150+ stone features at a site in Rochester, VT, seem to be related not only to the east-facing orientation of the slope they are constructed on, but also to the presence of numerous springs. But I am not at a point where I understand what these features mean or why they were constructed. I seriously doubt we will ever reach this goal, but I believe we can make inroads toward it by looking at the features and the landscape through the prism of Indian cosmology and religion.

Tim MacSweeney said...

I was sort of just thinking along those lines myself, Norman.
We're seeing remnants that still remain on a cultural landscape. Faced with almost 30 hours of travel time to and from Hawaii, I brought along Charles Mann's "1491; new revalations of the Americas before Columbus" to read. I think that by 1491 New England - and far beyond- was a place greatly modified by a great number of humans, to a great extent by controlled burning, over a long period of time. In places where they were needed, stone rows act in one sense as firebreaks, but there's more to it - that Great Mysterious connection of all things to all others, including the sky, the land, the stones, the animals, the people, the trees, the Manitou contained in everything...

Anonymous said...

The words `classify', `classification', 'categories' although scientifically valid concepts have received much negative connotations because of their misuse especially in regards to race and culture. The word or concept which will resolve much of these issues is DESCRIPTION. By description, I mean a list of a structure's physical attributions. We can further describe a stone structure by its CONTEXT or RELATIONSHIP(S). Context meaning the relationship between an artifact, feature, structure with other artifacts, features, structures, and its place within the immediate and broader geographical landscape.

James Gage

JimP said...

This is what I was talking about in another thread -- how amateur archaeologists in the 19th Century spent a great deal of time trying to learn, and subsequently arguing about the, "Indian manner of burial." They went crazy trying to define it. Reading their records would be funny if it weren't so sad.

Feature and context are intrinsically linked. And unlike hearths, cisterns, wells, post-holes, drains, ditches, walls, foundations, and other common utilitarian archaeological features, it is much more difficult to define features of a more abstract origin.

Personally, I think the key is in the historic and ehtnographic records, along with oral traditions and folklore. Understanding elements of Algonquian cosmology and spirituality as it relates to both stone and the landscape is where progress will be made in this field.

Norman said...

One of the best studies of stonework in the Northeast is a book by Joan and Roman Vastokas titled something like Sacred Art of the Algonkians, which focuses on a spectacular collection of petroglyphs in Ontario. These petroglyphs are pecked in flat limestone outcrops, which are characterized by large fissures through the stone and by the sound of water running underneath. The authors related this site and its phenomenal characteristics to Algonkian spirituality. Although this site deals with petroglyphs, I have found that one can take the same approach with rock pile sites.

I am not as sanguine as Jim about learning much more from historic and ethnographic records here in the Northeast. To me, studying the features and the land will be much more productive.

JimP said...

Well, don't get me wrong. Detailed site studies have great value, obviously. But until these sites are more widely recognized in academic circles, they're just a bunch of curiosities in the woods. For true recognition to occur, it will take a virtual break-through in ethnographic and historical research. I'm not so sure I can pull off a miracle, but I sure as hell am going to try.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all, there is it seems a vast amount of words and concepts use to classify rocks, stones and other features, at the Fort, there was only one Turtle stone, were as in Nipsachuck we found several turtle mounds. The criteria I used at the fort was modified for the work at Nipsachuck, and will be used in a pending article and later in my book, along with methodology for investigations of the seemingly millions of stone features in N.E.
I believe that the pending situation in North Smithfield, when it goes to trial and it will, may establish that the study and interpretation of stone landscapes as native and not field clearing, will make our work lsee curiosities and more the norm.
Fred Meli

Anonymous said...

What I am saying is that we are all working for the same results, we may call a stone structure by different terms, but the goal is to study, protect and preserve. The work that, Jim, Norman, Tim James, Larry and Peter are doing is invaluable, to this issue, we are on the same side, professional and advocational.
On the otherside are the state archaeologist, and their yes men and women. Leveillee, although he gave a nice speach at the NEARA,ESAF,MAS, fall 2006 conference, he is on the otherside of the table concerning the Nipsachuck lands, along with Robinson, who has now shown his true colors, just ask anyone on the RI Advisory Commission for Historic Cemeteries, his quote at a fall meeting, it is public record. "They are all field clearing activity". Fred meli.

Anonymous said...

DESCRIPTION and CONTEXT/RELATIONSHIP refer to physical characteristics of a particular natural feature, modified natural feature, or stone structure. The discernible patterns and other analysis one applies to the physical / anthropological / historical evidence constitutes the DISCUSSION of evidence. Based upon the evidence and the discussion one can draw certain CONCLUSIONS or INTERPRETATIONS. This academic methodology separates any research into three major steps. This dialog has been essentially discussing all three of steps individually. These three steps are designed to work together.

James Gage

Norman said...

Researching sites in such a way that archaeologists pay attention takes time and a great deal of effort, as many of you know. It demands consistency, level headedness and a research methodology that is logical and thorough. In other words, you have to adopt a plan that the archaeologists will respect. Sloppy or illogical thinking will not work. Coming up with a research plan that wins the respect of archaeologists is not necessarily a bad thing.

For the past five years, I have focused much of my attention on a huge cairn site in Rochester, VT, which is situated on federal land.
There are more than 150 cairns of various shapes and sizes scattered over an area of more than 50 acres. Within a 2 mile radius are another three major cairn sites. Probably more is known about this larger cairn site than any other site of its kind in New England. Over the past five years we have developed a network of researchers and specialists who are working together to answer the question of who constructed the cairns and other manmade stone features on the land. To this end, we had a thorough genealogical study done of the family that owned the land the longest, from 1847 to 1903,and we have also traced the deeds back to the original owner in 1780. By a stroke of good luck, we also have the ledgers or daybooks that the farmer from the mid-1800s on maintained during this period. In none of these books is there any mention of constructing cairns or any stonework for that matter, which implies that they predate 1847. The site has been visited by archaeologists of every stripe, plus a well-known ecologist. Progress was slow initially, but we now have professional archaeologists seriously interested in this site, and research is ongoing. If any single site in the Northeast is going to convince archaeologists as to the antiquity of the stonework we find throughout the region, this one has the best chance. There is still much to do, but we are making progress.

Anonymous said...

Although the methodology of separating research of stone structures into an objective physical description, discussion of evidence, and interpretation section seems cold and somewhat culturally insensitive in nature, it is necessary approach if we are avoid major mistakes and receive any recognition from the academic community.

The success of our collective endeavor will depend on our ability to synthesize historical evidence with physical evidence from the sites with the archaeological record with a detail analysis and comparisons between sites. We each have a major contribution to make.

James Gage

pwax said...

In my opinion, members of the general archeological community simply are not participants in the discussion [with Norman's exception duly noted]. You may argue that, in the long run, sites won't get protected unless the academic community is on board with the value of preserving these sites. I doubt that it will happen that way. Rather, the public, the Indians, and the politicians will carry the day and academics will be quick to follow where the money is. Let's keep our eyes on Nipsachuk.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both James and Norman, as for the cultural insensitivity, the problem is that often, even when we are able to do some excavation, we find evidence as to native presense and construction, however, there is no solid materials that can affix a cultural association with mounds and piles. Thus, description, context and relationships are the methods of the academic community, until we are able to clearly make an association to one group or another we are stuck with these methods.
My firm has also hired a historian and a documentation specialist, to help with the interpretation of specific sites, we are meeting stiff resistance from the professional as well as the academic community. Thus, every time we say or do something we are being scrutinized, and criticized. We work still.
Fred Meli

Tim MacSweeney said...

Talking with someone about house restoration work just in the last few hours, telling him about the history of my house and the Indian Village etc., we started talking about stone mounds. Turns out he knows the location of many - right around here and even up in Kent and Sharon CT. He's got a friend of Lakota ancestry who told him that stones used in sweatlodges aren't supposed to be used (reused)for anything else after a sweat and the stones are piled in mounds. I've never heard of that before and wonder if anyone else has...

JimP said...

I just want to clarify my position a bit.

Starting with Mavor and Dix in the 1980's, a whole slew of people have been exploring and documenting stone structure sites in New England, including members of this blog. A significant amount of data has been collected, and patterns well established.

The tribes themselves, through USET, Inc., have called for federal action to recognize and protect these sites.

And none of it has done much to convince the academic community and state archaeologists.

So what's the problem? A complete lack of historic and ethnographic evidence.

Why doesn't that information exist? It does. No one's looked for it before.

Anonymous said...

I agree with JimP that there is additional historical and ethnographic materials to be found. However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention previous research on this subject.

In 1946, Eva Butler, published “The Bush or Stone Memorial Heaps of Southern New England”, Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut vol. 19 (April 1946), pp. 2-12. This remains one of the most exhaustive works on stone piles mentioned in historical records of New England.

There is Frank Speck, the well-known anthropologist's article “The Memorial Brush Heap in Delaware and Elsewhere”, Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Delaware, vol. 4 pp. 17-23 which discusses Native American brush and stone piles in New England.

Archaeologist, Denis E. Howe, excavated a stone cairn associated with a burial with a C-14 date of 5155 +/- 190 years B.P at Sewall's Fall, Concord, NH - “The Beaver Meadow Brook Site: Prehistory on the West Bank at Sewall’s Falls, Concord, New Hampshire”, New Hampshire Archaeologist Vol. 29 No. 1 (1988).

A similar burial related stone pile was excavated at the Hathaway Site in Maine by Archaeologist, Dean R. Snow. - "A Summary of Excavations at the Hathaway Site in Passadumkeag, Maine, 1912, 1947, and 1968", (Department of Anthropology, University of Maine, 1969)

These four citations are all published in reputable archaeological publications by persons whose reputations are impeccable. The evidence presented in these publications has never been formerly challenged by the academic community to the best of my knowledge. Instead there is a conspicuous absence of any reference to these citations in discussions arguing for the field clearing hypothesis.

Evidence I have presented, suggests that the problems lies not with an absence of information, but, a failure to acknowledge the existence of the information and a failure to engage in open academic debate about this information.

NOTE: I have had an opportunity to review some of JimP's research and his research will be important contribution to our knowledge of these structures.

James Gage

pwax said...

A note for Tim MacS. I think somewhere back when I quoted Ernest Seton Thompson to the effect that rock piles were sometimes made from sweat-lodge rocks. See this link:

The idea that the stone should not be re-used is new to me.

Norman said...

James Gage makes a good point when he says that the lack of response among archaeologists to the data collected on cairns and other possible Indian stonework is "not an absence of information, but a failure to acknowledge the existence of the information and a failure to engage in open academic debate about this information."

The problem is very fundamental: the stongly held belief among archaeologists and historians of the region that the Indians did not have the knowledge or even the intelligence to construct anything major of stone until the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century. I have heard this song over and over, and it is not just restricted to the Northeast. It is also found in the South and Midwest.

To counteract this, we must continue to tell the truth about early examples of Indian stonework. James has done this on his website, Jim is doing excellent work toward this end, and Peter's blog continues to be a forum for discussion of this important topic. I would also like to add Doug Schwartz's website (, which has some excellent early references to Indian walls and cairns.

Geophile said...

I have a booklet put together by Fred Werkheiser with Donald Repsher, containing a number of references in historical literature to stone piles and stone work. It includes quotations from many people, some eminent like Noah Webster and Thomas Jefferson. It contains lengthy quotations from Ephraim Squier and George P. Donahoo, and some interesting descriptions of defensive mounds and sweat lodges by George Henry Loskiel.

pwax said...

Too bad these comments are not dated. Looking back over them, I see lots of opinions from people but few numbers. Is it just me and Larry that actually are in a position to make this estimate?
Today, March 2014, I would up my estimate a bit. Also, I published some site counts from nearby towns. Say ten sites per town, times 500 towns. Gives 5,000 sites. No point in guessing the average number of piles per site. It is not a uniform population where that is meaningful.