Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Wachusett Tradition and Marker Piles

Since I coined the two phrases of "Marker Piles" and the "Wachusett Tradition", some discussion is needed about whether they are inter-related and, if so, what is that relation. I think there is some relation but the ideas are not identical. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago at the Hopkinton State Forest I noticed and described how the piles had a vertical face as well as a slanted or horizontal face that blended in to the hillside.
I have always described this vertical face as a basic characteristic of what I called "marker piles". [It was Linda McElroy of Acton who first pointed out the vertical face on a pile at the "Acton Grid" but I stole the idea and gave it a name.] This type of pile has been discussed a lot on this blog [click here for some of the discussions]. So I won't spend time now talking about even spacing of rock piles or rock piles in a line.

But then, at Hopkinton State Forest, I noticed this other pile characteristic of blending in with the slope of the hillside. So a week after that, at Millers Hill in Holliston, seeing something like that I called it a "ski jump" profile [click here and scroll down]. This is frequently a characteristic of marker piles but not always. However Millers Hill and Hopkinton State Forest are slightly different - Millers Hill has a big platform and Hopkinton State Forest has smaller more numerous piles.Both have ski jump shaped piles. So these sites are similar but neither exactly fits the definition of "Wachusett Tradition": both sites have nice views - "outlooks"- but the chambered rectangular cairns are absent. Also neither of these sites is a typical marker pile site in the sense of numerous lined up piles.

Now, with a site I found last weekend in Upton at the Warren Brook Watershed Conservation Land, some kind of connection was seen: ski jump piles in intimate connection with a chambered rectangular cairn at a place with a good view. I will report that site separately but here are "ski jumps" from there:
And here is a chambered (vandalized) and rectangular cairn from there:
[Sorry the snow makes it hard to see but there is a rectangular hole at the center of the pile].

I think this is a significant overlap between one form of marker pile (the "ski jump") and the Wachusett Tradition of chambered cairns.

Let's return to the thought that these are not typical marker pile sites. The latter have, in the past, been places with many small piles, lined up and evenly spaced. But with these recent sites (Millers Hill, Hopkinton State Forest, and Warren Brook) the lines and the even spacing are not so evident, all that is left is the vertical face and the characteristic of blending in to the uphill slope. To be accurate, the Hopkinton State Forest site is almost halfway between a standard marker pile site and a Wachusett Tradition site - the piles are somewhat smaller and somewhat evenly spaced. Is it reasonable to think that Hopkinton State Forest is some kind of transitional site from a culture and thought process somewhere between the (older) Wachusett Tradition and the (newer) Marker Pile site? I say "older and newer" because the Wachusett Tradition sites are much more beaten down than some of the very fresh looking marker pile sites I have seen.

Is it reasonable to go even further and imagine a crude chronology that extends from Wachusett Tradition to Marker Piles with Hopkinton State Forest as somewhere between the two? It is too late for me to ask if this is truly reasonable because I have gone over into thinking this way. I don't know where Miller's Hill fits in and do not know if the absence of chambered cairns is more significant or the presence of ski jump shaped large piles there.

So, for better of worse, I have adopted a sense of chronology, a sense of a spectrum of types of site with older, larger, and especially chambered, rock piles more in the Wachusett Tradition and younger, smaller, more numerous, more lined up rock piles more in the Marker Pile style of site. Vertical faced piles remain present throughout. This spectrum is a result of my observation - classifications that arise from a long term examination of many sites rather than the immature "Rock Pile Types" I was seeing and describing a few years ago (see here) based on superficial characteristics of the piles. That is not to say I repudiate that earlier classification but rather that it is evolving and becoming more real and more observable place to place.

So, since I am provincial and locked into a Middlesex County MA study area, it begs the question: what is going on in other places outside of this small world? Most of the piles I see photos of, from further south in New England, seem like marker piles to me. Do chambered cairns at an outlook show up somewhere else? What about huge platforms like at Millers Hill? Where do they fit in and how common are they elswhere? Please let me know.


pwax said...

Adding: if you look closely there are other characteristics here to be identified. I am starting to see some little concave corners in some of these vertical faces. What the...!? Learning what to look for is a slow process.

Chris Pittman said...

This post is really fantastic and I applaud your efforts in this direction. I believe that this is the kind of thinking that is our only hope of leading to a greater understanding of the age and function of these sites. Something that I often wonder about is what the terrain looked like at these sites when the piles were built. I know that many places that were swampy or even lakes hundreds of years ago are totally dry today, I think that variable must be taken into account.

pwax said...

I totally forgot to mention that there are plenty of rocks piles that I do not believe fit anywhere in that "spectrum" - especially gap piles, effigies, and low ground piles with quartz. Also those huge "Danish" piles at Whipple Hill in Lexington and along Rt 128 in Weston - along Hobbs Brook.

Norman said...

In that last image, isn't there a small standing stone at the edge of the stone pile?