Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Science of Recognizing Indigenous Stonework

(Part One); Observations
     I started out with an Observation, of course. I’m as visually orientated as anyone else who grew up in the Television Age. In the spring of 1991 I observed some serpentine rows of stone surrounding an area that was the most likely site of a burial grounds according to a local historian sometime around 1850 and also by a newspaper story about a dedication ceremony in 1915 or so (and I’ll correct those dates later). Following those stone rows led to some interesting observations of stonework, the detection of repeated artistic patterns of stonework and variations of those patterns, and an educated guess that these were most likely creations of Indigenous People, and some theories about the role of stonework on the pre-contact Ethnographic Cultural Landscape of Turtle Island, as those Indigenous People first named what is now known as North America.

     There were stone mounds on the edge of the floodplain I’ve lived on for the past 30 or so years that, according to Mr. Cothren, were the graves of the band of Indigenous People who lived at the Nonnewaug Wigwams at the time of the “first settlement” in 1659. The largest was the Sachem’s grave:

     Hardly verifiable facts, a couple “Grandfather Stories” and a single woodcut illustration, I needed some more observations. The serpentine row of stones, barely visible under the brush and debris, connected to a relatively low zigzag row of stones. And that row connected to another row of stones that branched off in two directions, both following the water course of an unnamed stream. If I turned left and followed the row and the (down) stream, I ended up back where I started, encircling the suspected burial grounds. If I turned right and headed uphill, I found that I would be walking along a stream that had zigzag rows of stones on both sides of it. When I got to the swampy source of the stream, I found several mound-like piles of cobble stones, often on boulders, but one large cobble or small boulder placed on a large flat topped five foot long boulder stood out amongst the brambles and brush.  I at first thought it might be a cow’s skull placed on the boulder, but it was a quartzite stone. The pecked and polished stone resembled the head of a bear:
     Possibly the stone was humanly enhanced to more resemble a bear, which is my impression of which animal it might be. Besides the enhancement of ursine features – and a nice “natural” diagonal streak of lighter color across the face of the stone – there is also a hole pecked on top of the head stone.
  And it seems important to mention: the bear's head is balanced on the boulder. It will rock for a while if you touch it...
       The cobble has multiple pit marks or cups on its upper most surface, angled toward a concave side that just happens to be curved inward enough for a person to place a quahog shell, perhaps in which tobacco has been placed, on the boulder surface below it and have it stay in place. If I chose to take my drill type fire starter with me, I could take some balled up and fuzzy cedar and place it over those cup marks, feel around for one of them with my Sangwhikan and get some fire going on the cedar tinder.

     I could breathe on it to get it going – even if it rolled down the stone into the shell. If I wanted to, I could put that shell on top of the bear’s head where it would neatly click into place, just as easily as it did the first time I tried it after reading Gladys Tantaquidgeon in "Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians (1972,1995)" (pg. 60): "Wild animals, as pointed out by F.G. Speck (1931: 28-29), are in general considered to exist in clan relationship with humans. The latter are said to be "kings among animals." Clean pure animals of the forest are referred to in terms of human relationship and their spirits must be propitiated before they can be sought for food. If the supernaturals are appeased through sacrifices, the animals will allow themselves to be taken, but if the proper ceremonies are not carried out, they can never be approached by humans. Therefore, a hunter is obliged to pray and sacrifice tobacco before starting on the hunt...
      The Delaware consider the bear and deer to be the greatest of all animals. The bear is also called "Our Grandfather." Both animals are considered closely akin to the Indian, but the Delaware believe that the bear has the most human-like traits..." 

      To the south of this stone concentration, that may or may not technically be defined as a petroform, is another interesting stone, lower to the ground but one again on a larger boulder, resembling a deer, the other “greatest of all animals,” with a separate stone that easily accommodates a shell.

     Not long after finding these interesting stones in the summer of 1996, I sought out a local archeologist, and after forcing him to make me a cup of coffee, I showed him some of these photos. He told me about the repeated patterns that form the basis of archeology: “Find one stone bunny on Easter Island and it is nothing remarkable, but find a line of a bunch of stone bunnies all facing the same way on Easter Island and you’ve got something interesting.”
      I probably showed him two more photos of stone concentrations that I interpreted as representations of turtles, one in fact that I was pretty certain was not only a box turtle, but a Petroform Effigy of the Great Turtle of the widespread Creation Story and another turtle of perhaps a different species about 200 feet or 66 meters apart. 

      I first heard the local form of the Creation Story at a Pow Wow, recited by Trudie Lamb Richmond (Shaghticoke). The free standing Turtle Petroform on the left has sunburst like marks that recall the footprint-like scratches the beaver left on the box turtle’s shell during the creation process, climbing onto Turtle’s back to place some mud from the bottom of an endless sea on top of the Great Turtle’s carapace or upper shell to create the earth – or Turtle Island. The turtle on the right was once buried under a post-contact trash pile behind my old chicken yard until it was slowly uncovered by chickens when the chicken yard was expanded. Several years passed, and long after the chickens were gone, I just happened to observe this possible Testudinate Petroform. There were other stone mounds behind the chicken coop, it turned out, as well as another possible Testudinate Petroform about the same size and constructed similarly:

Next: Patterns

“Inductive Reasoning is sometimes called the "from the bottom up" approach. When we use inductive reasoning, our specific observations and measurements may begin to show us a general pattern. This might allow us to formulate a tentative hypothesis that can be further explored, and we might finally end up making some general conclusions.” -


  1. There's some interesting stone pilings throughout Westwoods. The best is off the quarry trail going between the quarry lot and 146 entrance at the railroad bridge in Stony Creek. I have found a split rock cairn as well, where the crack is filled with stones and a line of stones goes along the edge of the eastern rock. Those rocks are all "hefted" I read about this type of cairn at the Stonestructures of New England site...

  2. What do you mean by "hefted?"