"Overcoming the Ambiguity of a Rock Pile: Their Examination and Interpretation in Cultural Resource Management Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow"
By Charity M Moore and Matthew Victor Weiss
This paper was presented on January 9, 2016 at the SHA 2016 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology.
The Present State of Rock Feature Research
“While researching this paper, my colleague and I came across many experienced archaeologists who had regularly encountered rock features, or were at least aware of their existence, but who had not previously thought to record or research them. In many cases these "non-standard" features are overlooked in favor of traditional archaeological resources (see Ballard and Maver 2006:37-38; Ives 2013; Muller 2009). In CRM, tight budgets and schedules make it especially tempting to ignore ambiguous features, as no developer wants to be told that they should avoid a pile of rocks based on an unproven possibility that it may be significant. The uncertainty surrounding rock feature interpretation then perpetuates the lack of research. My co-author and I contacted the officer or head archaeologist at each SHPO in order to gauge their awareness of and opinions on the rock feature problem, as well as to gather approaches to their recordation and interpretation. The results were widely varied, with no clear patterns in regard to region of the U.S., the characteristics of known rock features, or the presence or absence of recognized Native American tribes. Only a few states, such as Montana, North Dakota, and Oregon, have formal guidance in place (some of which I will discuss later in the presentation) Connecticut is currently in the process of developing ceremonial stone landscape (CSL) forms and/or guidance (James Gage, personal communication, 2015)...
...(T)he most concerning and extreme SHPO opinion came from Massachusetts' website, which claims that "research into such stone piles [has]invariably shown that these features are not associated with the Native American settlement of Massachusetts" and then goes on to imply that historic-period rock features are not culturally significant (MHC 2015).Furthermore, their SHPO has refused to accept forms which report prehistoric rock features (Gage and Gage2015a). Their SHPO did not respond to our request for further information, but their opinion has often been discredited (e.g. Gage and Gage 2015a; Muller 2009; NEARA 2015; Rush 2015) and even overturned by other federal
agencies in the high profile Turners Falls case (Albertini 2009; NPS 2008; Timreck 2011)...
This past October, my colleague and I were able to attend a conference entitled "Interpreting the Past: Ceremonial Stone Landscapes of the Northeast," during which academic and CRM archaeologists, Native Americans, and SHPO and Tribal Historical Preservation Offices (THPO) representatives self-critically discussed the poor state of research and protection for sacred indigenous landscapes. A resulting publication is planned. The general consensus was that archaeologists must stop imposing their own academic, racial, or ideological biases and must recognize that prehistoric, post-contact Native American, and historic European American rock features are worthy of study and preservation. Panel discussants noted that archaeologists who are faced with their inability to interpret a rock feature often mistake their ignorance for some kind of epistemological impasse inherent to these features. Because the growing body of literature refutes such an impasse, we must consider if our inability to interpret may actually be the result of insufficient effort on our part and on biases about what types of cultural resources are important or interesting. Through deep collaboration with native groups, archaeologists can learn to hear the landscape and have the responsibility to speak on the behalf of native peoples, especially when the absence of federally-recognized tribes or loss of oral traditions about rock features is the result of their displacement and cultural suppression. Sites like the celestial alignments at Fort Drum, New York (Rush 2015),the "memory piles" along the Constitution Pipeline in Pennsylvania and New York (Cassedy and Bergevin 2015),or the CSLs at Lawton Foster Road and Turners Falls in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, respectively, (Albertini2009; Drummond 2014; NPS 2008; Timreck 2011) could not have been recognized by archaeologists alone, but can now be used as case studies to interpret other stone landscapes.
These issues have had another unfortunate side effect. Members of the public who are confronted with the apparent antiquity and awe-inspiring nature of rock features often become frustrated with their dismissal by professional archaeologists, or by archaeology's failure to explain their origins, and turn to pseudoarchaeological explanations. These features' ambiguity creates an ideal situation for theories about extraterrestrials, lost civilizations, and supernatural entities to flourish, as people try to make sense of these visually impressive landscapes. However, this ambiguity has not stopped many non-archaeologists and amateur researchers from conducting insightful and thorough research on cairnfields, rock effigy sites, etc. Although their conclusions are not always based on conventional science, history, or archaeology, the resulting websites, blogs, and articles contain a wealth of primary data that is invaluable to the archaeological researcher (e.g. Native Stones.com 2006; Waksman 2005; 2015; see Muller 2009:17). Rather than belittling or alienating non-archaeologists, we should encourage public interest in archaeology and coordinate our efforts to understand the past. The websites and publications of the New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA 2015; see Ballard and Maver 2006; Holstein 2012; Muller 2009), a group of primarily amateur rock feature researchers, and historian mother and son team Mary and James Gage (Gage and Gage 2015a; see Gage 2009a; 2009b; 2014; 2015; Gage and Gage 2015b; 2015c) have been particularly valuable during our research..."
A Call For the Adoption of Archaeological Theory and Rock Feature-Specific Guidance
"Only when rock feature sites are regularly recorded in a thoughtful and knowledgeable way, we will be able to identify meaningful patterns and better understand the past through the application of archaeological theory, such as Tilley's (1994; see 1996) phenomenology of landscape, Boivin and Owoc's (2004) work on perceptions of the mineral world, and Ingold's (2000) dwelling perspective. Ingold's work is particularly applicable, as it can be used to explore the affordances (which are perceived properties and use-values) of stone, individual stone constructs, and their environmental settings in order to develop possible meanings and reasons behind their construction. These theoretical approaches, which could be collectively subsumed under the study of "paleo-environmental inhabitation" (Moore 2012), are readily applicable to rock features. For example, Trevarthen's (2000) study of prehistoric cairns demonstrated how geological affordances like color and luster can convey ideology, William's (2007) study of medieval cemeteries revealed how burial cairns and other mortuary and commemorative monuments were carefully designed by the living to selectively reflect individual and collective identifies and relationships, and Johnston's (2001) work on prehistoric clearance cairns explored the ways in which cairns structure both the physical and social realm.
Framed and intersected by navigable water and ancient travel routes, the Upper Ohio River Valley has been a geographic center for economic and cultural development spanning Native American cultures like the Hopewell, early European-American settlement and agriculture, nineteenth-to-twentieth century industry, and the current oil and gas boom. As people built rock features, in all their forms, functions, and origins, they were reflecting a shared, but ever changing, understanding of human experience and interactions with the materiality of landscape (e.g. augmentation, imitation, interaction, modification of existing conditions). However, until all archaeologists, SHPOs, and agencies begin to adopt region-appropriate guidance and best practices, guided by some of the techniques and resources discussed here, and to respect indigenous beliefs about the agency of landscape features and their ancestors (e.g. Holstein 2010), this information will continue to be unreachable."
The full presentation can be accessed here:
The full presentation can be accessed here: