Norman E. Muller


Stockbridge, VT, Cairn Site


For the past ten years, I have spent a considerable amount of my free time exploring various cairn sites from Pennsylvania to New England and beyond, attempting to discover a pattern of design that might help to explain who constructed the cairns, and when.  With many sites up for grabs as our society expands and wild lands become more threatened, the cairns and other stone constructions found on these lands are also at risk.  Much has undoubtedly already been lost to development.

 In 1997, when I began my study of the Oley Hills site in Berks County, Pennsylvania, I wanted to determine who constructed the impressive and unusual cairns, platforms, walls and terrace, and possibly their date.  The previous owner had concluded that the stone features were Celtic, and archaeologists were pretty dismissive of anything constructed of stone, concluding the features were Colonial.  I had many archaeologists visit the site, but relatively few were interested enough in it to help to understand it or even comment on it.  In spite of this disinterest on the part of archaeologists, I continued to search for evidence, and in time came up with some information that in the future may help to save this site and others like it.

Fig A
Fig. A
Fig B
Fig. B
The following spring I had Bill Sevon, a geomorphologist with the
Pennsylvania Geological Survey, visit the site with his wife.  As we walked through it, I pointed out the various  stone features.  At the large boulder (Fig. A), which I concluded was the heart of the site, he remarked that the boulder was not a glacial erratic but a tor, which in this case was the highly weathered remains of a bedrock outcrop that had eventually eroded loose from the ledge it now sits on (Muller 1998, 1999).  The last continental glacier, the Wisconsin, ended its southern movement twenty miles north of the Oley Hills site, which precluded any glacial erratics being found south of this margin.  At one time, Bill said, the boulder probably rocked, and that the small stacks of rock under the north end of it were placed to keep it from rocking (Fig. B).  Eventually large sections of the south end of the boulder broke loose and now form a semicircle of stone slabs underneath it.  When that happened, the boulder lost its rocking abilities.

Fig C
Fig. C
Fig D
Fig. D
We then walked to the large inclined cairn
(Fig. C), and there Bill pointed to four large quartz cobbles imbedded in the east face of the cairn (Fig. D.  The quartz appears as light gray on the image ) and said that the quartz could not have come from the ridge where the cairn is located, since the ridge was composed entirely of a granitic gneiss with only a dike of diabase intruding into it.  Furthermore, since the glacier stopped twenty miles to the north, any anomalous rock could not be attributed to glacial debris.   Consequently, the quartz had to have come from a presently unknown location in the valley below where pegmatites are more common.  This of course meant that the quartz was deliberately sought out and brought to the cairn site to be placed in the east facing side.  Examining this process more closely, it is highly unlikely that that an eighteenth century German immigrant farmer would have done this.  Yet because of the association of quartz in a ritualistic sense with the American Indian, the placement of quartz makes for a more logical interpretation of the cultural origin of this one monumental cairn and of others at the site.

 Since then, I have sought answers from other sites to help understand and explain who constructed the manmade stone features found on them.  In many instances, the information remains elusive, but for the Smith cairn site in Rochester, Vermont, the detailed deed information that we have for it, combined with a collection of ledgers or daybooks that were kept by Chester Smith, the farmer who worked the land from 1847 to his death in 1903, help to remove his name and other former landowners from the roster of those who might have been responsible for constructing the cairns, since there was no evidence in the daybooks that Smith built the cairns, nor is it likely that the former landowners did either.  Some of this data I have laid out in the web article “An Unusual Crescent-Shaped Cairn and the Significance of Quartz,” (Muller 2007b).  I believe that the repetition of certain stone features or accents from site to site throughout the Northeast is an indication of a region-wide cultural response to the landscape, and is highly unlikely to be interpreted or placed at the doorstep of colonial farmers if examined carefully and with an open mind.  In fact, there is no written or documentary evidence that farmers constructed such large cairns as those found on sites in Vermont to enhance farm production; building them was exceedingly time consuming and makes absolutely no sense when farmers had trouble enough just trying to survive on upland farm sites.  With regard to stone accents, I am thinking particularly of split-wedged boulders and the deliberate placement of quartz in striking locations in cairns.  If we examine these accents from a regional perspective, they take on heightened significance.

 By pointing out how similar features are found at sites many miles distant from one another, we then begin to weave a story that will help to undermine the paradigm still held by archaeologists in the Northeast that the Indians had no stone building technology until this part of North America was settled by Europeans in the seventeenth century.  Many out there, such as Peter Waksman, Larry Harrop and others, have assembled data, photographic and otherwise, that will help to form a new prehistory of the region.

 The study below of a site in Stockbridge, Vermont, should be viewed as just one more piece of the puzzle.  I have noted where necessary how certain distinctive features have been found elsewhere at sites from Pennsylvania to southern Vermont, thus emphasizing the regional nature of this phenomenon.  Besides being fascinating in their own right, they also make for a compelling story.   


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Copyright © 2007 by Norman E. Muller

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