There are several types of rock piles
that can be recognized and it is possible to learn where and in what
topographic settings to expect them. Except for the
mundane agricultural ones, rock piles seem to be
manifestations left from past ceremonial
activities. So, how they are situated, how they are built, and how they
are inter-related to one another can be understood in terms of a
presumed ceremonial function. Accordingly I propose these four broad
I discuss a number of types within these categories and then attempt to
plot a composite distributional
map of the
types. This provides
hints to the different
people who might have created some of the rock piles.
- Platform piles and aligned piles related to Sky
- Effigy piles related to Natural
- Burial and donation piles related to the Dead
- Mundane piles related to modern or
These piles have individual or collective directionality: forming
alignments, marking the horizon, supporting a pointer, or having a
directional axes. Sometimes they are at a vantage point, with a clear
view of the sky or out over water.
Characteristics: An enclosing
semi-circular outline, usually three to four feet in diameter. The
opening faces a particular direction with a view that often includes
rock piles. Made from fewer than twenty rocks.
Placed on a support rock
Placed on the ground, not on a support:
Built as an outline using a larger number of rocks, backed by a larger
[Note the first of these three examples is recent, it appeared in the
five years. The other examples look old.]
Setting: Seats are not found in
isolation but as part of a multi-component site.
Range: Known examples in
Billerica, Carlisle, northern Concord,
Acton, and Boxborough.
Possible Function: Presumed
sitting place for
a participant in events at this location.
Comments: These features are
smaller than the "U" shape
structures discussed by Ted Ballard in (1) and here.
For some nice examples of ground piles and rock backed seats, see also
Dan Boudillion's photo's here, here, and here. (4)
Platform Piles or Horizon Markers
Characteristics: A rectangular
pile, ten or more feet across, with a level top surface, made from
hundreds of larger rocks. Easy to confuse with field clearing
piles. Look for well graded rocks. Sometimes made from broken
Sometimes includes a retaining wall. Found at edges where higher ground
off to lower ground. The words "Platform" and
used with respect to where the pile is located on a slope, as
piles found on flat land (front and back pictures of a single
pile, note water and quartz).
Bisquit-shaped wall bulges
These could be well made field
clearing piles and are found particularly in Boxborough. They are made
by incorporating a rounded retaining wall into a stone
wall; which is then filled with smaller rocks. These could be very tidy
field clearing piles but they often occur in proximity to other rock
piles of other types. Adding to
the confusion, these wall bulges look like they
might be both
ceremonial and the
result of field clearing. For example, with respect to the third
in the same
wall shows the outline of a room or entrance, as illustrated. This
not a field clearing pile:
Setting: Found at the brow of a hill or on a shoulder of a
hill. Most of the examples face southwest over water.
Range: Horizon piles have an
interesting distribution: they are
common to the east in Lexington and Waltham. There is one isolated
group of them in Concord, and there are numerous platform and (perhaps)
horizon piles in Boxborough and Stow along Rt 495. However both
platform and horizon piles are rare if not absent from towns
north of Concord - suggesting a cultural difference between piles in
the Lexington/Waltham area versus the area north of Concord. (See also
the range given for seats and for outlines and the distribution summary
Possible Function: Platforms
are presumed used for standing and looking out, while Horizon piles are
presumed to be features on the horizon when viewed
from somewhere else. The idea of piles marking events on a horizon was
first mentioned in Manitou during
the discussion of
Pratt Hill viewed from the Upton Chamber (2).
Comments: These piles are the
most easy to mix up with field
clearing piles. Often a pile occurs where a field drops off into a
swamp. At first it is assumed to be a field clearing pile. Look for
these suspicious features: the presence of a single white rock, the
general tidiness of the rock pile shape, size uniformity of the
rocks in the pile, or the individual rocks being broken ledge rock
and not cleared from a field. Look for retaining walls. If other types
of rock piles occur
nearby, this should also increase caution in making judgements about
Another common feature of large rock piles is a hollow in the side or
near the top (for example the first
horizon pile above). After
considering this to be a possible
architectural feature of certain piles, I changed my mind and concluded
it is evidence of pot-hunting. Someone dug into that
pile looking for treasure. It is not architecture, it is damage. I
piles must have actually yielded treasure occasionally, for such damage
to have been as widespread as it is.
For some magnificent examples of platform piles from Vermont, see Norman Muller's
Vermont Platform Cairns (5) To me, these look more like the "wall
bulges" than anything else around here.
Characteristics: A pile with a
pointed rock or a vertical flake sticking out significantly higher than
the other rocks
in the pile.
Marker pile with pointer
Marker pile with vertical flake "fin"
Setting: Not known. Needs more study.
Range: Not known
Possible Function: May
provide more precise alignments.
Comments: These have been photo'ed but not observed carefully.
Many stacked piles appear to have a fallen over pointers.
Stacks in Grid
Characteristics: Piles with
or cleanly slanted side walls, carefully made from larger rocks,
in lined-up groups, spaced evenly and forming a grid.
[In the last picture, the small red dot at the rear is my son sitting
on one of the piles of the grid. There are five piles in the scene.]
Subtypes: None known
Setting: Flat plateau not far
above water, enclosed by walls.
Range: Only three examples
known: two in Acton, one in Boxborough, another possible one in Stow.
Possible Function: Unknown,
presumed related to detailed observing of the sky.
Comments: Would not have been
easy to create accurate grids. Hard to survey and hard to photograph.
stacks may occasionally have a "pointer" stone as described earlier.
Note the use of quartz in the second example. These grid piles are
one type that sometimes uses quartz. It is worth
wondering if the quartz is functioning the same way here as in other
places or whether it is a false to distinguish between these and other
types of piles like this
are discussed in more detail here.
Setting: Level rocky wetland
Range: Includes Boxborough,
Possible Function: Alignment
to solstice sunrise/sunset and or equinox.
Comments: It has been
suggested but not verified that occasionally several rock-on-rocks in a
row form part of an alignment.
Food Related Piles
Effigy piles are found near sources of energy such
as springs, lightening strike concentrations, and large glacial
They take a wide variety of forms and often are representions of human
or plant species. In most cases effigies are built on a larger support
boulder. Occasionally they are built directly on the ground.
Characteristics: A pile,
usually built on a support rock, with a larger "head" rock and an axis
of symmetry. Usually contains fewer than ten small rocks.
[From left to right, these are interpeted as female, female, male,
[From left to right, these are interpreted as flower, flower, fish,
[Found near trees with lightening strike scars. Note symmetric wings on
either side of the head, note a heart stone at the center.]
Piles using color:
[First picture shows example with four colors; others are examples of
Piles built on support with quartz.
[From left to right these are interpreted as: turtle, bird, unknown.]
have quartz on the turtle's back (just below the middle of three
highest rocks in the pile). Other types of rock piles that use quartz
include platforms, burials, and grid stacks. How quartz is used in
these contexts is one of the main mysteries
of this subject.
Setting: Found near some form
of energy souce such as a spring, a lightening strike concentration, or
(occasionally) a large glacial erratic. Female
effigies usually have feet towards the southeast; males have feet
the west. Thunderbirds are found near near places with high amounts of
lightening, and they usually face
northwest - where storms come from. Turtles face in
many different directions,
but most often in anortherly direction.
Range: Found everywhere.
Possible Function: Presumed
related to using the energy of a water source, a thunderstorm,
glacial erratic, or a food supply.
Comments: Effigies are the
intriguing rock piles. There are other types besides the ones
illustrated, including Twins
and geometric shapes like spirals and zizgags.
These piles include two kinds of (suspected) burial piles as well as
donation piles created to memorialize a past event or important
The donation piles are well documented but the other types shown
here are completely speculative. The term "burial pile" is applied to
piles built on the well drained soil, incorporating quartz and facing
out over water with a view to the west. I do not know, but strongly
suspect these are burials.
Type: Oblong ground Piles with
Characteristics: Low to the
ground, roughly circular pile with one or two pieces
of quartz (occasionally white feldspar is substituted). Incorporates
perhaps fifteen to thirty rocks.
Setting: "Burial" piles always
appear in groups,
usually enclosed by stone walls, on slightly sloping land facing out
over water Usually the direction is westward.
Range: Found everywhere in
north and west of Concord
Possible Function: As
a grave marker.
Comments: Western facing sites
with a view over water match the mythology of the land of the dead
being in the west and separated from the world of the living by water.
The presence of quartz and the low outline or oval of
rocks all suggest burials. But it is certainly not confirmed.
Ground piles with an outline consisting of a "head" rock, and
two parallel rows of rocks forming three or four
sides of a rectangle. Often one rock of the outline is quartz.
Sometimes a central "heart" occurs. Please note the shape of the
"heart" in the second picture here.
Setting: Uncertain, lookout
place above water, not necessarily west facing.
Range: Lexington, Concord,
Weston, Western Mass. Distribution is similar to the distribution
for Horizon piles.
Possible Function: Burial
Comments: These also appear to
be burials because they are so similar to some European ones. The
occasional presence of a heart stone (2nd and possibly 4th picture) is
suggestive, and the use of
quartz is similar to the oblong ground piles described above. But the
difference in range and difference in style, suggests a slightly
Type: Donation Piles
Characteristics: A conical
shaped pile made
from hundreds of different rocks. These piles are
the most thoroughly documented and accepted type of Indian stone pile.
I know of no examples from around here but Norman Muller (3) discusses
a donation pile on Monument
Mountain in Stockbridge Massachusetts. His photo shows what might be a
reconstruction of the orginial pile:
Range: Not known but
Memorial to important events or people. A donation would be made by
adding another stone to the pile.
Comments: This is one of
categories of rock piles most acceptable to traditional archeologists
England. It is worth noticing the characteristic
shape and size, which are easy to distinguish from some of the others
shown above and below.
The conical shape is the natural shape where tossed rocks come to rest
- the so called "angle of repose". Field clearing piles, described
below, also frequently take this same shape. Contrast it with the shape
of a well
built platform pile, a stack, or a low effigy pile.
or Modern Piles
These are the piles which are modern or from the historical past,
being the result of some practical agricultural task.
Type: Field Clearing Piles
jumbled rocks of different sizes, hundreds or thousands of rocks, many
flat rocks, all glacial till, found at the edge of, or near, a (once)
plowed field. Sometimes occur in groups. Look for an outline with
larger rocks underneath and smaller rocks filling in above. Look for
and ends tossed on.
[In the middle picture the little chalk "x" marks are from a size
Setting: Edge of a field
Range: Found in agricultural
lowlands of Concord, Acton, Lincoln, Carlisle, etc.
Possible Function: The
removal of rocks from a field, before
Comments: Field clearing piles
category of rock pile accepted by traditional archeologists of
New England. Note the lack of structure to these piles, note the
outline and the rock sizes. The last picture shows a pile at the brow
of a hill which might be a horizon pile but it is also near a field,
and it contains some mixture of rock sizes, so it could be a field
clearing pile. In the final analysis it might not be a field clearing
pile because nearby piles are quite different (in fact this
seat is nearby). But in the case of the first two pictured here, other
un-structured piles are found nearby, re-enforcing, in these cases,
that they are field
Type: Boundary Marker Piles
Range: Used throughout New
England as surveyor's landmarks.
Possible Function: To fix
the corner position of a property
Comments: The illustrated pile
by Bruce MacAlleer) is the historic boundary marker dividing Marshfield
from Duxbury. It was erected in the 17th century, yet the rocks look
fresh without lichen. So a three hundred year old piles can look
Different sizes of boundary marker are possible depending on how much
time the surveyors were able to spend building the pile. The dimensions
of the illustrated pile suggest that the surveyors who built this one
only spent a
few minutes doing it.
Characteristics: well built
with near vertical sides following a European-style of stone work which
layering of flat rocks:
Setting: Near someone's garden
Possible Function: Unknown
Comments: Second picture by
Norman Muller (3)
Plotting some of these types gives a crude typology map which suggests
cultural or temporal differences. It also shows which types might be
from the same culture.
It is very tempting to take this as evidence of different peoples or
time periods. However finding a single example of one of the
illustrated types in another town could change the map a little, so let
us leave it at
this: the map is suggestive. The main visible distinction is between
upland towns in the
west, like Boxborough, versus lowland towns in the east, like
This corresponds reasonably well with the
different watersheds (respectively) of the Assabet River and the
There is a
conservation land in Boxborough with quite a few
rock piles on a hill. Down one part of the slope is a collection of old
rock-on-rocks structures. Along the trail, someone (probably the
committee) immitated these and built new rock-on-rocks, as cairns to
mark the trail.
At the bottom of the hill is an old "burial" pile, with a white quartz
window; and nearby someone created something that looks more modern,
shaped like an animal
with a white quartz head (something almost never seen).
Also nearby is a huge platform pile with a
ramp leading up and around to the top and nice view out over a swamp.
In the swamp itself are some effigy piles built up on support rocks.
Then on one edge of the conservation land, someone built a stone
"folly" including a nice almost vertical sided pile next to a stone
throne where, sitting like a king, you can look outward and
the swamp. There are also three or four old platform piles, some more
tumbled than others, spotted at strategic points on the hill. Thinking
about these different styles, I sense
everyone who came along expressed themselves by building rock piles.
(1) For want of a Nail: An Analysis
of the Function of Some Horsehoe or "U"-Shaped Stone Structures.
Edwin C. Ballard. NEARA
Journal Volume 34, Number
2, Winter 2000 & the
Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archeological Society ,Volume 60, Number 2, 1999.
Manitou - The Sacred
Landscape of New England's Native Civilization. James W. Mavor,
Jr. and Byron E. Dix. Inner Traditions International, Ltd. One Park
Street Rochester, VT 05767 (1989). See pp 45-55.
(3) The Cairns in our Midst:
Historic or Prehistoric? Norman Muller NEARA Journal, Volume 37,
Number 2, Winter
(4) Photos section of the NEARA web page http://www.neara.org/photos.htm
(5) Fall Meeting Preview for NEARA - Vermont Platform Cairns, Norman
Muller, at http://www.neara.org/Muller/platformcairns.htm