November 14, 2009
Cabell cairns pique archaeologist's interest

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Shortly after a surveyor marked off the boundaries of his newly purchased farm in southern Cabell County two years ago, the landowner hiked its perimeter. Halfway up a steep hillside behind his home, he noticed a series of rock piles on a bench of flat land and walked over to investigate.

He found dozens of carefully stacked conical, circular and oblong rock piles, ranging in height from a foot or two to more than seven feet.

Many of the moss- and lichen-draped rocks were stacked atop boulders while others were freestanding, or connected two or more boulders. Some were capped with large flat rocks or contained basinlike cavities or rectangular niches. Others were wall-like, and fronted the rock cairns or the edges of the bench.

In all, there turned out to be 53 of the mysterious rock cairns on three adjacent benches wedged onto a 60 percent slope. Eighteen of the rock structures were built on top of boulders, three have flat, platformlike tops and four are conical.

After taking in the scene, the property owner (who asked that his name not be used to help conceal the location of the structures) walked back to his house.

"I said to my wife, 'There's something weird up there,'" he recalled during a recent visit to the site. "It took too much work to have been a farmer clearing off some land."

An Internet search brought the landowner's wife in contact with Norman Muller, curator of the Princeton University Art Museum, who has a background in archaeology and an interest in similar rock cairns found across New England and the Northeast.

Muller suggested that the Cabell County couple contact Roger Wise, supervising archaeologist for the state Division of Highways, who had shown Muller some Adena mounds and American Indian rock carvings in the Ohio Valley the previous year.

Wise, who agreed to take a look at the rocks on his own time, wasn't prepared for what he encountered.

"I'd seen a couple of rock piles in the Kanawha Valley before, but nothing like this," he said. "I was amazed. I brought three other civilians up here - my wife, my son and a friend - and they all think this is awesome, too."

Wise said most mainline archaeologists consider the rock cairns they encounter or hear reports about to be the result of early farmers clearing off land for pastures or crops.

Since the cairns aren't normally encountered in road construction, lock and dam projects, or other developments in which archaeological assessments are needed, they have received little serious study, Wise said.

"And there doesn't seem to be much there to excavate," he added, noting the absence of noticeable hearthstones or other signs of an encampment.

Wise said it seems unlikely that the Cabell County rock cairns are the result of someone having cleared off a relatively flat piece of land for agricultural purposes.

Neither American Indian nor pioneer farmers would have taken the time or effort to create elaborate stacks of rocks, and then left many of them in the middle of the flat ground they were clearing, instead of throwing them off the bench. Pioneer farmers would likely have hauled the stones off on horse-drawn wagons or sleds.

"It took a lot of work and a lot of time to build them," Wise said. "I just don't see them being moved and stacked for agriculture."

A huge sugar maple rises from, and has partially toppled, one of the Cabell County cairns, providing evidence that the stonework was done prior to the era of European settlement. Testing has shown that the tree is 257 years old.

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