Sunday, July 15, 2007

Piles of rocks

I've been quoted recently concerning a fascinating archaeological anomaly in the southeastern United States - the humble rockpiles that are scattered across the fields and forests of rural Georgia. In the July fourth edition of Flagpole, writer Jonathan Railey focuses on how vestiges of the past manage to remain protected because they remain invisible. Check it out: it's not every day that light is shed on the shadows of history.

Unfortunately, as Railey laments, the invisibility strategy is no longer working out for the rock piles, which are increasingly disregarded and destroyed by thirsty land development. This happens because most rock piles are believed to be "no more than" field clearing piles or property markers from the turn of the century. For the majority of the cases, this is the most likely scenerio.

However, an older phenomenon hides amongst these stones: rock piles built by Native Americans sometime in the deep past. While the most common myth is that they can mark burials, there is very little evidence for this. Another possibility is that they are prehistoric sacred sites, or "prayers in stone" as the United South and Eastern Tribes now call them. Because so much has been lost about the ways of the past, the reasons for these rock piles are largely mysterious.

Of course, the real pickle is that there is no sure-fire way to identify the origins of rock piles using standard archaeological investigation..... unless you dismantle them. The United Tribes recently made a call for protection of the prehistoric rock piles (USET resolution 2007; 037), but it's difficult to protect what cannot be discerned.

Archaeologists in the Northeast are responding the the call for protection; hopefully this new wave of public attention will result in new, non-intrusive methodologies for the study of rock piles. Check out this blog for good information about the mystery of rock piles in the NE.

My hope is that greater attention to landscape, more systematic survey techniques and a healthy respect for researcher intuition will help identify these crazy little piles of rocks. Don't let me start blabbing about radical empiricism again. We're still learning how landscape affects perception, and the rock piles themselves may have something to teach us about that. With a greater understanding of how the first Americans constructed their perception of landscape, their cosmology may become more visible again.

It's just hidden in plain sight.

Update (7/27/07): My response to Railey's article can be found here.


z. said...

Tag, you're it.

Geophile said...

Up here in PA some sites are being researched by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.,0,923459.story
If they determine in favor of indigenous origins for the sites, it may become easier to get them protected.

comette said...

Uh...are you sure it's not those clever rock-balancers? I know The Urban Pantheist on Live Journal has been piling up rocks every where he goes lately....~Comette

dungan said...

nice to hear about PA research. I've also heard from archaeologist Curt Hoffman at Bridgewater State that MA is making changes at the SHPO level. In GA, there are mostly cynics, but also good scientists who are willing to "get to the bottom of it." i'm pretty sure the Urban Pantheist can't dig that deep.

pwax said...

A nicely written summary. Thanks for the link.