How To Tell How Old 3 Feet A Rattlesnake Is A Walk in the Woods – Exploring Stone Cairns and Stone Piles

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A Walk in the Woods – Exploring Stone Cairns and Stone Piles

It is not uncommon when hiking in local conservation lands, city forests, and state parks in the northeastern United States to discover old stone cairns and stone piles. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 in New England alone. Who built them, when and why?

The short answer is that cairns were built in the last 5,000 years in New England by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes, and piles of stones they were built over the last 400 years by farmers clearing fields and building stone walls. How do you tell the difference?

Stone cairns they are compact mounds of stone built by carefully placing one stone at a time. Each cairn was made for a specific purpose such as a boundary marker or a Native American ritual cairn. In contrast, piles of stone they are piles of loose stone created as a result of being unloaded from a wagon. They generally show scattered stones around their edges. These piles are a by-product of field clearing or stone wall building activities.

Clearing rocks from a field is a very labor intensive process. Farmers cleared only the fields they wanted plowed or cut for hay. Fields for raising animals are usually not cleared of stone. The rocks that were cleared were thrown into a wagon or on a heavy sled and transported to the edge of the field or to an uncultivated place in the middle of the field and without ceremony. Piles of loose rock with stones scattered around the edges found along the sides of old farm fields are almost always piles of loose stone.

Occasionally, you will find a series of stone piles located 10 to 25 meters apart in a straight line. If you follow this line of piles several times you will come to the end of a stone wall. What you have discovered is a stone wall in the process of being built but never finished. Stone piles placed in a row next to a broken stone wall usually means that the wall was in the process of being repaired.

If you find a single stone cairn about 2 to 3 feet in diameter with a metal pipe in it or marked by surveyors with orange paint, then you have found an old property boundary marker.

If you find a few cairns together in an irregular layout you have found Native American cairns. The cairns can be placed on the ground, on top or against a boulder, or even crammed in a split in the boulder. The cairn can be just a few stones placed on a rock, a small pile in the ground, or a large cairn with thousands of stones. Stop and look around. Generally, you will find more of them. What you have found is a Native American ceremonial site. A place where Native Americans come to pray, hold ceremonies and practice their religion. Think of it as a church or a sanctuary. We know this because early Christian missionaries and travelers mention in their diaries and letters that their Indian guides stopped and solemnly added a stone to these cairns as a religious observance. Also, in recent years, the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes have publicly stated that these cairn sites were built by their ancestors.

Native Americans have always considered these places sacred to their spiritual beliefs. Please be respectful when exploring cairn sites without digging, removing or adding stones or artifacts. Instead, take pictures and leave everything as you found it. Photos are great because you can easily share them with friends and family.

Most of New England with the exception of rocky, sandy, and swampy soils has been farmed at one point or another in the last 400 years. So it is not uncommon to find a Native American cairn site on old farmland. If the cairns were not in their way, most farmers left them untouched for superstition, curiosity or even respect. In many cases, it was simply easier to graze the cows between the cairns then to remove them. A few of these farm cairn sites were built during the 1700s and 1800s. These farms were owned by Native Americans who quietly continued to practice their traditional beliefs out of sight of their Christian neighbors.

Basic security

(1) When exploring old farm sites, be sure to locate all the wells first and make sure everyone knows where they are especially the children.

(2) Take appropriate precautions against poison ivy and ticks. Both are commonly found when walking in the woods.

(3) Do not climb or enter unstable stone structures.

(4) Do not put your hand into any dark space or enter a cave without first checking with a flashlight. Snakes, porcupines, and other creatures like to use these for their dens. If you hear a high-pitched steam whistle like sound, then you are too close to a wood rattlesnake.

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