Cairns and Stacked Rocks
By Thomas Baurley
The stacking of stones is a widespread cultural practice all around the world. You know it is a remnant of modern, historical, or prehistoric cultural manufacture because they were not placed there by nature. Most likely a “human” moved one stone atop another. They vary in size from one or two rocks or more stacked on top of each other in simplicity to the complexity of mounds, cairns, pyramids, tombs, and massive megalithic complexes.
The meaning behind the practice varies between cultures and time periods throughout history. Archaeologists, however, are only interested in those that are at least 50 years old (historical archaeology in America), 100 years old (Europe and other parts of the world), or prehistoric (hundreds to thousands of years in age). They can be field clearing piles, fence piles, burial mounds, markers, signifiers, monuments, spiritual tools, graves, food stores, game drives, rock alignments, power quest markers, altars, shrines, prayer seats, hearths, circles, and/or memorials. Their uses can vary from remnants of field clearing for plowing, stabilizing fences, make walls, clearing or road construction, markers of a road trail or path, survey markers, memorial, burial, vision quest marker, or part of something bigger like a structure, burial, tomb, underground chamber, prayer seat, tipi ring, or offering to Gods, spirits, entities.
These commonly can be found along streams, creeks, lakes, springs, rivers, waterways, sea cliffs, beaches, in the desert, tundra, in uplands, on mountaintops, ridges, peaks, and hilltops. In underpopulated areas, they can represent emergency location points. North American trail markers are often called “ducks” or “duckies” because they have a “beak” that points in the direction of the route. Coastal cairns or “sea markers” are common in the northern latitudes can indicate navigation marking and sometimes are notated on navigation charts. Sometimes these are painted and are visible from offshore. This is a common practice in Iceland, Greenland, Canada, and Scandinavia.
Often the practice of stacking rocks is used to mark a trail, path, or road. Many say without these markings, it is often hard to follow a laid out trail, especially in areas that receive deep snowfall. When modern cairn builders place their “art” or message of ego along a trail they can be causing harm, hiding the true trail markers and if placed in a wrong place can lead a hiker astray or get them lost. Original use is often a route marker and it’s important to preserve that integrity. Modern application of this practice can not only lead people astray but disrupt cultural studies, archaeology, geology, and the environment. Moving stones can upset plant life, insect habitats, as well as homes of lizards, rats, mice, and other creatures.
Other times these rock stacks have spiritual or religious purpose. These are sometimes offerings to the little people, fairies, faeries, nature spirits, Saints, entities, or God/desses. Sometimes these are arranged for a vision quest, other times as a prayer seat, or part of a stone circle. Many times if found around rivers, streams, creeks, or springs – they are offerings to the nature spirits, water spirits, nymphs, naiads, and/or dryads. Sometimes these are markers for portals, vortexes, gateways between worlds, lei lines, or places of spiritual importance. They honor spirits, Deities, Ancestors, or the Dead.
Sometimes these stacked rocks are considered “art”, a meditative exercise, or something someone does out of boredom.
In spiritual “new age” hotspots, modern creations of these “cairns” or “rock stacks” are actually quite problematic because they have become invasive upon the landscape, blocking access or movement. In addition, modern creations of them destroy, hide, or change the importance of historical or prehistoric ones that existed before. This is a similar impact between modern graffiti and rock art. This has become a major problem in places like Sedona Arizona; Telluride, Colorado; Arches National Park, Utah.
Aborigines, Natives, Tribes, and Original Peoples have utilized cairns and rock stacks all over the world. Mostly the intent was as a “marker”. In the Americas, various tribes such as the Paiutes as well as early Pioneers left them to mark important trails or historic roads. The Inuksuk practice used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other Arctic aborigines in North America ranging from Alaska to Greenland to Iceland are markers for “wayfinding” and to locate caches of food, supplies, and other goods.
Cairns and rock stacks have been used prehistorically for hunting, defense, burials, ceremonial structures, astronomical structures, or markers.
Some say the practice began as a New Age spiritual movement with the Harmonic Convergence in 1987 within a globally synchronized meditation event for peace, love, and spiritual unity. This fell on places of well-known vortexes, spiritual hotspots, or sacred landscapes such as Sedona, Arizona. These have become “prayer stone stacks”. Even fundamental Christian religions and cults practice this to “claim ordinary moments of life for God and invite those who pass by to notice the holy ground on which they already stand”.
Cairns are actually technically different than rock stacks. The term actually derives from Scots Gaelic càrn / Middle Gaelic for “mounds of stones built as a memorial or landmark.” In this application, many of these rock piles are actually burials, tombs, and/or graves. Sometimes they are just memorials and do not contain human remains.
Early in Eurasian history has been the construction of cairns. These ranged in size from small piles to massive hills or mountains made of neatly placed stones. This was very common in the Bronze Age with constructions of standing stones, dolmens, kistvaens, or tombs that often contained human remains. Larger structures sometimes made up earthworks, tumuli, kurgans, megaliths, and underground complexes. Those that were monuments would be added to by people honoring the deceased, commonplace in Gaelic culture Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn”.
In Ancient Greece, Cairns were associated with Hermes, God of overland travel. The legend of which states that Hera placed Hermes on trial for slaying her favorite servant Argus. As the other Gods acted as a jury to declare their vote would place pebbles and stones to throw at Hermes or Hera to whom they felt was right. Hermes was said to have been buried under a pile of stones and this was the world’s first cairn.
In Celtic belief, some of the stones represent spirits or faeries. Spirits of the night were often these stones. Some popular large stone monuments and earthworks in Ireland are the Giant’s Grave or Binne’s Cairn in Curraghbinny Woods, Cork, Ireland; Loughcrew Passage Tomb in County Meath Ireland; Slieve Gullion in Northern Ireland; Poulnabrone Portal Tomb in County Clare Ireland; Knocknashee in Sligo Ireland; Newgrange Ireland; and the 9 Maidens Stone Circle in Cornwall, England) are homes to European styled cairns.
Cairns were often used as “game drives” to create lanes in which to guide the prey along a ridge, shelf, or over a cliff. This was popular in the use of buffalo jumps dating as early as 12000 years ago. Others were markers and directional guides. Some are shaped as petro forms shaping out animals, turtles, or other creatures. Some were shrines or offerings to other beings, spirits, or God/desses.
Along the Columbia River near Mosier, Oregon exists a 30 acre complex of rock walls, pits, and cairns patterned in a talus and debris field at the foot of a 30 meter Columbia Gorge escarpment commonly called “Mosier Mounds”. These are associated with vision quests, burials, and game drives. Along this region, many of the talus and slide debris fields are used regularly for burials, food storage, vision quests, and youth training. These are remnants of Columbia Plateau traditions in the forms of walls, troughs, cairns, pits, and trails.
When Euro-Americans came in through the Klamath Basin, they noted the numerous cairns constructed by the indigenous (Henry L. Abbot 1855, William J. Clark 1885). Prior to contact, these cairns had several religious functions from power quests, vision quests, mortuary markers, or graves.
Many of the Cairns or rock stacks found in Southeastern Oregon is being studied by the Far Western Anthropological Research Group (FWARG) in Davis, California. Because of the surviving Klamath tribes have shared information about their use of cairns and rock stacks, much has been learned about their practices and implementation.
Many of the cairns in SE Oregon range from small stacks to large cairns, some creating circular structures that are very conspicuous. Because of this, various Governmental agencies such as the BLM and US Forest Service have been making efforts to protect them from damage when making roads, logging, ranching, or other impacts made upon government lands. Some of the smaller rock stacks are not very noticeable, they may simply be only one or two stones stacked upon a boulder or bedrock. Some of these points towards spiritually significant locations such as Mount Shasta and others seem not to have any significance at all. During construction of the Ruby pipeline, a 42 inch natural gas pipeline beginning in Wyoming and running to Malin, Oregon brought to discussion between BLM, the Tribes, and personnel an agreement to develop better methods to identify, understand, protect, and preserve these stacks, mostly after the implementation of the Pipeline. This study was conducted by Far Western.
The Klamath and Modoc Tribes was known to have constructed numerous rock stacks to form petro forms – the moving of rocks into a new formation to create man-made patterns or shapes on the ground by lining down or piling up stones, boulders, and large rocks. Some of these were cairns for vision quests and others formed semi-circular prayer seats.
Interviews conducted with the tribes determined that these features contribute to the Klamath and Modoc worldviews and beginnings being an important part of their sacred landscape. Most of their important rock stacks are found in higher elevations. There are two general forms: the stacked rock column constructed by placing one rock atop another in sequence to varying heights; and the conical cairn that possessing variable number of rocks forming the base built upon to create a conical or mound-like shape. Sometimes linear “S” shaped or wall-like rock features are commonplace as well. Prayer Seats are defined as a semi-circular, elliptical, or horseshoe-shaped area built with stone and/or timber and arranged to a sufficient height to provide a wind break.
Many of these were natural features enhanced with rock stacking or lumber. Klamath tribes prohibit touching or photographing cairns, prayer seats, or any other sacred cultural site. Tribal governments permit sketches or illustrations many of the Klamath and/or Modoc are uncomfortable with such illustrations. Numerous studies conducted in 1997 provided recordings of dozens of rock cairns on Pelican Butte – mountain overlooking Klamath Lake, and Bryant Mountain by Matt Goodwin (1997). There are numerous rock cairns in Lava Beds National Monument which is believed to be Modoc territory. The Modoc and Klamath tribes define themselves as residing in a junction of four cultural areas known as the (1) Plateau, (2) California, (3) Northwest Coast, and (4) the Great Basin. Within the Plateau, the tribes would hold the Plateau Vision Quest where they piled stones atop one another in order to obtain visions. This was also common within the Middle Columbia area and the Great Basin. Far View Butte has recorded over 245 rock cairns.
The Yahooskin Paiute also erected cairns for ritual purposes as did the Northern Paiute. Paiute shamans were known to have constructed cairns in the presence of rock art as another extension of their vision quests. The Shasta young boys and young men also stacked rocks reportedly when they sought out luck. Rock stacks and prayer seats are also recorded throughout Northwestern California including Yurok, Tolowa, and Karok territories.
Within these territories are distinguished six different configurations commonly used in stacking rocks together forming a rock feature complex located in the high country of northwestern California. These being rock cairns, rock stacks, prayer seats, rock alignments, rock circles, and rock hearth rings. There are also several cairn sites in the Northwest coast culture area such as Gold Beach, Pistol River area, upper drainage of the Rogue River at the juncture of the Northwest coast, California, and Plateau culture areas. At the Ridgeland Meadows Site (35JA301) there are over 50 cairns constructed in a conical fashion.
Rock cairns associated with petroglyphs are well-known connectors to vision quests and power spots with various tribes, especially the Klamath and Modoc. The “house of the rising sun” cave and pictoglyph site of the Klamath at an undisclosed location in Northern California is notably associated with a power quest that scholars studying the site have concluded corresponds with the ethnographically described house of the Klamath/Modoc culture hero “Gmok’am’c” who is associated with the sun in myths recorded by Jeremiah Curtin and Don Hann (1998) concluding that the site’s association with the mythos makes it a portal to the supernatural section of the Modoc cosmos and therefore being a strong supernatural location for power quests.
Power Quest Cairns
Other rock art locations near Keno Oregon are stated also to be a power quest location at the confluence of the Klamath, Modoc, and Shasta territories.
David S. Whitley’s neuropsychological model for shamanistic art reasons that various symbolic forms depicted in the Keno art is representative of images that occur in the mind during an altered state of consciousness. Brewster (2000) connects rock art with rock cairns spatially within the Northern Paiute as did Johannes Loubser and David S. Whitley (1999) at Lava Beds.
These researchers are currently exploring key “male” and “female” aspects of the Klamath/Modoc sacred cultural landscapes with sexual aspects explaining why rock art (female) is usually found at lower elevations and power quest cairns (male) at higher elevations.
Traditional Klamath/Modoc spirituality focuses on a cosmology incorporating power quests initiated by the shaman to ally themselves with cosmological entities in order to satisfy the basic needs of life. The Klamath see their lands and territory as existing solely for them by “Gmok’am’c” created to care for one another. The Modoc has similar views and beliefs in their connection to their territories and lands. They both believe that every rock feature, mountain, cave, the body of water, meadow, or any other distinct location in the land had its own spirit and everything with a spirit had power.
Since every single rock had power, stacking them was building power. Bringing a rock from Shasta, which would possess Shasta’s power, could be stacked with another rock from another power place to construct power vortexes. These powers and communication with these spirits were sought after, especially beginning by youth at puberty. Males would go on power quests lasting 5 to 7 days under fast. Young women would also quest, but through dreams and sleep rather than the physical, mainly due to physical safety concerns in the environment. Often an elder would watch over from a discreet distance the young female on a power quest to ensure that she remains safe. Both youths would embark on their journey from a power spot such as Crater Lake where they would exhaust themselves by swimming, running, sweating (such as a sweat lodge ceremony), and piling up rocks (rock cairns), and engage in other energy-draining tasks.
They would then fall unconscious from these exertions and begin dream questing to communicate with spirits. The exhaustion would create an altered state of consciousness or hallucinatory state from the exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and/or fasting. Power was then transmitted from the spirit during the dream in the form of a song.
Researchers Theodore Stern (1966) and Verne F. Ray (1963) noted a boy on a vision quest might construct several stone cairns one a day during the extent of their quest, sometimes stacking to a maximum height and then unstack it only to restack it a few feet away. Each would be stacked only as high as the boy could construct it. The power obtained could give the individual some measure of control in success with procreation, battle, hunting, accumulating wealth, arts, or gambling. The more power they gained, the more prominent they could become within their tribe leading to becoming shamans, leaders, or top hunters. Mature individuals would also build cairns atop the landscape to focus their minds during their quests. These began small, usually involving only 2 rocks. On subsequent returns to that location, the individual would add a rock or rocks to the stack. It was also common for this individual doing this stacking to remain in the location for weeks at a time.
Adults would also construct cairns in the puberty fashion when additional power or communication with spirits was needed, especially in events of life change or emotion such as the birth or death of a child, chronic illness, death of a spouse, or gambling losses. These would be called crisis quests. John Fagan (2000) noted that at the Ridgeline Meadow Site (35JA301) a linear rock formation points directly to Mount Shasta as a prominent feature of the Klamath sacred landscape, seen by some as the principal home of “Gmok’am’c”.
Bryant Mountain in southeastern Oregon possesses numerous power quest cairns along with it of significance to the Modoc, specifically, the Koki was band, according to Matt Goodwin (1997). Several of these cairns were arranged in a serpentine-like pattern as well as cairns arranged in circular or triangular patterns. Also atop this mountain are cairns with no discernible physical relationship to other cairns.
Other cairns were built along trails, as noted by Henry L. Abbot in 1855 along Klamath waterway trails of stacked rocks 2-6 feet in height, some believing these to be marks to show the trail when it was covered by snow or more plausibly due to the number of cairns, that they were built along with stops along the way to offer prayers of safe passage and overall good luck. Ideally, food offerings were left with these to the spirits of power places such as streams, springs, pools, caves, or rock features. Stones sometimes would suffice as an offering if the food was not available to give. The Plateau and Plains peoples would often do these types of activities as well, though incorporated in the sweat lodge ceremonies and fasting. Crow and Hidatsa peoples would incorporate in self-mutilation and/or self-torture to demonstrate their worthiness to receive visions.
Power quest cairns often are found with an eastern orientation such as along the eastern slopes of hills and mountains. Klamath/Modoc would build shelters with their entrances facing east, beginning all prayers facing east … the direction in which the sun would appear. Some power quest cairns however have been found on west, north, and south-facing slopes as well. This was often a case when a power-seeking individual on one mountain top would be seeking power from another mountain.
Plateau Vision Quest
As above with the Power quest cairns and rock stacking, are found commonly involved in the prayer, power, vision quest ceremony known as the Plateau vision quest as constructs as prayer monuments. The vision quest and preparatory training may involve rock stacking where “a child began to train (a alxEla’Y literally meaning to move himself) and prepare for a experience in communication with spirits while being at the young age of 6-12 years of age (when they can talk), sent out at night to a distant lonely location or power spot, such as a cave, lake, spring, river, grove of trees, large rock pile, or mountain top far from home at a unfrequented space. He was given a quest to accomplish a task at this place, after exhaustive travel to the spot.
Here he would pull up young oaks or fir trees, make withes of the saplings, and pile up rocks all in preparation for life and creating a portal to communicate to spirit through. Part of this achieving of the task was to leave behind proof that he was there and accomplished the deed, and rock stacks were common evidence of such. Sometimes they were given a carved piece of wood or peculiarly shaped stone to leave that the investigating person would recognize without doubt, the rock piles and withes were also proof.”
Prayer Seats or Prayer Circles / Tsektsel: These rock stacked features are poorly recorded and hard to find in archaeological documentation or published literature except in two nebulous references. The first was in 1930 by Leslie Spier describing a “saucer-shaped bed of rocks” on Ghost’s Nest mountain overlooking the countryside stating that young boys would lie within to see spirits. The other reference was in 1963 by Verne F. Ray stating young boys would seek out shallow depressions in meadows or rock niches where they would sleep during puberty power quests hopefully receiving a dream communicating with a spirit.
These depressions were continually used from generation to generation where natural vortexes or power places reside. These are not necessarily Klamath or Modoc constructs. A Klamath tribal elder in an ethnographic session stated they were places were certain Klamath would go to pray from within the circular feature. While another interviewed elder would describe these as more “U” shaped than circular. Another said the shapes would vary or be constructed by other forms either as human-made arrangements or rocks and/or timber, or utilizing a naturally formed circular area for seating, or an area slightly modified for seating. Some are found in relation to stacked rock cairns nearby. Some may be adapted as a ritual shelter even with a roof to protect from the elements, wind, or weather.
Some were said to be revisited annually for meditation, prayer, and/or ceremony. At the Mosier Mounds site in Mosier Oregon along the Columbia River Gorge are numerous half-circle or circular cairn features. These are natural depressions or pits partially rimmed by stacked rocks ranging up to 2 meters in diameter. These could be prayer circles or damaged/looted cairns. According to Bill Banek these circles are also places of dancing, fasting, and prayer for an extended period of time by an individual and/or with a trainer.
Mortuary cairns: Various Native Americans would mark cremation grounds or solitary cremations with a rock cairn or cairns overlooking a sacred location. Ethnographic discussions stated as various people would travel through a particular territory sometimes a member of the traveling party would pass away, that person would be buried or cremated in a location close to their passing location and a cairn would be constructed to mark the location.
Cremation cairns, especially amongst the Modoc/Klamath would face east where placed in higher elevations, though this would not always be true at lower elevations or in the valley floors. Stacking of rocks in remote areas for the transformation from life to death is a public act that emphasizes continuity between deceased ancestors and the living community. Along the Columbia Gorge, known as the Mosier Mounds, in Mosier, Oregon is evident of such tremendous effort and labor going into these constructs, representing not only individual use but community-level building. Rock stacking of cemeteries such as Mosier Mounds, is seen as a public statement about the permanence of community not only through time but in a particular place. Here complete skeletons have been recovered from the cairns.
Training of Youth/Puberty Power Quests:
Throughout the Pacific Northwest, specifically Oregon and Northern California, the stacking of rocks are utilized to train the youth or gain them power through power quests. Stacking of rocks possessing power in sacred power spots give them the power they need for growth, life, change, and death. The Mosier Mound site in Mosier, Oregon is a phenomenal proving ground for young men to prove bravery, strength, and power. Older members of the Wish ram tribe claim these slopes were proving grounds for young hunters, a site for hunting blinds, fortifications, and burials.
Christian Cairns: As many of the Modoc and Klamath peoples have converted over to Christianity, the use of cairns has not disappeared. They have mutated to being prayer spots, memorials, or places to be part of prayers to Christ or God. This has become a re-adaptation of the cairn as a offering location or altar from original beliefs to Christian beliefs.
Disturbing Cairns: Especially amongst the Modoc and the Klamath, it is deeply held belief then and today that disturbing cairns and rock stacks are sacrilegious and can upset spirits and lead to serious supernatural consequences regardless of intentional or inadvertent. It is a traditionally held belief that one should not touch another person’s cairn.
The power of these cairns are not yours – that power or spirit of the deceased individual it represents might harm or kill you. This includes photographing them. Because these are cultural symbols linking to living or deceased they need to be protected from harm, such as development, timber harvesting, or deliberate vandalism. As one elder interviewed stated, “it is like their church”.
Tribes believe that areas being developed that houses cairns should be avoided and protected with a buffer zone. Most tribes recommend Avoidance, particularly with a buffer zone of trees around them. These are objects of the tribes cultural patrimony and falls under NAGPRA (Native American Graves and Repatriation Act) that objects of cultural patrimony are those that have “ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself” and are the property of the tribe and could not have been given or sold by an individual member. The Klamath and Modoc people believe their cairns and prayer seats should be treated as such.
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