Exploring the mystery of the Southeast’s stone cairns
Stone cairns can be found throughout the Eastern United States. They are typically piles of field stones, no more than 4-5 feet high. Their original diameters appear to have been around 4-6 feet.
Researchers have argued about their function for many decades. For much of that time, most archaeologists argued that they were merely piles of stone left by frontier farmers – not Native American structures. In the Northeast, many non-archaeologists insisted that they were built by Celtic peoples, because the Injuns encountered by the Puritans didn’t know how to stack stones.
In recent years the pendulum has swung in the other direction. More and more archaeologists, at least in the Southeast, are accepting the stone cairns as indigenous in origin, but they don’t like to discuss any indigenous stone structures because of the past discord in the profession that they created. Things built of stone mess up a simplistic view of the past.
In the Southeast, the stone cairns are concentrated in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge Foothills. Their greatest concentration is literally in the Atlanta Metro Area. These piles caused a series of political controversies in the 1990s when they lay in the path to wealth planned by land developers.
Historic preservation and Native American grave protection laws adopted during the Nixon and George H. Bush Administrations forced the developers to hire archaeologists to examine the piles of stone. It was rare that the archaeologists found any Native American artifacts or remains. However, they also did not find non-Native American artifacts, so there was no evidence to support the prevailing belief by archaeologists that these were merely piles of stone left by early 19th century farmers.
Bands of fair-haired wannabe Natives entered the political arena. Dressed as Iroquois women or Cheyenne braves, they burned sage in clam shells and beat Plains Indian drums to demonstrate their rage at their “Cherokee” ancestors’ graves being desecrated. All of the cairn sites were on traditional Muskogean lands. The world changed very quickly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so the stone cairn complexes were soon forgotten by the media.
My first view of stone cairns came in college. A few months after I got back from Mexico, the father of my girlfriend wanted me to see a hill side on their old family farm in West Georgia, “which had Indian graves on it.” The family was of Muskogee-Creek descent. Her father admitted that as a boy, he and his friends had dismantled one of the cairns and found nothing but a few pieces of pottery and some charcoal.
There were about two dozen stacks of stone on the southwest crest of a prominent hill . . . those that still had red clay mortar were cylindrical . . . most were just piles of stone.
I told the man that I had seen similar cylindrical stone structures in Guerrero and Oaxaca (southern Mexico) that were stuccoed with clay. They were used for cremations. Like the Creeks in the Southeast, however, the Maya Commoners buried their dead either in the floor of their houses or in stone box graves next to their houses. The stone cylinders in Maya towns were used for ceremonial bonfires or combat between individual soldiers.
Three years later, I encountered another stone cairn complex in West Georgia. This time it was while I was laying out the original path system for the new town of Peachtree City. It was on the southwest slope of a hill near the present day PTC airport.
Like in many areas of the planned community, the path system was to parallel a trunk sewer. Preliminary grading for the sewer had exposed many Native American artifacts near the piles of stones, so our planning staff decided to designate the location a natural buffer and name the planned reservoir (that was never built) Lake McIntosh in honor of the famous Creek leader, William McIntosh.
Consistent pattern throughout the Lower Southeast
During the past three years, while I have been documenting stone structure locations, there has been a consistent pattern observed. Whether large or small, both the terrace and stone cairn complexes are located on southwestern or western slopes of hills and mountains. The orientation of the terraces may have something to do with the plants cultivated, but the locations of the cairns could only be explained by ritualistic functions.
Where I last lived in Union County, GA (location of Track Rock Gap) there was a small complex in the woods back of my house that consisted of three terraces, a small pond and four stone cairns. Near the cabin, where I live now, only one terrace has a stone wall, the others were apparently log-walled, but still, there is an old pond site and seven stone cairns. Again they are all oriented to the southwest.
Most of the cairn complexes are much larger than the ones I lived near. The Sandy Creek and Little Mulberry River archaeological zones each contain over a hundred cairns. Like at Track Rock, which has about 20 cairns, the individual piles of rocks seem to vary greatly in age and condition. Perhaps a dozen of the cairns at Track Rock are equally spaced along an ancient road that led to the acropolis at the top.
A pre-Itza mortuary tradition or a Winter Solstice ritual?
The cardinal directions of West and Southeast have special significance to Muskogeans. Most branches of the Muskogeans have migrations legends that describe their ancestors coming from the west.
The Koweta, Apalachicola, Apalache-Creeks and Hitchiti-speaking branches remember that their ancestors came from the south over water. Apalache, Apalachicola and Tamatli mounds face the south.
A typical pattern in many Muskogean towns is the location of burial mounds to the west of a town or village, often across a river or creek. The placement of the burial mound symbolized the belief that their souls traveled to the west after death from whence their ancestors came.
The southwest has a special meaning for those branches of the Muskogeans with Mesoamerican ancestors. The Winter Solstice Sunset was in the southwest and marked the end of a year and the beginning of another. Several branches of the Muskogeans formerly lit large fires on the Winter Solstice so Mother Sun would be able to see her way to return north again.
It is possible that the cairns are the remains of clay stuccoed altars used for ceremonial fires or burning incense. We know from 16th century Spanish traders in the Georgia Mountains and the 17th century explorer, Richard Briggstock that the Itsate and the Apalache burned incense at their temples 24/7.
An alternative and very plausible explanation is that the cairns were used for cremating loved ones. It is known that in the past some Southeastern cultures either allowed vultures to eat the flesh off human remains or they preserved their cadavers in massive smoke houses.
At certain religious festivals that cannot be specified by archaeology, the buzzard-cleaned skeletons or the hickory smoked mummies were cremated. The ashes of their remains were then placed in special round bottom jars and buried in mounds. Whether or not all cadavers were hickory smoked before cremation, the cairns in the Southeast do resemble stone structures used as funeral biers by numerous cultures around the world.
There is hard, archaeological evidence to support the latter explanation. Several of the Woodland Period cairns excavated on a terrace overlooking Opequon Creek near Winchester, VA DID contain bits of human bone and ashes.
Five hundred miles to the south, near Eatonton, GA archaeologist Arthur Kelly dug into the famous Rock Eagle to unravel its mysteries. Kelly found ashes and bits of bone. He was convinced that it was a funeral bier, but didn’t know about the Mesoamerican pedigree of the so-called Rock Eagle.
The so-called Rock Hawk that is about 1 mile east of the Rock Eagle, is obviously the bird that the Apalache called a Tonatzuli and we today call a Painted Bunting. It was the sacred bird of the Apalache sun goddess. Each fall the Painted Buntings in Apalache temples migrated to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Basin in order to carry the prayers of the people to the home of the Sun Goddess. The “Rock Hawk” has a southerly orientation. The “Rock Eagle” is oriented to the Winter Solstice Sunset!
As the reader can see below, the Rock Eagle is quite obviously a vulture. The Formative and Early Classic Period people of Guerrero State, Mexico also preserved their dead then cremated them on certain holy days. This religion and perhaps the people of Guerrero themselves originated in Peru. The vulture was considered sacred in both Guerrero and Peru. In both regions stone effigies of the vulture were used initially as locations where the vultures could eat the flesh off their dead . . . and later where the human remains were cremated.
That leads us to a their alternative explanation for the cairns. It is also possible that the cairns were mortuary biers where bodies were left to be cleaned by the vultures. Virtually all the cairns are on the sides of mountains or hills.
The connection between the terrace complexes in the Southeast and the adjacent cairn complexes is not quite clear. However, one thing is for sure. The ashes of cremated human bones would make might fine fertilizer for the soils of the terrace complexes, which are all located in a geological region deficient in potassium, magnesium and calcium. The traditional name for those three chemicals mixed together is POTASH.
Click image to enlarge it.
Yes, in the first photo above, Dr. Rob Roy McGreggor, noted canine archaeologist and Lost City scout is indeed tasting the leaves with his tongue next to a Track Rock cairn. It is one of the sophisticated, high tech procedures my team use to delve out the true history of an archaeological site. My three dogs are Scottish Farm Collies, a breed that originated in the Scottish Highlands. They adore climbing mountains and bathing in whitewater streams. They also, on several occasions have found previously unknown Native American village sites for me. In a few sites I have actually watched them play with “spirit children”. I see or hear absolutely nothing, but they run and play with “spirits?” that they can obviously see.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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