A History of Convergent Findings: Research on Stone Prayers, CSLs of Massachusetts and the Northeast
Updated: Feb 24
Part 1: Historical Development and Context
This segment presents "Context for Studying Rock Piles in Massachusetts" by Peter Waksman at:
Early Research: 18th to Early 19th Centuries, West and South to North and East
Research on stone prayers, ceremonies with stone and ceremonial stone landscapes goes back to the Ohio Valley and the 1700s. Early greats of ethnographic study on Indigenous nations of the Americas include Frank Speck, whose focus was on the Algonk peoples of the Northeast. Speck noted that ceremonial use of stone structures was widespread in the Indigenous Northeast during his times of the early 1900s. Speck was not alone in his observations, and he noted the absence of academic discourse on the subject.
Here, we present in series a chronological review of the research that has been published in archaeology journals and bulletins on Indigenous ceremonial interactions with stone and stone structures. We will focus here on direct field work and with an eye toward the common threads and convergent findings across many states and methods of investigation.
Stone constructions on small scale and in numbers, taking many forms, have long been established in the Ohio Valley and Southeast Atlantic Coastal Plain. Expanding interest in Indigenous culture during the 1960s and 70s yielded important documentation of small-scale Indigenous stone works. Archaeologists Moore and Weiss report a review of that work and their direct assessment and confirmation of Indigenous stone works within Algonquian homelands east of the Ohio Valley. We will revisit this in detail in its sequence. Read more at:
Stone Prayers, Ceremonial Stone Landscapes of the Northeast
Intensive research on stone prayers has concentrated on the coastal Northeast states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Not coincidentally, their numbers are greatest and most concentrated in these states. See our post on Dr. Hoffman's long-term regional mega-study at:
We begin here with early reports arising from study by independent researchers in their local areas. Beginning in the late 1970s, documentation of ceremonial stone landscapes in the Northeast grew until reports began to surface in archaeological publications during the early 2000s. Fall of 2012 saw the publication of Peter Waksman's report on stone prayers in Massachusetts. In this short report there are findings that will be echoed many times from a diverse group of researchers holding a range of qualifications across the Northeast. Interestingly, researchers in different times and places were often conducted completely uncontaminated by the conclusions of other researchers. That gives strength to the fact that these diverse investigators share elements of findings strongly.
Peter Waksman's report is entitled, Context for Studying Rock Piles in Massachusetts.
Man-made rock piles are ubiquitous in the Massachusetts woods, but are little studied, even though they are a diverse and complex phenomenon. The conventional idea that rock piles are always a by-product of farming (TRC 2008, MHC n.d.) is challenged by simple facts I have observed around my hometown of Concord MA: rock pile sites become more numerous and contain more rock piles the further one gets from the river, as the terrain becomes higher, rockier, wetter, and less suitable for agriculture. This is easy to see by using a topographic map to plot a distribution of sites and observing how sites cluster around hills, swamps, and near the headwaters of the region’s brooks – in non-agricultural topographies (Waksman 2006). But the negative correlation of rock piles with agriculture can also be understood by comparing the agricultural histories of the towns to the number of rock pile sites found there. For example, here is a count of the 1x1 kilometer squares on the USGS topographic maps that contain at least one rock pile site (multiple sites within a square were not counted separately):
Concord, in a fertile floodplain, is perhaps the most agricultural of these towns and Carlisle, a rocky upland, is the least. For example, Concord has sixteen major farms (Town of Concord n.d.) today and Carlisle has at most four, with only one (Great Brook Farm) comparable in size to the larger Concord farms (anonymous Carlisle Resident, 2012). By this measure, the ratio of rock pile sites to farms in Carlisle is 24:4 = 6.00 . In Concord it is 7:16 = 0.43 . This shows a negative correlation between agriculture and site count. (See Figure 1).
Figure 1. The negative correlation between farming and rock pile sites
Characteristics of Rock Pile Sites
Rocks and stone walls are numerous throughout Concord, but rock piles are almost exclusively found to the north of the Assabet and Concord Rivers. The sites are located on hillsides and adjacent to swamps; and in greater number in the rocky uplands along borders with Acton and Carlisle.
I have located more than 500 rock pile sites in Middlesex County MA, and I have had a chance to observe that there are common characteristics to many of them. Though they are widely scattered over the landscape, one sees the same things over and over. Specifically:
(1) sites where the rock piles are evenly spaced and lie in lines, forming a grid-like array;
(2) sites with large rectangular mounds and numerous smaller rock piles surrounding them – where the large mounds invariably have a collapsed central cavity; and
(3) sites with small rock piles concentrated at the edges of a spring, where water comes out of the ground.
That these types of sites are common across the landscape implies a cultural preference for these specifics. But there is no evidence that Anglo-European culture has any such cultural preferences. Many years of searching online for information about European rock piles has yielded very little. Specifically:
No examples of stone pile “grids” occur (such as illustrated in Figures 2 and 3, below). There are megalithic grids (“Carnac Stones”, n.d.) but these are not made from rock piles.
Prehistoric burial mounds occur in Europe, particularly northern Europe. But I have seen no examples in the shape of truncated rectangular pyramids with a collapsed hollow at the center. Rectangular “dolmens” occur (“Rectangular Dolmens”, n.d.); but of course these structures were built by prehistoric Europeans, not the cultures that colonized America.
Springs in Europe - described online as “sacred” or “ceremonial” - do not include any description of small rock piles. Nor has any description been found of rocks being taken from a field, carried into the swamp, and built into small rock piles.
Yet these types of rock pile sites are very common here. One concludes the sites in Massachusetts must be the legacy of another culture or cultures, purely American, which occupied this landscape.
The context that has been missing is that Native Americans have continued to live here and have continued to practice their ancestral religions and have continued to use the woods which, today, are absorbed into modern suburbia. (see for example Doughton 1997). Most suburbanites tend to think that the Indians became extinct shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims (cf, Bell , this issue). But it is clear that Indians have continued to use the Massachusetts woods into the present. In 2003 and 2007, the official coalition of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET, Inc.) issued resolutions stating that Indians are responsible for rock piles and that the tribes are willing to work with local towns to preserve this heritage (USET 2003, 2007). At the same time, in unpublished comments, the Indians have said that their ceremonial activities were always kept secret because practicing their religion was illegal (Narragansett and Wampanoag THPOs, 2009). The context that has been missing is that there may be modern ceremonial rock piles. Hence to find that a structure or site is historic does not disqualify it from discussion. It can be both modern and ceremonial. That being said, it is my opinion that many of the sites are pre-European and that some may pre-date current Native cultures as well.
Let me first assume that theobject of study is the whole rock pile site, not the single rock pile. A site is regarded as a single data point with attributes that include: the mixture of different types of piles and walls present; the number of piles and their layout at the site; the overall state of damage to the site (or differential damage to different types of piles); the topographic setting of the site; and the presence of nearby roads, etc. This empirical approach is different from methodologies that rely on oral and written histories.
Estimating the number of sites in Massachusetts
In some places, like Carlisle or Harvard MA, rock pile sites are so numerous as to be essentially continuous in the undisturbed woods. There, the density is as high as six large sites per square kilometer and, in terms of the topographic map counts reported above, most squares on the topographic map contain several sites. In contrast, some other towns have a site density of less than two small sites per square kilometer. In yet other places, like the sandy valley of the Nashua River in Lancaster and Lunenburg, there are few rocks and virtually no rock piles. In total, if all the 14 counties of Massachusetts have the same number of sites as I have recorded in Middlesex County (more than 540) then one may estimate that there are more than seven thousand rock pile sites in Massachusetts.
Another means of estimating site count comes from driving along a cross section from Concord to Andover. A morning commute of perhaps 30 miles, this passes four sites that are visible from the car and perhaps twice that number within 100 yards of the road. This fact might be scaled up by the total length of roads in the state. By whatever estimate, this is a lot of rock pile sites.
Common types of rock pile sites
Here are some of the more common types of rock pile sites. There are many examples of each.
Type I: Rock pile arrays (“marker piles”; “piles in a row”)
These are sites with
· between 5 and 30 rock piles,
· evenly spaced, and
· arranged in lines or curves.
This is a very common site type. I estimate that grids with this sort of rock pile array are the most common type of rock pile site in Middlesex County. In southern Middlesex County the piles at these sites tend to be large (8-10 feet across), vertical sided, and well preserved. Further north, the piles that occur in arrays are smaller, vertical sided, or so damaged as to appear smudged against the ground. Sometimes these piles are quite noticeably triangular (when seen from above) with two vertical sides; sometimes they are rectangular with just one vertical side. Excellent examples can be seen at Spring Hill in Acton and at the end of Gates Lane in Stow.
Figure 1 shows a sketch of the “Acton Grid” at the Spring Hill Conservation Land in Acton, which was re-surveyed carefully in 2007 by Fred Martin, with similar results:
Figure 2. The Acton Grid
This site is now a featured side trail of the Acton’s Spring Hill Conservation Land Trail system. It is easy to find, starting a few yards from the Spring Hill Rd entrance.
Figure 3 is another sketch derived from a visual survey of a site at the end of Gates Lane in Stow (I redrew the pile locations for better visualization of the arrangement):
Figure 3. The Stow Grid
There is something systematic and specific going on at these places. Possibly, this structure relates to astronomy. An indication of this is that one of the principal directions of the lines, in Fred Martin’s survey, coincides with the direction of winter solstice sunrise.
I believe the style of the individual piles in a particular array varies systematically with the age and location of the site: whether the piles are larger or smaller, triangular or rectangular; whether fresh or so old as to be nearly invisible smears on the ground. Some of the piles seen in southern Middlesex and beyond in Rhode Island and Connecticut are so well-preserved and fresh looking that it is tempting to believe they were built recently or at least carefully restored within the last 50 years. Possibly, knowledge of these sites and the practice of their use, if lost, was only lost recently.
In the Fall of 2011, the town of Acton cleared a small rock pile array along the yellow trail at the Nashoba Brook Conservation Land. The town has already taken a lead in highlighting rock pile sites, by adding a short side loop to the trail at the Spring Hill Conservation Land. Now they have a second such trail. A trip to Gates Lane, in Stow, or to Spring Hill and Nashoba Brook, in Acton, will give the reader a clearer idea of these types of site.
Sites of this type often occur near or in conjunction with sites of the following type:.
Type II: Rectangular Chambered Mounds
One of the most interesting discoveries in 10 years of exploring Middlesex County is of a standardized form of rectangular mound. The mounds are
· from 10 to 40 feet across and up to 8 feet tall.
· rectangular, in the shape of flat-topped pyramids, with
· a collapsed hollow in the center – suggesting an inner chamber that has collapsed.
Excellent examples can be seen on the hills of Leominster facing Mt. Wachusett. Examples where the inner chamber is very carefully built as a square hole can be seen behind Woodbridge Road in Carlisle. This same style of pile can also be seen near the Gumpas Conservation Land in Pelham NH, and there are many of them in hard-to-find places at the headwaters of Falulah Brook in Fitchburg. Most of the hills north of Fitchburg have such mounds – at least up to the border with Ashby. Also, there are concentrations of these mounds in the hills of northeastern Groton, and in Dunstable. Further south, they can be found in Berlin, Boylston and, for example, at Peppercorn Hill in Upton. A few isolated examples occur in Concord, Boxborough, Lincoln, Framingham, and other lower elevation towns of Middlesex county.
These rectangular mounds are usually very badly damaged and completely covered with forest debris. They are easy to miss. However, after seeing many examples it is possible to get a sense of the basic design. Figure 4 shows three idealized but specific examples from Fitchburg:
Figure 4. Idealized rectangular mounds with hollows
Some of these rectangular mounds are well preserved - notably ones higher on the hills. But there are also mounds that appear to be in the last stage of disappearing into the ground. These usually occur in lower topographies, next to water. Such piles often appear as a rectangular outline of rocks with a hint of a wall dividing the rectangle in two. Sometimes this is very faint and only an “S” of rocks appears slightly above the ground level. Sometimes these appear as rock piles with a little curved “tail” attached to one end. These older-looking double-chambered rock piles appear next to water in flat swampy areas of Carlisle, Acton, and Fitchburg - slightly more to the north and fewer to the south of Middlesex County. Trying to find a topographic difference between the fresher looking mounds and the older ones with tails, it seems that the older ones are looking out over the water from the side of the water. The presumed newer, taller versions seem to be looking out over water from above. The impression is that the older piles are found more to the north, and the fresher ones are found more to the south, but this is not clear.
Rectangular mound sites are more numerous in higher elevation towns. At low elevations, in towns like Concord, Lincoln, and Acton, there are at most a small handful of rectangular mounds. In higher elevation towns like Leominster, Fitchburg, and Ashby, there are an order of magnitude more. Here is a positive correlation: every hill in the first two ranges directly north of Fitchburg and at least into Ashby has such sites. All the named brooks that add their water to the Nashua River in Fitchburg have these mounds at their headwaters: Manoosnuc Brook, Falulah Brook, and Philips Brook. That is where they are concentrated. In places like the headwaters of Falulah Brook, the site density approaches a continuum. This makes it all the more surprising that these sites are unseen by the residents and unknown to the historians of the region.
Type III: Sites at Springs
Rock piles often occur at the highest point of a brook where water comes out of the ground. These sites are:
· at springs
· contain randomly placed small piles built on rocks, sometime including just a single rock on a rock.
· Occasionally include strange shaped piles, like effigies, or piles that incorporate a central stone of unusual geology, or large rocks that have been split and wedged open; occasionally also piles that are made in two parts, with a space between them.
Good examples of this type of site can be seen on Nagog Hill in Acton, and on the Carlisle Conservation Fund land in Carlisle.
The large number of rock pile sites and their common structures must be the result of widely shared traditions of the Native Americans of this region – both ancient and modern. It is likely some of these traditions have been lost. The rectangular piles with “hollows at the center” are common and easy to identify across the landscape at least from Fitchburg east to Pelham NH and south to Hopkinton and Upton MA. These sites are compelling evidence of a stone mound-building culture living in the upland valleys of Middlesex County.
Anonymous Carlisle Resident
2012 personal communication.
1997 ”Unseen Neighbors: Native Americans of Central Massachusetts, A People Who Had ‘Vanished,’" in Colin G. Calloway, Editor, After King Philip's War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England (University Press of New England, Hanover NH.)
Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC)
n.d. Review and Compliance “Frequently Asked Questions”/”Archaeological Questions”. Retrieved from: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/mhc/mhcrevcom/revcomidx.htm
Town of Concord, the Concord Agricultural Committee, Concord Natural Resources, the Concord Land Conservation Trust and Minute Man National Historic Park
n.d. “A Guide To Concord Farms”. Retrieved from http://www.concordma.gov/pages/ ConcordMA_BComm/ AgBrochureFinal.pdf
TRC Engineering Resources
2008 “Of pipelines and rock pile excavations”. Retrieved from http://thesga.org/2008/07/of-pipelines- and-rock-pile-excavations/
Tribal Historic Preservation Officers of the Wampanoag and Narragansett Tribes
2009 “Native American History of Our Region” A panel discussion with the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, sponsored by Friends of Pine Hawk at the Acton Library.
United South and East Tribes, Inc.
2003 USET Resolution 2003:022, “Sacred Landscape within Commonwealth of Massachusetts”.
2007 USET Resolution 2007:037, “Sacred Ceremonial Stone Landscapes Found in the Ancestral Territories of United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. Member Tribes”
2006 “The Distribution of Rock Piles in Middlesex County, MA“ Paper presented at the Eastern States Archaeological Federation Program, 73rd Annual Meeting. Fitchburg, MA.
n.d “Carnac Stones”. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnac_stones
n.d “Rectangular Dolmens”. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rectangular_dolmen
In this series of reports, you will see the themes observed here and others noted consistently across the body of research.
Currently, Waksman researches stone prayers, CSLs, and
operates blogspot called Rock Piles at: