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Challenging the Field Clearing Pile Hypothesis with Science and Historical Research


Within the New England archaeological community are a group of conservative archaeologists who continue to promote and staunchly defend the field clearing hypothesis which claims that all stone constructions in New England known variously as stone piles, stone mounds, heaps, cairns and by various indigenous language names are exclusively the work of Euro-American homesteaders and farmers clearing the land for agricultural and livestock farming purposes. These archaeologists argue that Native American people did not build with stone (despite archaeological evidence to the contrary like stone fish weirs, stone roasting pits, stone ring campfires, soapstone quarries, etc.) Eva Butler in her 1946 article “The Brush or Stone Memorial Heaps of Southern New England” published in the Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut was the first to challenge this hypothesis. Other scholars, independent researchers and even a few brave professional archaeologists have followed her lead in researching indigenous explanations for some of these stone features which are part of what are called ceremonial stone landscapes (CSL). (link to Butler article - (https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3A860248564#page/1/mode/2up ).


In 2014, we published “Field Clearing: Stone Removal and Disposal Practices in Agriculture & Farming” (2020 revised version - https://www.academia.edu/43358356) in the Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut. This study was based upon extensive research into period sources about field clearing practices written by the farmers themselves. The study revealed that the subject of field clearing and the question of how farmers got rid of the rocks was far more complex than anyone had imagined, and the existing archaeological model of field clearing was over simplified, riddled with faulty assumptions and inaccurate. When possible, farmers sought to utilize the stones removed from their fields for construction projects around the farm like stone walls, building cellars, sub-surface field drainage systems, road construction, and filling wetlands. When not used for construction, stones were disposed of in a number of ways: in wide “disposal walls”, in piles along field edges and corners, in ravines and gullies, or a single large pile in the middle of the field. The idea was to dispose of the stones where they wouldn’t interfere with plowing or haying activities. These types of field clearing piles are easily identified by their location in relationship to the field.


Some farmers temporarily placed stones in small piles scattered through the field with the intention of removing them at a later date like in winter when the ground was frozen. Some of these piles were never removed due to illness, death, abandonment of the farm or sale of property. These types of field clearing piles generally have the same shape (design), size, are spaced uniformly apart in the former field and are the result of stones being tossed, dumped or rolled on them (rather than the result of careful and intentional construction). In contrast ceremonial “stone piles” or features generally have a diversity of different designs, sizes and some of them show clear evidence of being intentionally constructed. Some may even contain small stones four inches or less in size, too small for a farmer to bother removing.


Figure 1: This is one of over a thousand stone features covering twenty acres on a rocky hill in Hopkinton, Rhode Island. The land was formerly used as a cow pasture. The structure was a carefully and intentionally built feature with a vertical stone wall around one half and a slanted mound of stones built up against the vertical wall. It is estimated that there are 4000 to 5000 small stones (2 to 4 inches in length, see Figure 2 below, with scale) in this feature. This is not field clearing by any stretch of the imagination. This is just one example of the mounting archaeological evidence contradicting the “field clearing pile hypothesis.”



Figure 2: Native American stone feature with scale, showing stones mostly less than approximately 4 inches/ <10 cm.


One of our most interesting findings of the study was the fact that farmers only removed stones from their crop and hay fields. Land used as permanent pasture was not cleared of stone. Pastures made up on average about 43% of a typical southern New England farm. Most of the documented groups of stone piles in New England are found on former pastures, wood lots or marginal lands which farmers never cleared stones from. The evidence from the study indicated these were not field clearing related structures built by Euro-Americans. They were indigenous ceremonial structures that survived because it was easier to let the livestock graze around them rather than expend their limited labor resources to destroy them.


Based upon the historical evidence and our own field research on old farms, were able to establish criteria for identifying what was and was not a field clearing pile. We even proposed two simple archaeological testing protocols. The first was test for the presence or absence of a plow zone in the “field” using a soil coring tool (available for about $60). No plow zone (i.e. pasture or woodlot) meant the stone piles were not field clearing. The second protocol involved determining the relation of the bottom of stone pile to plow zone if present (see article for complete details).


Suffice to say this study proved a major embarrassment to those archaeologists pushing the field clearing hypothesis. It exposed their ignorance and total lack of historical and scientific research into a subject they offered “expert opinions” on.


Timothy Ives, Ph.D., the current State Archaeologist for Rhode Island, has become the unofficial spokesperson for the field clearing proponents. In 2015, Ives published an article titled “Cairnfields in New England’s Forgotten Pastures” in Archaeology of Eastern North America. In the article he proposed a “cairnfield formation model” to explain the thousands of stone piles found in Rhode Island. His model depicts four successive stages in which he spells out how the cairns were formed on overgrazed pastures. The overgrazing is based on the sheep fever recorded in Vermont and New Hampshire. He claims between 1810 and the 1840s sheep fever overtook all of New England with devastating results: (a) overgrazed pastures caused massive sheet erosion; (b) this in turn exposed stones below ground that needed to be picked up and were used initially to build stonewalls (according to Ives the majority of New England’s stonewalls were built during this thirty year period); (c) after the wall building stage, the stones were piled on top of large boulders to keep the ground open to grow grass. Finally, after 1840, the pastures were abandoned and allowed to reforest, grow to maturity and die off with trees falling on the cairns “violently smashing” most of them.


With the exception of the stone pile creation stage, the cairnfield formation model is based upon the “sheep fever” section of Tom Wessels book Reading the Forested Landscape (1997) which described the ecological and man-made changes in Vermont pastures from 1810 to 1840.


One’s initial impression of the article is that it looks very scholarly, authoritative and scientific in its presentation. A closer inspection discovered the model was purely hypothetical in nature, historically inaccurate and scientifically unsound. First, Rhode Island never experienced “sheep fever” like Vermont did. In fact Rhode Island had 1/7th the sheep population per unit of farm land when compared to Vermont. Agricultural scientists at the Vermont Agricultural Experimental Station conducted a series of erosion experiments in the 1930 and early 1940s. They found that sheet erosion did not occur on pastures, even steep hillside pastures. The sediment clogging up Vermont rivers was coming from plowed fields, logging operations and natural stream bank collapse. Ives’ model postulate that overgrazing of sheep destroyed Vermont’s hillside pastures. However, historical records show as the price of wool dropped after the 1840s, these sheep farms were converted to dairy production. These allegedly overgrazed destroyed pastures were subsequently grazed as late the early 20th century by milking cows. -- We published our 19-page scientific review of Ives’ model in an online article titled “Challenging the Ives Cairnfield Formation Model” (http://www.academia.edu/45490646). It details all of problems we found with the model.


The landscape in New England consists of multiple cultural layers created by different cultures: Euro-American, Native American, African American to name a few. It is critical we recognize this cultural diversity of layering. Much of our research in the past decade has focused on how to identify stone structures built in different time periods by different peoples, especially when they are found intermixed together in the same landscape. We are making progress with developing a more diverse perspective. More and more archaeologists, scholars, foresters, town planning officials, and conservation land managers are coming forward and willing to listen and give serious thought to preservation of these places.


James Gage

Mary Gage


For more research by James Gage and Mary Gage on this subject, visit: http://www.stonestructures.org/html/contact.html


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