The Science of Stone Prayers: Archaeology of the Ohio Valley and Early Research
Research on CSLs in the Northeast Has Early Roots in the Ohio Valley Region
Nipauwu kodtonquag at Tohkekomuash, in Sanakkomuk (Shutesbury, MA) at a tribally-verified ceremonial site (c) J. Schilling-Cachat 2015.
The Ohio and Mississippi Valleys are famous as homes of multiple mound-building civilizations. Though the misconceived notion of a single Mound Builder nation persists in less informed circles, many are now familiar with Adena, Hopewell, Mississippian, and other civilizations, historic and ancient, whose physical legacy reaches to the Gulf Coast and Southeast Coast. Florida was home to cities built on shell mound islands, ingeniously engineered to allow hurricane storm surges to pass harmlessly through. Many also do not know that mound cultures extend north into Minnesota and the Dakotas. Murderous gangs of Spanish looters and genocide-makers could not help but speak on paper about the magnificent works of these peoples.
At First Contact with Europeans, the peoples of the Ohio Valley and the eastern tallgrass prairie were mostly Algonquians. These nations - such as Shawanoki Lenaweek (Shawnee), Miami, Illinoi, Peoria, Kikapu, Potawatomi Neshnabe and many more - speak languages very closely related to Northeastern Algonquian nations.
What is less known in the same regions are the many smaller scale works of Indigenous civilizations. Though some revisionist archaeologists now claim that research on CSLs began in the Northeast only recently, the truth is older and more distant. Kellar and others conducted much earlier investigations in the Ohio Valley and other regions in the rich trans-Appalachian prairies and deciduous bottomland forests extending west and south. In the early 1900s, the famous ethnographer of Algonquian peoples, Frank Speck, noted the widespread presence of ceremonial stone groupings among Algonquian nations and questioned the lack of academic study or even mention of them.
Here, we offer a brief review of CSL archaeology of the Ohio Valley, West Virginia and neighboring states. Alongside, we offer an updated view on this body of work and its correlation with study of stone prayers in the Northeast.
1900-1970: The Early Years of Stone Prayer Archaeology
Nipauwu kodtonquag in Northwestern Connecticut, tribally verified.(c) J. Schilling-Cachat 2019.
Research regarding sacred stones and stone prayers begins before 1900. Accounts from the Northeast reach back to Frank Speck’s “Malecite Tales,” 1917, in the Journal of American Folklore (30 (118):479-485) and “The Memorial Brush Heap in Delaware and Elsewhere” in Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Delaware (1945, 4:17-23). Speck so consistently encountered sacred stones and sacred stone groupings in his work with various Algonquian nations that he later complained about the lack of academic examination on the subject.
Charity Moore and Andrew Weiss, professional archaeologists, published a full study of stone prayers with a synopsis of the history of stone prayer archaeology in Journal of Ohio Archaeology (2016, 4:39-72):
Moore and Weiss note the famous earthen mound legacy of the region before focusing on the archaeology of smaller Indigenous stone works. Describing the early work of Kellar, they summarize:
“In 1960, James Kellar, a prominent Indiana archaeologist and stone mound specialist, published a synthesis of this prior research, listing at least 53 stone mound and cairn sites in Ohio, 10 in West Virginia, and 20 in Pennsylvania (1960:478-481). In an insightful and still relevant chapter titled "The Stone Mound Problem," he discusses the often poor excavation techniques and reporting, the various attempts to categorize and date rock features, and the widely differing interpretations of their meanings, most of which he describes as being based in "folklore, and gross analogy" (Kellar 1960:401-412).”
Beginning with a body of 83 studies is an impressive launching pad for investigation of stone prayer places. Frustrated with the loose treatment of cultural heritage and scientific interpretation on these sites, Kellar sought a better approach. Though the early investigations leave much to be desired, Moore and Weiss note important contributions:
“In retrospect, this era of prolific excavation of rock feature sites and Native American ethnography, as ill-informed as much of it may have been, did provide proof that rock features, including small, amorphous, and attritional piles, were being constructed by Native Americans throughout the eastern United States in both the pre- and proto-historic periods (see Kellar 1960:402-403, 449, 460).”
21st Century - Stone Prayer Research Comes of Age
Nipauwu kodtonquag in Westchester, New York, tribally verified (c) J. Schilling-Cachat 2021.
This report goes on to examine the process of archaeological investigation of stone prayers and to question the methods used and the bias applied by the industry. Moore and Weiss then offer an equitable framework for archaeological investigation of Indigenous stone works.
In “Stone and Their Places, An Application of Landscape Theory to Ceremonial Stone Landscapes of West Virginia” Weiss and Moore revisit this subject:
Sadly, the archaeology pair note lack of professional and governmental progress in understanding Indigenous stone works:
“Frustrated by the lack of artifacts associated with small stone features, early excavators had begun the trend of neglecting them; however, as Kellar argues, quote the fact that less data may be present than desired emphasizes the importance of what is available end quote. This unfortunate trend has been some prevalent in archaeology that the United South and Eastern Tribes issued a recent resolution condemning the actions of archaeologists and SHPOs who dismiss these structures and allow their desecration through excavation or development. Although some improvements have been made, in part due to this resolution, the academic understanding of stone features has not significantly progressed since Kellar's 1960 publication.”
Moore and Weiss go on to analyze a number of stone works on sites in West Virginia where all the data support an Indigenous origin for these features, giving examples with data and photographs. Further supporting an Indigenous cultural continuum among Algonquians and at least some of their neighbors in regard to stone prayers, examples given by Weiss and Moore correlate very close to examples given by Nohham Cachat in “Quantitative Assessment of Stone Relics in a Western Massachusetts Town” (Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, 2017) at:
Again, Moore and Weiss analyze the elements of siting, choice of location, and relational features of sky, earth and water regarding stone prayer places in their 2017 presentation for IAIS Roundtable (cited above on Academia.edu). Many of the observations made in that presentation reflect the body of observations made by earlier investigators. Landscape theory observations by Weiss and Moore are presaged in the posted report by Peter Waksman from Fall of 2012, as posted at:
These aspects are detailed from within the framework of Indigenous ceremonial culture and cosmography in Assessing Stone Relics in Western Massachusetts Part II: Patterns of Site Distribution (Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut, 2018) at:
Here, it is explained why stone prayers are associated with particular elements of sky, earth and water. Also detailed is how the positioning of sites and elements within sites addresses the cosmography and ceremony of Algonquian traditions. Examples of several sites are mapped out.
The convergence of these studies and their application across the entire Eastern United States is expounded in Curtiss Hoffman’s work, discussed in our earlier report:
Even as the body of science on stone prayers and CSLs grows, there has been attack on researchers who respect ethical practice and fair treatment of Indigenous cultural properties. Coming from a government archaeologist of lesser experience through a far rightwing publishing house known for racist white supremacist screes and neoimperialist manifestos, it is alarming to see throwback to an era of hateful and unscientific use of archaeology as a weapon of racial oppression.
Nonetheless, facts are winning over racism, and the body of CSL science is becoming giant. We have given only a few examples thus far of the body of work on stone prayers. Through vigorous self-examination and honest intention, we can one day reach ethical praxis in archaeology.