Monday, April 23, 2012

Excavation Ends

With nice cool weather returning for a brief spell, the opportunity to finish the dig couldn't be passed up!  The trench around the central stone is now complete, yielding no artifacts.  The image below is looking Northeast, w/ the central stone and a trench around it to a depth of approximately 1 foot.

The question posed in my last posting, regarding the presence of chert in the dig was resolved with a message from Jack Ray, Center of Archaeological Research, Missouri State University.  An extract of his kind assistance is shown below:

...chert occurs as redeposited cobbles in the Pennsylvanian sandstone.
Most of the chert is Burlington chert that was eroded from the older
Burlington-Keokuk Formation (345-310 million years ago) and redeposited by
the ancient river system during Pennsylvanian times (310-280 m.y.a.). In
some locations, the redeposited chert pebbles and cobbles (ancient gravel
bar deposits) may be abundant.

When still locked in place in the bedrock, the chert cobbles comprise a
conglomerate, but when the encompassing sandstone bedrock erodes away, it
releases the chert cobbles which become part of the surrounding regolith (or

I don't know if you have a copy of my chert book (see attached), but I
discuss this type of redeposited chert (I call Warner chert) on pages
295-299. Pictures of redeposited Burlington chert cobbles up to head-size
are pictured in Figures 9.8-9.11. Thus, it is not at all unusual to find
remnant fragments of insoluble Burlington chert in areas where the
Pennsylvanian sandstone has been eroded away, releasing some of the
inclusive chert cobbles.
 The book referred to in his message is Ozarks Chipped-Stone Resources: A Guide to the
Identification, Distribution, and Prehistoric Use of Cherts and Other Siliceous Raw Materials, Jack H. Ray, Missouri State University.

Pictures of the two pieces of chert in question are shown below.  Although the pictures are not definitive, an examination with a magnifier did not reveal any flaking on either sample.

So my last gasp at finding something Native American connected to Cairn #5 has proven to be futile.  The rational conclusion of the research and field work to this point is that our array of cairns was likely created in historic times.  The purpose(s) and builders is still a total mystery.  However, since the probable builders were of a culture with written history, it is reasonable that a dedicated search will reveal some answers.

The search continues...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dig Progress Report #4

Still nothing significant found.  An apparent false alarm was raised last week when two chert chips were found in the trench being dug around the central stone.  At first I thought I could see signs of working on both, but with more magnification and light on the subjects, it ain't so.

The two little chips are shown on the south edge of the central stone, with a trench about 12" below the stone's top surface.  I'm rather perplexed how they found their way here, buried a few inches below the grade level, under a man-made rock pile.  Underneath is about 30 feet of sandstone, capping limestone.  Sandstone is not known to harbor chert.

How was the chert transported to this locale?

The above image shows the context of the central stone nearest the shovel and the second stone that extends nearly to the outer periphery of the cairn on the south side.

The present extent of the trench is shown above, circling about half of the central stone.  The plan is to complete the trench all the way around the central stone.  If nothing else turns up, the dig will be considered complete and an alternative solution will have to be sought to solve the mystery of these rock piles!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dig Progress Report #3

No big finds, thus far.  The major effort continues to be around the central stone, on the chance that artifacts have fallen off it.  The ring around the stone is now exposing 4 to 8" of the central stone.  Today was the first encounter of clay-like soil, much lighter in color than the leaf litter encountered up to this point.  The north side has been excavated the most, which is where the clay was found.

A second stone of the same approximate size has been identified in the SE quadrant.  A portion of which extends to the edge of the original structure.  This stone remains to be cleared of the overburden of cobbles.

Sorting the removed debris with 1/4" screen has yielded chips of sandstone, but nothing else.  No chert at all has been noted.  If there is any pottery shards, they are smaller than 1/4"!

A positive development is the interest of a local historian scholar, who has previously visited the site.  She is inclined to think the cairns are prehistoric, in the absence of any historic record that she can find.  She reports a lead on another cairn group recently identified, about 20 miles north of our site.  At least it is something else to investigate for a possible connection.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dig Progress Report #2

With the threat of rain today, I made an early start hoping to find something significant.  The only discovery today is the large center stone on which one might expect to find an artifacts that would have been left.  I found nothing, not even anything that that I could identify as burn residue.

Some sample photos of the project follows:

 Set up by Day 3.  Overburden rocks stacked in the background.

 Starting view on Cairn#5

 First day's efforts

 Day 2

 Day 3

 Day 3 w/ center stone revealed

The only volunteer to show up and totally useless, except for company!

The plan is to continue excavation around the center stone in the hope of discovering some artifacts in a lower level.  As best as I can tell, the jumble of rocks continue below the center stone, but for how far is unknown.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Start of Excavation

Cairn #5 has been selected as the first candidate to excavate.  It has the most characteristics of a Native American cairn: relatively flat topography, comparable size, and near the brow of a water overlook.  It is also undisturbed.

All of the volunteers (none) showed up, so I went to work as though I knew what I was doing.  About 1/4 of the overlaid stones have been set aside by this afternoon.  Just as I was removing the last one, I discovered an omen that suggested I should stop for the day.  Under the last rock was a copperhead snake coiled into a snug space.  It was not disturbed by all my prior noise and bustle, nor by my removing its cover.  Even a gentle prod on its head and body did not encourage it to vacate, only deserving of a flicking forked tongue.

Since I was plenty tired already, I judged it was a good time to knock off for the day.

Nothing promising was found in today's efforts, even though the northwest quadrant is down to the extant grade level.  Time to build the sifter...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Euro-American or Native American?

The professional opinion of two archaeologists is that the cairns at this site are NOT Native American in origin.  The stated basis for this position includes:
  1.   There are no other known Native American cairns located on similar topography
  2.   Native American cairns are found in much smaller grouping of structures
  3.  The construction does not include any soil, as is typical of Native American tradition
  4.  No Native American artifacts have been directly associated with the cairns

It is deemed more likely that the cairns were created by Euro-American settlers, probably after about 1820.  Suggestions of possible cairn purposes include:
  1.   Construction material for mills, of which there were several within about ½ mile.
  2.   Field clearing
  3.   Stockpiling of construction material
  4.   “Busy work” for idle farm hands/family members

Neither professional was tasked to determine the actual origin of the cairns; rather they were to assess the Native American connection, if any.  They therefore offered alternate use suggestions without searching for supporting evidence. Thus, it is fairly easy to dismiss the proposed Euro-American suggestions. 
  1.  Even the mill on this property was probably built with stones from a closer source, about half the transport distance.  Stone was used for a dry-stacked foundation as well as one low rock wall about 100 yards long for the millrace.  Other mills in the neighborhood probably had similar rock sources much closer than the site of the cairns.
  2. There are no tillable fields within 200 yards of the cairn site, making it highly unlikely that the cairn stones came from anywhere other than the rock field where they now reside.
  3. The total volume of the 27 cairns is estimated as 98.9 cubic meters.  Optimistically judging that one man could extract, transport, and stack one cubic meter per day, the cairns now existing would cost nearly five man-months of labor, not counting transit time to and from the work site.  It is highly unlikely that anyone would invest that much to stock readily available materials.  Even more unlikely is the notion of stockpiling it when it could be loaded directly on a sled or wagon without the extra effort of stacking.
  4.  It would seem to be an extraordinary amount of busy work for no apparent benefit.

Nothing above argues that the cairns are NOT Euro-American in origin.  It just doesn’t seem we have yet discovered a viable explanation.

How to resolve the issue?  

The most obvious answer is to search for artifacts in one or more of the cairns.  If something is found, it might lead to a conclusion of the origins.  In fact, it seems very likely to me that there are probably multiple origins.

The sizes of the cairns run in a continuum from less than 1 cubic meter in volume to the largest at over 16 cubic meters.  It isn't obvious how the large range in sizes would be common to a single purpose.

The construction techniques vary also.  Many of the moderate size seem to have a base of 3-4 large flat stones on which the rest are stacked in random fashion.  The smaller examples are simple piles, but some include much larger stones than others.  Finally, at least two have examples of courses of stones at the base, much like stone walls would be constructed.

To search for answers with the minimum disturbance to the site a clever selection process is needed.  Anyone with a scheme which offers the highest probability of finding a Native American cairn is urged to contact me soonest.  

My working assumption is that any Native American artifact is most likely located at the grade level.  So the excavation process would be to remove each stone of the selected cairn until the grade level or soil is reached.  Only then would a search grid be established and sifting be practical.

Standing by for selection process ideas...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cairns Are Historic?

A second archaeologist has opined that the available data indicates that the cairns are NOT of Native American origin, but of more recent activity.  Jack Ray, an archaeologist with the Center for Archaeology Research, Missouri State University, has reviewed all of the published reports, including the photographic evidence and suggest it is more likely Euroamerican in nature.  An extract from his e-mail follows:

I respectively submit that all of the available information indicates that the 26 rock structures on your property likely represent some activity of Euroamericans (i.e., since 1820) rather than prehistoric Indians, whetherthat be field clearing or stockpiling for construction of mills, fences,outbuildings, or some other odd reason. For example, I grew up on a farm in the 1960s and 70s and my father would make my brothers and me do odd jobs such as clearing a field just to keep us busy for a small fee (.50-.75/hr).
Prehistoric rock cairns in MO typically occur alone on bluffs overlooking perennial streams, although occasionally 2 rock cairns may occur on a ridge and rarely in small groups of 3 or 4 (never 20 or more). Working in the Ozarks for more than 30 years, I have never heard of more than 4 prehistoric  rock cairns on any one site. Additionally, as I understand it, there is no soil mixed with the sandstone rocks, only decayed leaf litter. Most prehistoric burial mounds have at least some soil mixed with the rocks.
As for other sites, I suspect that prehistoric sites occur all along (redacted) Creek (ridge summits and stream terraces). This is not at all uncommon along perennial streams in the Ozarks, since during the past 12,000 or so years of prehistory, Native Americans traversed and occasionally camped on nearly every level spot. The problem, however, would be linking these sites to your cairns. Just because they are present in the valley doesn't mean that they are associated with the cairns. Even if you find Scallorn arrow points (and apparently you have....they are the most common arrow point type in the Ozarks...they are found practically everywhere) in the general vicinity, it is not necessarily supportive evidence that Late Woodland peoples constructed those rock piles....just that they lived in the area. If, on the other hand, you were to find Scallorn and other artifacts within and beneath the rock piles, you can make a better case that they indeed are prehistoric. As I understand it, no artifacts have been found directly associated with any of the rock piles. 

Although Jack has not yet visited the site, his experience in the Ozarks weighs heavily in finding the truth of the subject rock features.  An excavation of one or two of the cairns is now a real possibility, if the owner's ancient body can stand the strain and pain!

Standby for a decision...