Site History Research Summary

Missouri Cairns
Rock cairns have been identified by archaeologists as integral components of Missouri burial practices and are found with dates between the archaic prehistoric and historic periods. In particular, rock cairns are common to Missouri’s Ozark regions. As stated by O’Brien and Wood (1998:262): “Innumerable rock and earthen burial mounds are scattered individually and in small clusters along almost every stream of any consequence in the rolling hills of the northwest Ozark Highlands”. The majority of cairn excavation and research in the region was accomplished in the course of the Reservoir Salvage Project between 1963 and 1965 (Wood et al. 2010). While rock cairns are relatively common in Southwestern Missouri none have been excavated since early 1980’s, as the present archaeological imperative is one of preservation and adherence to NAGPRA law.

According to O’Brien and Wood (1998:263), rock cairn placement was exclusively on bluffs, ridges, or hilltops. Rock cairns were constructed around a burial on exposed bedrock. The average cairn size is 3.8-11.5 meters in diameter and 15-75 centimeters above the surface (O’Brien and Wood 1998:263).  Cairns are built with no internal structure and lack soil. Most commonly found in cairns are secondary burials that are often burial bundles or cremated remains (Ahler et al. 2010; O’Brien and Wood 1998). Cairns often contain burial goods of pottery, lithics, and organic materials such as seeds or maize (Wood 1992).

Likely Associated Cultures
In southwestern Missouri several groups of seemingly culturally related burials have been found that date to the Late Woodland period. In comparison to the increased complexity and population density of the Mississippian tradition in the Mississippi River Valley in eastern Missouri and the American Bottom Region in Illinois, the rock cairns and burials of southwest Missouri have been more difficult to identify. Archaeologists have used the term “complex” to identify burial groups and patterns and define a complex as “functionally and temporally related sites” (Ahler et al. 2010). Several burial complexes have been identified that are relevant to the cairns found on our property. The Fristoe Burial Complex and the Bolivar Burial Complex both contain similarities to our cairns. The Fristoe Burial Complex consists of rock cairns and earthen mounds found along the Osage River and dating to the Late Woodland (Wood 1967). 

However, our cairns are more likely linked with the Bolivar Burial Complex, which are Late Woodland cairns and mounds found in the Stockton Reservoir area and along the Sac River and its tributaries (Wood and Brock 1984). Our cairns are closer to the known Bolivar Burial Complex sites and are therefore more likely associated than with the Fristoe Complex.

Without excavation, there is no exact way to compare these rock features to previously excavated cairns, such as the Petit Cotte cairn (Wood 1992), or to accurately date them. An intriguing question is one of possible cultural affiliation. There has been evidence of possible Caddoan Mississippian artifacts associated with burials close to Stockton Lake (Wood et al. 2010). 

Other than geographic vicinity to the Bolivar Burial Complex, the most compelling evidence for a Late Woodland date is the associated lithic found at the site and at a secondary site below the cairns at the bottom of the bluff. The majority of the points have been identified as Scallorn points, which are the most commonly found points in late prehistoric burials in the southwest Missouri region (Wood et al. 2010:31). Metal detector tests conducted over the area with negative results lend credence to the prehistoric identification.

Several of the cairns, such as Rock Features #E , #D, #G, and #H show evidence of significant disturbance. The lithic scatter found in secondary context below the bluff was well picked over by point collectors, the area was dug into on at least one occasion. 

Unique Differences
While there are many similarities of our site to the cairns downstream several miles, there are significant differences.  The most obvious is the number and density of cairns.  Twenty-seven are in evidence now in an area of about 3.3 acres (1.3 hectares), in contrast with a single cairn in those examples downstream.

The plan view of almost all is oval, as opposed to the circular shape, described in the Fristoe and Bolivar Complexes.  The average height tends to be somewhat higher, proportionally.  The average area of our cairns is smaller, although several are near 20 feet in one axis.

The construction technique seems to differ slightly, in that there is no evidence of soil, or bedrock as a base.  In some cases 2 to 3 large flat rocks, either already embedded and/or transported to the chosen site appear to serve as a base.  In many of the smaller examples no such base is discerned.  Our cairns are stacked higher, in general, in a more conical shape than reported in the Fristoe and Bolivar examples.  Notably, the most prominent of our cairns, #6, is distinctly conical, reaching a height of about 5 feet but with a base diameter of about 14 feet.

Finally, the building materials are exclusively sandstone cobbles.  No soil can be observed, except that what is probably decayed leaf litter, within the cairns.  Given the geology of our site, a 30-foot cap of sandstone overlaying the limestone, it is only reasonable that sandstone cobbles were used.  The closest supply of soil is on the creek terrace at a level about 30 feet lower and a very rough terrain in between.

On the available data, it seems most likely that our site was used for burial by descendants or a breakaway group of the Fristoe and Bolivar cultures. There are historical references by European settlers that describe a similar behavior by the Osage Nation in the early 1800's. The peoples who used the site were probably of the Late Woodland cultures and were present here sometime between AD500 and AD1400.

The burial practices are thought to involve primary interment of the body in a fetal position, often in another location. The general practice was to gather the bones at a later date, often of multiple individuals, which were bundled and placed in cairns similar to those found here. Sometimes the bones were burned, possibly to remove residual flesh, before the secondary interment. In the Fristoe and Bolivar complexes there was no evidence that societal rank, age, or gender governed the placement of remains. Related artifacts, such as tools, pottery, a shell necklace, and grains of corn, are sometimes associated with the remains.

Certainly there are other possible scenarios, but my bet is that the one above is the highest probability, in the absence of other data.

22 February 2012


Ahler, Steven R., Paul P. Kreisa, and Richard Edging
2010    Marginality and Continuity: The Archaeology of the Northern Ozarks. Special Publication No. 9. Missouri Archaeological Society, Springfield.
O’Brien, Kichael J. and W. Raymond Wood
1998    The Prehistory of Missouri. University of Missouri Press.

Wood, W. Raymond, R. Bruce McMillan, Jack H. Ray, Neal H. Lopinot, and Dustin A. Thompson
2010    “Research to determine Cultural Affiliation of NAGPRA Remains from Pomme de Terre, Smithville, Stockton, and Truman Lakes in Missouri”. Edited by Neal H. Lopinot and R. Bruce McMillan. Research Reports #1400. Center for Archaeological Research, Springfield MO.

Wood, W. Raymond and Sharon Brock
1984    The Bolivar Burial Complex of Southwestern Missouri. The Missouri Archaeologists 45.
2000    Six Late Prehistoric Burial Mounds in Southwestern Missouri. The Missouri Archaeologist 61:1-69.

Wood, W. Raymond
1967    The Fristoe Burial Complex of Southwestern Missouri. The Missouri Archaeologist 29. 
1992    Petit Cote Cairn: 23PO301.  The Missouri Archaeologist Quarterly 9(1): 12-14.

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