Submitted by Marjorie Tietjen.
(Jan. 4, 2021) — New England is well known for its miles upon miles of stone walls spreading across the countryside. I’ve always loved these walls, imagining what they must have been used for in times past. Periodically I would walk in the state forest behind our home in Killingworth. I would often take the same path up a hill to where a massive stone wall lines an impressive ridge. There are many interesting features to this wall and an entrance that led to an upper flat level of ground. In the winter when the leaves have fallen, I can view this wall from our kitchen window.
At some point I became aware of information concerning the ceremonial stone work of the Native Americans in our area. The broad classification that includes many different tribes of North America is the Algonquian. Among the Algonquian tribes in our area were the Pequots, Mohegans and the Hammonassets, who summered by the shore and travelled to North Madison and Killingworth for the winter months. Often in different areas of North America the same types of structures are found and create a pattern. This may be because the Agonquians shared similar customs and a common language with different dialects.
The first stone structure that stood out to me as unique and possibly Native American was a well formed medium size pile of stones that was placed mostly on top of a large platform rock which was embedded in the ground. I had read that these were commonly called cairns but that the Indigenous term for them was Manitou Hussunash…or sacred stones.
The more I learned about Native American stone construction and how it differed from the structures the colonists built, the more fascinated I became. To think that we have undiscovered history right in our own backyards is very intriguing! Usually where there is one stone structure, there are more in the same area. When it is determined that these stone relics are Native American, the area can be designated as a Ceremonial Stone Landscape or CSL.
There are different shapes of and purposes for these rock piles that are very plentiful in our area. Many messy disorganized stone piles came from clearing land for agriculture. Other styles of piles that have been observed are:
- Well formed rocks piled on top of flat bedrock or large boulder. This technique may have some spiritual or ceremonial reason behind it but it could also make the monument more stable for it to last many years.
- A well formed pile of stones attached to the side of a boulder or bedrock.
- A cairn attached or very near to a stone wall.
- Stones that are placed inside of a split rock.
- A cairn that has two angled sides with a flat stone roof and stones inside.
- A cairn placed totally on the ground without bedrock underneath.
A cairn can be composed of many stones or only several placed on top of a larger stone. The shapes of the cairns can vary from tall and skinny, short and fat, oval or round, conical and irregular. There are many other varied features to learn about that are described in books on the subject.
There are quite a few different theories that try to explain why these cairns were built. Some of them are:
- Ceremonial – having to do with celestial alignments, solstices, honoring spirits, etc.
- Grave markers for important members of the tribe
- Boundary markers
- Marking where special events occurred, such as wars
- Prayer offerings or donation stones
- The marking of trails
- Vision Quests
In the book “Stone Prayers: Native American Stone Constructions of the Eastern Seaboard,” Curtiss Hoffman, the author, includes written historical accounts of explorer John Smith and others such as Roger Williams. Ezra Stiles, who was president of Yale College in 1778, took special notice of stone structures built by Native Americans. Some of his written accounts describe how tribal members would add a stone to cairns in reverence of a specific important person, every time they would pass by. This may explain how some of these rock piles and walls got so wide and tall. Children were taught to venerate these monuments that were erected to honor specific events or people. It was believed by the natives that if they honored this sacred tradition, crops and hunting would prosper but if they did not do this it was bad luck and times could get hard.
It is thought that it has been difficult to gain understanding of some of the purposes for these Altars or sacrifice rocks, as the English called them, because the Natives did not speak much to this out of fear of being persecuted for their beliefs, which the Puritan colonists often misinterpreted as being evil. The natives did not classify these specific cairns that they named Wawanaquassick, with the term sacrifice rock because there was no sacrifice of living things. Mostly stones, pieces of wood, shells, etc. were laid on these monuments as “donations.”
There is much debate over the age of some of these structures and it would make sense that different stone structures were built throughout different periods. One way to determine how old a structure may be is to observe the lichen growth on the stones. If heavily encrusted, the relics could be hundreds of years old.
When visiting CSLs or cairn fields, researchers mark the GPS coordinates of each structure and correlate them to the rising and setting sun on the solstices. Very often this appears to be one of their purposes. Then the question is asked would these alignments remain the same through hundreds or thousands of years? Glen Kreisberg, in his book “Spirits In Stone”, says yes. This has been proven to be so by studying other megalithic structures such as the Mayan Sun Pyramid and the temples of Egypt and Cambodia.
There are known and unknown reasons for ancient cultures to be interested in celestial alignments and events. Knowing when to plant crops is one of the possible reasons. Whatever the purposes are for the building of these amazing stone structures, we should become more aware of their existence in order to preserve them. Knowing their history may help us to uncover lost knowledge of how to maintain the balance and harmony of the natural world.
If this subject is of interest to you there is a Facebook group called “Celebrating the Ceremonial Stone Landscapes of Turtle Island (North America).”
Photos provided by Marjorie Tietjen; all stone structures pictured were found in Killingworth. For more information on this and other Killingworth things, Marjorie has a blog: Focus On Killingworth, CT and Surrounding Towns