Mystery of the Stone Mounds

The appearance of literally thousands of small stone mounds, cairns, and even one large serpent effigy in the central Ohio Valley and mid-Appalachian highlands region has generally baffled professional archeologists, hunters, hikers, and others who continually encounter these enigmatic remains. To date, little systematic research or scientific study beyond mere speculation has been associated with these obviously prehistoric remains. However, anyone who has walked the ridgetops of the central Ohio Valley area, particularly in Ohio, Ky., or WV is familiar with these stone structures.  Others of these remains have also been noted by this author and others in upland areas of eastern VA, in Tenn. and other places as well, and they appear to be a fairly widespread Woodlands era cultural feature.  There is even some possibility that early stone mound construction may have been begun in upland areas well beyond this time frame back into the Archaic period or earlier.


The thousands of piles of stones which make up this as yet unidentified cultural phenomenon are generally characterized by their small size and appearance in groups of various sizes from 2 or 3 to 30 or more in one location. Seldom taller than head high, these stone mounds appear circular mainly and are made up of small, local stones no bigger than an individual might reasonably carry.  However, in some cases, particularly the stone serpent that will be discussed below, actual quarrying activities can be detected in the immediate vicinity, indicating, perhaps, that these sites were not randomly selected.  While most of the smaller mound groupings are found mainly on the ridgetop trails, the larger assemblages seem to occur on wider benches or more exposed areas at lower elevations.  These groupings do not seem to follow any larger geometric patterns (circles, for example), and their purposes are as yet undetermined.  For some time, it was suggested that these represented early pioneer farmers attempts to clear cultivation spaces; but these cairns--as they are often called--are not usually found in areas of known cultivation on the many small farms in the regions where they have been observed or when local farmers are consulted.

                                  PURPOSES OF THE STONE MOUNDS

Much speculation has centered on why these mounds were built, regardless of by whom or when.  Here are some:  Burials: To date the small stone mounds that have been excavated, including several many years ago by this author, gave no indication of human remains or any other cultural contents aside from the occasional random digging tool of local stone origins.  While this may be a possibility worth further exploration for those complexes of several cairns at the lower elevations mentioned above, it seems highly unlikely that the majority were ever built to contain or hide something inside. 

Trail Markers:  Much speculation has been advanced by interested hikers in WV, where the only systematic recording of these mounds was made forty years ago by a local amateur archeologist named Lanny Brisbin of Huntington.  Mr. Brisbin held that most of these structures marked rigdetop trails along many known early historic and prehistoric pathways throughout the rugged highland areas. Frequently these were near known watercourse trails as well.  While this idea may well be true, it does not account for the many larger groupings at lower elevations and on flatter surfaces with good visibility or on more isolated benches below ridgetops.

Other Markers:  While doing archeolgical survey in the same region in the  1970's and 80's this author frequently encountered or was called to investigate these structures.  My own general speculation concerning small groupings of 2-4 mounds on ridgetop trails was that they indicated (at times even pointed to) nearby, unseen  features of importance.  These included mainly water (springs, seasonal pools) or a rock shelter presence below the trail.  Time and again I tested this hypothesis with some success, although it did not account for all such groupings where trails did not otherwise intersect or diverge. 

Ceremonial Complexes:  In a recent article on these stone mounds (Charleston, WV, Gazette, Sunday, Nov. 15, 09), archeolgist Roger Wise speculated that the larger groupings may indicate some ceremonial use.  There may be some validity to this speculation, based upon viewing them as celestial calculators or markers of some sort.  Wise's article also included images of some of his recent mound visits for those interested in viewing the stone mounds.  Obviously, short of detailed excavations and surveys, any such ideas might be difficult to verify.

                                                       STONE SERPENT MOUND OF KENTUCKY

In the 1960's L. Brisbin discovered and identified the great stone serpent mound on a ridgetop above the Big Sandy River, not far from the Ohio R. near Catlettsburg Ky. The Big Sandy marks the border between Ky. and WV. there. It took Brisbin some time to get the ground cleared and to map the actual stone structure, and even more time before professionals took a look at it and recognized it for what it was.  Of course, much is known about the Great Serpent Mound of southern Ohio dated to middle Woodland times, but that is an earthen structure.  The stone serpent is unique in that it is constructed totally of stone, but winds its way for over 500 feet up one side, across the top and down the other side of a ridge.  Nearby are extensive quarrying evidence in the local limestone boulders.  Later, surveys indicated that an 'altar' area (pehaps an egg in the serpents mouth similar to the earth one in Ohio)  on a bench below the head--which is more that twenty feet across and may have been 12 feet high--had a direct solar alignment with the summer solstice on the opposite ridge across the river.  The site is remarkably well preserved and is now protected on lands owned by the Ashland Oil Co.  This author has followed the winding path of the serpent body its entire length on more than one occasion until it ends in a single stone. It is a  remarkable achievement of prehistory with which few are familiar. The clear solar alignment seems to be a phenomenon of large stoneworks throughout the world during this period and gives credence to further investigations of other stone complexes along these lines.

                                            DATING OF THE STONE STRUCTURES

As Wise pointed out in his recent article, it appears at present that these stone mounds, whatever their purposes, could be dated anytime during the prehistoric period from the end of the ice age to late prehistoric. Many archeologists would tend to put them with the Woodland cultures, based upon the nearness of earth mounds and the similarity of the two known great serpent effigy structures.  There is no reason, however, that they could not be ascribed to different time periods and even different functions. My own speculation tends to put the actual tradition of building the small markers on high elevations at an early date when warmer, wetter climates made movements at lower elevations in the regions where they are found difficult.  Any time in the post paleo-Indian period is, therefore, not out of the realm of possibility.  It is also logical to assume that, once begun, the continuity of prehistoric peoples in any given region could have led to a continuation and refinement or expansion of the purposes for which they were initially constructed. In any event there is certainly room for systematic study of these widespread and unique remains in multiple areas of the eastern U.S.; for anyone who has encountered them has an instinctive feeling that there was something important going on to require such an investment of labor over time--and in such often remote places. To date, the isolation of these structures and the reluctance of small farmers to inquire about the ones on their land have restricted the mounds from competing with more glamorous and visible sites for the diminishing time and dollars of those best equipped to investigate them as thoroughly as they deserve to be. 

For more on this author's speculation on the purposes of the stone mounds the reader is encouraged to check out his first novel in the People of the Stone series, THE STONE BREAKERS, where one particular interpretation of these stone mounds makes an important contribution to the main characters' survival in the latter chapters of the book.

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As a young child growing up in Georgia, I was introduced to Rock Eagle, the Native American site near Eatonton. What comparisons or distinctions do you draw from the stone bird effigies in Georgia and the similar creations in the Ohio valley? Do you believe these mounds to be connected in some way?

After viewing images of the rock eagle mound in Georgia, any direct similarites between it and either earthen or stone mounds in the Ohio Valley are difficult.  The shape of the eagle itself is not common there, but bears a striking resemblance to the more generalized "thunderbird" form found in other locations.  The Rock Eagle site is remarkable for its size, over one hundred feet in length.  Dating is sketchy, but it appears to be roughly contemporary with early Woodland effigy mounds in the Ohio Valley.  Various bird forms were an important icon in later woodland motifs, especially during Hopewell times, when the feathered serpent influence from more southerly cultures was introduced.  This may be a feature of a more common southern bird cult being expressed in Georgia. My own speculation would tend to put the Rock Eagle formation at a later rather than earlier time frame within the 5000 to 1000 bp dates that other investigators have offered in the past.  Initial research there in the 1930's however came before other important sites were known, and it would be interesting to see what more recent excavations in the surrounding area have revealed.  The presence of a single burial within the main body of the effigy is, I believe, more likely a later interment.  I am not aware of any large scale stone mounds containing burials.  It would also be helpful to know if there are any solar, lunar, or solstice alignments, which is again a more modern research objective that might have been overlooked in the past.

Thanks to Douglas Imbrogno of the Charleston WV Gazette newspaper for his email reminding me that the Nov. 14 09 article on stone cairns referrenced in the main blog article does not give proper credit to the newspaper staff for writing the article mistakenly attributed to Roger Wise. Mr. Imbrogno also recommends that anyone interested in stone cairns, etc. consult the Nov.14 article to view his accompanying photos.
As I mentioned to him in my response, we are trying to upgrade this blog site to be able to include key photos, maps, etc. with the postings where available and appropriate. Perhaps in the near future we can include his excellent photos as well as other important visuals.

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