history of rock stacking

history of rock stacking

history of rock stacking
history of rock stacking

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By Sophie Haigney

The photograph in the Facebook post is pretty: piles of red rocks balanced at the edge of a cliff, suggesting a miniature mirror of the jagged rock face opposite. The stacks look like small shrines to mountain solitude, carefully balanced at the edge of a precipice. But when Zion National Park posted the photo, in September, the social-media coördinators for the park included a plea: “Please, enjoy the park but leave rocks and all natural objects in place.” The post noted the “curious but destructive practice” of building small stone towers, and said, “stacking up stones is simply vandalism.”

The balancing of stones is an elementary kind of creation, not unlike the building of sand castles. Stone stacks, or cairns, have prehistoric origins. They marked Neolithic burial grounds in what is now Scotland, guided nautical travels in Scandinavia, and served as shrines to the Inca goddess Pachamama in Peru. Contemporary stone stackers, then, are taking up the mantle of an ancient and artistic tradition. In the past decade or so, though, there has been an explosion of cairns around the world—in national parks, in the Scottish Highlands, on the beaches of Aruba. Park rangers, environmentalists, and hikers have all become alarmed, to varying degrees. The movement of so many stones can cause erosion, damage animal ecosystems, disrupt river flow, and confuse hikers, who depend on sanctioned cairns for navigation in places without clear trails.

history of rock stacking

The posts found within the #RockStacks and #StoneStacking hashtags on Instagram range from amateurish (a couple of stones against the backdrop of the ocean) to seriously impressive (round stones balanced improbably, or a sharp rock standing on end atop a pebble). It is common for multiple stacks to appear in a single picture; they look like chimneys or gravestones or maybe the ruins of a lost civilization. Inspired by social-media posts, new rock stackers are taking up the hobby, and the piles of stones are proliferating along with the pictures of them. After all, replication is not only a side effect of social media; it’s part of the point. “Rock stacking is a way of quickly making your mark and having an image of it. People are posting pictures of them on Instagram, saying, ‘I’ve been here and I made this,’ ” John Hourston, the head of a small volunteer-run environmental organization called the Blue Planet Society, said. He first noticed the boom when he visited remote beaches in Orkney, Scotland, and found them littered with rock piles. He said, “It struck me as a real shame, because there are very few places where you can still find solitude and seclusion, and here they were absolutely covered by the footprint of man.”

Hourston and the Blue Planet Society decided to call attention to the ecological impact of stone stacking, wading into a contentious debate. “This is one of the most divisive issues we’ve ever covered,” he said. The stackers are accusing him of making mountains out of pebbles. National parks are caught in the crosshairs of the debate, too. In 2016, a previous post on Zion National Park’s Facebook page about stone stacking got more than twenty-six hundred comments, as people bitterly debated whether small towers of rocks could really be a problem.

It’s easy to see a frustrated stone stacker’s point of view: it’s a meditative and creative activity; the impacts of a single stone stack are probably negligible compared with, say, driving; and it’s a means of spending time outdoors that seems to run counter to the spirit of social media in its emphasis on concentration, slow movements, and communing with the natural world. The calamity of the stone stack, in our anxious times, seems admittedly minor. But it’s a prominent example of how social media can generate scale, transforming an activity that would be mostly harmless in isolation into something with planetary impact. Aesthetic fads can go global now, with strange consequences. “Social media has kind of popularized rock stacking as a meditative activity, and you used to have a handful of people doing it, but it has really escalated over the past few years on public lands,” Wesley Trimble, the program-outreach and communications manager for the American Hiking Society, said.

#StoneStacking is showing no signs of slowing down. In Acadia National Park, volunteers destroyed nearly thirty-five hundred rock stacks, on two mountains alone, in 2016 and 2017. “I would probably equate the rock-stacking phenomenon with the painted-rock phenomenon, in how it’s driven by social media,” Christie Anastasia, the public-affairs specialist at Acadia, said. Painted rocks are a kind of social-media treasure hunt; people leave brightly decorated rocks in parks, with their social-media handles noted on the undersides. The person who finds the rock can then send a message to the person who left it. Acadia park employees have collected hundreds of them during the past year. The painted rocks now sit in a purgatory of bins, while the park staff figures out what to do with them. “We’re still cogitating on it,” Anastasia said. “We thought about throwing them into the ocean, but there might be chemicals in the paint. We’ve thought about throwing them in the fire. We’re still deciding. But they really have no place in a national park.”

What’s to be done about all this rock foolery? Anastasia said that she sends gentle Facebook messages to anyone who leaves an account name painted on a rock. On the Isle of Skye, a group of about twenty local volunteers brought wheelbarrows to a popular rock-stacking spot and spent a Saturday dismantling the stacks and transporting the stones back to where they belong. It’s human vs. human at this point. Meanwhile, there are rocks somewhere else that are being slowly stacked, one by one by one.

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    Rock balancing or stone balancing (stone or rock stacking) is an art, hobby, or form of vandalism[1] in which rocks are naturally balanced on top of one another in various positions without the use of adhesives, wires, supports, rings or any other contraptions which would help maintain the construction’s balance. The number of rock piles created in this manner in natural areas has recently begun to worry conservationists because they can misdirect hikers, expose the soil to erosion, aesthetically intrude upon the natural landscape, and serve no purpose.[2][3]

    Some visitors to natural areas who wish to experience nature in its undisturbed state object to this practice, especially when it intrudes on public spaces such as national parks, national forests and state parks.[4] The practice of rock balancing is claimed to be able to be made without changes to nature; environmental artist Lila Higgings has defended it as compatible with leave-no-trace ideals if rocks are used without impacting wildlife and are later returned to their original places,[5] and some styles of rock balancing are short-lived. However, “disturbing or collecting natural features (plants, rocks, etc.) is prohibited” in U.S. national parks because these acts may harm the flora and fauna dependent on them.[6]

    A cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn [ˈkʰaːrˠn̪ˠ] (plural càirn [ˈkʰaːrˠɲ]).[1]

    Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. However, since prehistory, they have also been built and used as burial monuments; for defense and hunting; for ceremonial purposes, sometimes relating to astronomy; to locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes. Stonehenge Cairns are used as trail markers in many parts of the world, in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, as well as in barren deserts and tundras. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or for religious reasons.

    An ancient example is the inuksuk (plural inuksuit), used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. Inuksuit are found from Alaska to Greenland. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

    Different types of cairns exist from rough piles of stones to interlocking dry stone round cylinders. The most important cairns commonly used around the world are interlocking stone survey cairns constructed around a central survey mark about every 30 km on the tallest peaks across a nation. These physical survey mark cairn systems are the basis for national survey grids to interconnect individual land survey measurements for entire nations. On occasion these permanent interlocking stone cairns are taken down then reconstructed to re-mark measurements to increase the accuracy of the national survey grid. They can also be used in unpopulated countries as emergency location points. In North America and Northern Europe any type of cairn can be used to mark mountain bike and hiking trails and other cross-country trail blazing, especially in mountain regions at or above the tree line. For example, the extensive trail network maintained by the DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, extensively uses cairns in conjunction with T-painted rock faces to mark trails. Other examples of these can be seen in the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park to mark several hikes.[2] Placed at regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers. Such cairns are often placed at junctions or in places where the trail direction is not obvious. They may also be used to indicate an obscured danger such as a sudden drop, or a noteworthy point such as the summit of a mountain. Most trail cairns are small, usually being a foot or less in height. However, they may be built taller so as to protrude through a layer of snow. Hikers passing by often add a stone, as a small bit of maintenance to counteract the erosive effects of severe weather. North American trail marks are sometimes called “ducks” or “duckies”, because they sometimes have a “beak” pointing in the direction of the route. The expression “two rocks do not make a duck” reminds hikers that just one rock resting upon another could be the result of accident or nature rather than intentional trail marking.

    The building of cairns for recreational purposes along trails, to mark one’s personal passage through the area, can result in an overabundance of rock piles. This distracts from cairns used as genuine navigational guides, and also conflicts with the Leave No Trace ethic. This ethic of outdoor practice advocates for leaving the outdoors undisturbed and in its natural condition.

    history of rock stacking

    Coastal cairns, or “sea marks”, are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada. Often indicated on navigation charts, they may be painted white or lit as beacons for greater visibility offshore.

    Modern cairns may also be erected for historical or memorial commemoration or simply for decorative or artistic reasons. One example is a series of many cairns marking British soldiers’ mass graves at the site of the Battle of Isandlwana, South Africa. Another is the Matthew Flinders Cairn on the side of Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, Australia. A large cairn, commonly referred to as “the igloo” by the locals, was built atop a hill next to the I-476 highway in Radnor, Pennsylvania and is a part of a series of large rock sculptures initiated in 1988 to symbolize the township’s Welsh heritage and to beautify the visual imagery along the highway.[3] Some are merely places where farmers have collected stones removed from a field. These can be seen in the Catskill Mountains, North America where there is a strong Scottish heritage, and may also represent places where livestock were lost. In locales exhibiting fantastic rock formations, such as the Grand Canyon, tourists often construct simple cairns in reverence of the larger counterparts.[4][better source needed] By contrast, cairns may have a strong aesthetic purpose, for example in the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

    The building of cairns for various purposes goes back into prehistory in Eurasia, ranging in size from small rock sculptures to substantial man-made hills of stone (some built on top of larger, natural hills). The latter are often relatively massive Bronze Age or earlier structures which, like kistvaens and dolmens, frequently contain burials; they are comparable to tumuli (kurgans), but of stone construction instead of earthworks. Cairn originally could more broadly refer to various types of hills and natural stone piles, but today is used exclusively of artificial ones.

    The word cairn derives from Scots cairn (with the same meaning), in turn from Scottish Gaelic càrn, which is essentially the same as the corresponding words in other native Celtic languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, including Welsh carn (and carnedd), Breton karn, Irish carn, and Cornish karn or carn. Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape, such as Cornwall’s highest point, Brown Willy Summit Cairn, a 5 m (16 ft) high and 24 m (79 ft) diameter mound atop Brown Willy hill in Bodmin Moor, an area with many ancient cairns. Burial cairns and other megaliths are the subject of a variety of legends and folklore throughout Britain and Ireland. In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your stone”. In Highland folklore it is recounted that before Highland clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead. Cairns in the region were also put to vital practical use. For example, Dún Aonghasa, an all-stone Iron Age Irish hill fort on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, is still surrounded by small cairns and strategically placed jutting rocks, used collectively as an alternative to defensive earthworks because of the karst landscape’s lack of soil.

    In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes. In Iceland, cairns were often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving “lane”, used to direct reindeer towards a game jump.[5]

    In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict they were given pebbles, and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn.
    In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.

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  • In Portugal a cairn is called a moledro. In a legend the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile.[6] The cairns that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus. The same name given to the stones was given to the dead whose identity was unknown.[7] The Fieis de Deus or Fes de Deus are, in the Galician legends, spirits of the night. The word “Fes” or “Fieis” is thought to mean fairy, the same root as “fate”[8] (fado), that can take the same meaning as the proto-Celtic *bāsto-, *bāsso-, meaning “death”.[9]

    Cairns (taalo) are a common feature at El Ayo, Haylan, Qa’ableh, Qombo’ul, Heis, Salweyn and Gelweita, among other places. Somaliland in general is home to a lot of such historical settlements and archaeological sites wherein are found numerous ancient ruins and buildings, many of obscure origins. However, many of these old structures have yet to be properly explored, a process which would help shed further light on local history and facilitate their preservation for posterity.[10]

    Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has become drier. A reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in a great variety of forms and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: cairns (kerkour), dolmens and circles like Stonehenge, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step pyramid-like mounds.

    The Biblical place name[11] Gilead (Genesis 31 etc.) means literally “heap of testimony/evidence” as does its Aramaic translation (ibid.) Yegar Sahaduta. In modern Hebrew, gal-‘ed (גל-עד) is the actual word for “cairn”. In Genesis 31 the cairn of Gilead was set up as a border demarcation between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban at their last meeting.

    Starting in the Bronze Age, burial cists were sometimes interred into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. Though most often found in the British Isles, evidence of Bronze Age cists have been found in Mongolia.[12] The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. Another explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person’s grave as a token of respect, though this is generally to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion. Stupas in India and Tibet probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.

    A traditional and often decorated, heap-formed cairn called an ovoo is made in Mongolia. It primarily serves religious purposes, and finds use in both Tengriist and Buddhist ceremonies.

    In Hawaii, cairns, called by the Hawaiian word ahu, are still being built today. Though in other cultures the cairns were typically used as trail markers and sometimes funerary sites, the ancient Hawaiians also used them as altars or security tower.[clarification needed][13] The Hawaiian people are still building these cairns today, using them as the focal points for ceremonies honoring their ancestors and spirituality.[14]

    In South Korea cairns are quite prevalent, often found along roadsides and trails, up on mountain peaks, and adjacent to Buddhist temples. Hikers frequently add stones to existing cairns trying to get just one more on top of the pile, to bring good luck. This tradition has its roots in the worship of San-shin, or Mountain Spirit, so often still revered in Korean culture.[15]

    Throughout what today are the continental United States and Canada, some Indigenous peoples of the Americas have built structures similar to cairns. In some cases these are general trail markers, and in other cases they mark game-driving “lanes”, such as those leading to buffalo jumps.[16]

    Peoples from some of the Indigenous cultures of arctic North America (i.e. northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland) have built carefully constructed stone sculptures called inuksuit and inunnguat, which serve as landmarks and directional markers. The oldest of these structures are very old and pre-date contact with Europeans. They are iconic of the region (an inuksuk even features on the flag of the Canadian far-northeastern territory, Nunavut).[17]

    Cairns have been used throughout what is now Latin America, since pre-Columbian times, to mark trails. Even today, in the Andes of South America, the Quechuan peoples build cairns as part of their spiritual and religious traditions.[18]

    In February 2020, ancient cairns dated back to 4,500 year-old used to bury the leaders or chieftains of neolithic tribes people were revealed in the Cwmcelyn in Blaenau Gwent by the Aberystruth Archaeological Society.[19]

    Although the practice is not common in English, cairns are sometimes referred to by their anthropomorphic qualities. In German and Dutch, a cairn is known as Steinmann and steenman respectively, meaning literally “stone man”. A form of the Inuit inuksuk is also meant to represent a human figure, and is called an inunguak (“imitation of a person”). In Italy, especially the Italian Alps, a cairn is an ometto, or a “small man”.

    Coastal cairns called sea marks are also common in the northern latitudes, and are placed along shores and on islands and islets. Usually painted white for improved offshore visibility, they serve as navigation aids. In Sweden they are called kummel, in Finland kummeli, in Norway varde, and are indicated in navigation charts and maintained as part of the nautical marking system.[20] Inversely, they are used on land as sea cliff warnings in rugged and hilly terrain in the foggy Faroe Islands. In the Canadian Maritimes, cairns have been used as beacons like small lighthouses to guide boats, as depicted in the novel The Shipping News.

     This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Lock-green.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Wikisource-logo.svg”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#3a3;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Cairn”. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.


    A Genética e a Teoria da Continuidade Paleolítica aplicada à Lenda da Fundação de Portugal e Escócia Apenas LivrosDownloads-icon


    Notes on Building a Cairn (pdf)Downloads-icon

    A cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn [ˈkʰaːrˠn̪ˠ] (plural càirn [ˈkʰaːrˠɲ]).[1]

    Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. However, since prehistory, they have also been built and used as burial monuments; for defense and hunting; for ceremonial purposes, sometimes relating to astronomy; to locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes. Stonehenge Cairns are used as trail markers in many parts of the world, in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, as well as in barren deserts and tundras. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or for religious reasons.

    An ancient example is the inuksuk (plural inuksuit), used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. Inuksuit are found from Alaska to Greenland. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

    Different types of cairns exist from rough piles of stones to interlocking dry stone round cylinders. The most important cairns commonly used around the world are interlocking stone survey cairns constructed around a central survey mark about every 30 km on the tallest peaks across a nation. These physical survey mark cairn systems are the basis for national survey grids to interconnect individual land survey measurements for entire nations. On occasion these permanent interlocking stone cairns are taken down then reconstructed to re-mark measurements to increase the accuracy of the national survey grid. They can also be used in unpopulated countries as emergency location points. In North America and Northern Europe any type of cairn can be used to mark mountain bike and hiking trails and other cross-country trail blazing, especially in mountain regions at or above the tree line. For example, the extensive trail network maintained by the DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, extensively uses cairns in conjunction with T-painted rock faces to mark trails. Other examples of these can be seen in the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park to mark several hikes.[2] Placed at regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers. Such cairns are often placed at junctions or in places where the trail direction is not obvious. They may also be used to indicate an obscured danger such as a sudden drop, or a noteworthy point such as the summit of a mountain. Most trail cairns are small, usually being a foot or less in height. However, they may be built taller so as to protrude through a layer of snow. Hikers passing by often add a stone, as a small bit of maintenance to counteract the erosive effects of severe weather. North American trail marks are sometimes called “ducks” or “duckies”, because they sometimes have a “beak” pointing in the direction of the route. The expression “two rocks do not make a duck” reminds hikers that just one rock resting upon another could be the result of accident or nature rather than intentional trail marking.

    The building of cairns for recreational purposes along trails, to mark one’s personal passage through the area, can result in an overabundance of rock piles. This distracts from cairns used as genuine navigational guides, and also conflicts with the Leave No Trace ethic. This ethic of outdoor practice advocates for leaving the outdoors undisturbed and in its natural condition.

    history of rock stacking

    Coastal cairns, or “sea marks”, are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada. Often indicated on navigation charts, they may be painted white or lit as beacons for greater visibility offshore.

    Modern cairns may also be erected for historical or memorial commemoration or simply for decorative or artistic reasons. One example is a series of many cairns marking British soldiers’ mass graves at the site of the Battle of Isandlwana, South Africa. Another is the Matthew Flinders Cairn on the side of Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, Australia. A large cairn, commonly referred to as “the igloo” by the locals, was built atop a hill next to the I-476 highway in Radnor, Pennsylvania and is a part of a series of large rock sculptures initiated in 1988 to symbolize the township’s Welsh heritage and to beautify the visual imagery along the highway.[3] Some are merely places where farmers have collected stones removed from a field. These can be seen in the Catskill Mountains, North America where there is a strong Scottish heritage, and may also represent places where livestock were lost. In locales exhibiting fantastic rock formations, such as the Grand Canyon, tourists often construct simple cairns in reverence of the larger counterparts.[4][better source needed] By contrast, cairns may have a strong aesthetic purpose, for example in the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

    The building of cairns for various purposes goes back into prehistory in Eurasia, ranging in size from small rock sculptures to substantial man-made hills of stone (some built on top of larger, natural hills). The latter are often relatively massive Bronze Age or earlier structures which, like kistvaens and dolmens, frequently contain burials; they are comparable to tumuli (kurgans), but of stone construction instead of earthworks. Cairn originally could more broadly refer to various types of hills and natural stone piles, but today is used exclusively of artificial ones.

    The word cairn derives from Scots cairn (with the same meaning), in turn from Scottish Gaelic càrn, which is essentially the same as the corresponding words in other native Celtic languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, including Welsh carn (and carnedd), Breton karn, Irish carn, and Cornish karn or carn. Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape, such as Cornwall’s highest point, Brown Willy Summit Cairn, a 5 m (16 ft) high and 24 m (79 ft) diameter mound atop Brown Willy hill in Bodmin Moor, an area with many ancient cairns. Burial cairns and other megaliths are the subject of a variety of legends and folklore throughout Britain and Ireland. In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your stone”. In Highland folklore it is recounted that before Highland clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead. Cairns in the region were also put to vital practical use. For example, Dún Aonghasa, an all-stone Iron Age Irish hill fort on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, is still surrounded by small cairns and strategically placed jutting rocks, used collectively as an alternative to defensive earthworks because of the karst landscape’s lack of soil.

    In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes. In Iceland, cairns were often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving “lane”, used to direct reindeer towards a game jump.[5]

    In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict they were given pebbles, and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn.
    In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.

  • 365 times 2
  • In Portugal a cairn is called a moledro. In a legend the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile.[6] The cairns that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus. The same name given to the stones was given to the dead whose identity was unknown.[7] The Fieis de Deus or Fes de Deus are, in the Galician legends, spirits of the night. The word “Fes” or “Fieis” is thought to mean fairy, the same root as “fate”[8] (fado), that can take the same meaning as the proto-Celtic *bāsto-, *bāsso-, meaning “death”.[9]

    Cairns (taalo) are a common feature at El Ayo, Haylan, Qa’ableh, Qombo’ul, Heis, Salweyn and Gelweita, among other places. Somaliland in general is home to a lot of such historical settlements and archaeological sites wherein are found numerous ancient ruins and buildings, many of obscure origins. However, many of these old structures have yet to be properly explored, a process which would help shed further light on local history and facilitate their preservation for posterity.[10]

    Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has become drier. A reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in a great variety of forms and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: cairns (kerkour), dolmens and circles like Stonehenge, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step pyramid-like mounds.

    The Biblical place name[11] Gilead (Genesis 31 etc.) means literally “heap of testimony/evidence” as does its Aramaic translation (ibid.) Yegar Sahaduta. In modern Hebrew, gal-‘ed (גל-עד) is the actual word for “cairn”. In Genesis 31 the cairn of Gilead was set up as a border demarcation between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban at their last meeting.

    Starting in the Bronze Age, burial cists were sometimes interred into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. Though most often found in the British Isles, evidence of Bronze Age cists have been found in Mongolia.[12] The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. Another explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person’s grave as a token of respect, though this is generally to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion. Stupas in India and Tibet probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.

    A traditional and often decorated, heap-formed cairn called an ovoo is made in Mongolia. It primarily serves religious purposes, and finds use in both Tengriist and Buddhist ceremonies.

    In Hawaii, cairns, called by the Hawaiian word ahu, are still being built today. Though in other cultures the cairns were typically used as trail markers and sometimes funerary sites, the ancient Hawaiians also used them as altars or security tower.[clarification needed][13] The Hawaiian people are still building these cairns today, using them as the focal points for ceremonies honoring their ancestors and spirituality.[14]

    In South Korea cairns are quite prevalent, often found along roadsides and trails, up on mountain peaks, and adjacent to Buddhist temples. Hikers frequently add stones to existing cairns trying to get just one more on top of the pile, to bring good luck. This tradition has its roots in the worship of San-shin, or Mountain Spirit, so often still revered in Korean culture.[15]

    Throughout what today are the continental United States and Canada, some Indigenous peoples of the Americas have built structures similar to cairns. In some cases these are general trail markers, and in other cases they mark game-driving “lanes”, such as those leading to buffalo jumps.[16]

    Peoples from some of the Indigenous cultures of arctic North America (i.e. northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland) have built carefully constructed stone sculptures called inuksuit and inunnguat, which serve as landmarks and directional markers. The oldest of these structures are very old and pre-date contact with Europeans. They are iconic of the region (an inuksuk even features on the flag of the Canadian far-northeastern territory, Nunavut).[17]

    Cairns have been used throughout what is now Latin America, since pre-Columbian times, to mark trails. Even today, in the Andes of South America, the Quechuan peoples build cairns as part of their spiritual and religious traditions.[18]

    In February 2020, ancient cairns dated back to 4,500 year-old used to bury the leaders or chieftains of neolithic tribes people were revealed in the Cwmcelyn in Blaenau Gwent by the Aberystruth Archaeological Society.[19]

    Although the practice is not common in English, cairns are sometimes referred to by their anthropomorphic qualities. In German and Dutch, a cairn is known as Steinmann and steenman respectively, meaning literally “stone man”. A form of the Inuit inuksuk is also meant to represent a human figure, and is called an inunguak (“imitation of a person”). In Italy, especially the Italian Alps, a cairn is an ometto, or a “small man”.

    Coastal cairns called sea marks are also common in the northern latitudes, and are placed along shores and on islands and islets. Usually painted white for improved offshore visibility, they serve as navigation aids. In Sweden they are called kummel, in Finland kummeli, in Norway varde, and are indicated in navigation charts and maintained as part of the nautical marking system.[20] Inversely, they are used on land as sea cliff warnings in rugged and hilly terrain in the foggy Faroe Islands. In the Canadian Maritimes, cairns have been used as beacons like small lighthouses to guide boats, as depicted in the novel The Shipping News.

     This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Lock-green.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Wikisource-logo.svg”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#3a3;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Cairn”. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.


    A Genética e a Teoria da Continuidade Paleolítica aplicada à Lenda da Fundação de Portugal e Escócia Apenas LivrosDownloads-icon


    Notes on Building a Cairn (pdf)Downloads-icon

    A cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn [ˈkʰaːrˠn̪ˠ] (plural càirn [ˈkʰaːrˠɲ]).[1]

    Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. However, since prehistory, they have also been built and used as burial monuments; for defense and hunting; for ceremonial purposes, sometimes relating to astronomy; to locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes. Stonehenge Cairns are used as trail markers in many parts of the world, in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, as well as in barren deserts and tundras. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or for religious reasons.

    An ancient example is the inuksuk (plural inuksuit), used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. Inuksuit are found from Alaska to Greenland. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

    Different types of cairns exist from rough piles of stones to interlocking dry stone round cylinders. The most important cairns commonly used around the world are interlocking stone survey cairns constructed around a central survey mark about every 30 km on the tallest peaks across a nation. These physical survey mark cairn systems are the basis for national survey grids to interconnect individual land survey measurements for entire nations. On occasion these permanent interlocking stone cairns are taken down then reconstructed to re-mark measurements to increase the accuracy of the national survey grid. They can also be used in unpopulated countries as emergency location points. In North America and Northern Europe any type of cairn can be used to mark mountain bike and hiking trails and other cross-country trail blazing, especially in mountain regions at or above the tree line. For example, the extensive trail network maintained by the DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, extensively uses cairns in conjunction with T-painted rock faces to mark trails. Other examples of these can be seen in the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park to mark several hikes.[2] Placed at regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers. Such cairns are often placed at junctions or in places where the trail direction is not obvious. They may also be used to indicate an obscured danger such as a sudden drop, or a noteworthy point such as the summit of a mountain. Most trail cairns are small, usually being a foot or less in height. However, they may be built taller so as to protrude through a layer of snow. Hikers passing by often add a stone, as a small bit of maintenance to counteract the erosive effects of severe weather. North American trail marks are sometimes called “ducks” or “duckies”, because they sometimes have a “beak” pointing in the direction of the route. The expression “two rocks do not make a duck” reminds hikers that just one rock resting upon another could be the result of accident or nature rather than intentional trail marking.

    The building of cairns for recreational purposes along trails, to mark one’s personal passage through the area, can result in an overabundance of rock piles. This distracts from cairns used as genuine navigational guides, and also conflicts with the Leave No Trace ethic. This ethic of outdoor practice advocates for leaving the outdoors undisturbed and in its natural condition.

    history of rock stacking

    Coastal cairns, or “sea marks”, are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada. Often indicated on navigation charts, they may be painted white or lit as beacons for greater visibility offshore.

    Modern cairns may also be erected for historical or memorial commemoration or simply for decorative or artistic reasons. One example is a series of many cairns marking British soldiers’ mass graves at the site of the Battle of Isandlwana, South Africa. Another is the Matthew Flinders Cairn on the side of Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, Australia. A large cairn, commonly referred to as “the igloo” by the locals, was built atop a hill next to the I-476 highway in Radnor, Pennsylvania and is a part of a series of large rock sculptures initiated in 1988 to symbolize the township’s Welsh heritage and to beautify the visual imagery along the highway.[3] Some are merely places where farmers have collected stones removed from a field. These can be seen in the Catskill Mountains, North America where there is a strong Scottish heritage, and may also represent places where livestock were lost. In locales exhibiting fantastic rock formations, such as the Grand Canyon, tourists often construct simple cairns in reverence of the larger counterparts.[4][better source needed] By contrast, cairns may have a strong aesthetic purpose, for example in the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

    The building of cairns for various purposes goes back into prehistory in Eurasia, ranging in size from small rock sculptures to substantial man-made hills of stone (some built on top of larger, natural hills). The latter are often relatively massive Bronze Age or earlier structures which, like kistvaens and dolmens, frequently contain burials; they are comparable to tumuli (kurgans), but of stone construction instead of earthworks. Cairn originally could more broadly refer to various types of hills and natural stone piles, but today is used exclusively of artificial ones.

    The word cairn derives from Scots cairn (with the same meaning), in turn from Scottish Gaelic càrn, which is essentially the same as the corresponding words in other native Celtic languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, including Welsh carn (and carnedd), Breton karn, Irish carn, and Cornish karn or carn. Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape, such as Cornwall’s highest point, Brown Willy Summit Cairn, a 5 m (16 ft) high and 24 m (79 ft) diameter mound atop Brown Willy hill in Bodmin Moor, an area with many ancient cairns. Burial cairns and other megaliths are the subject of a variety of legends and folklore throughout Britain and Ireland. In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your stone”. In Highland folklore it is recounted that before Highland clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead. Cairns in the region were also put to vital practical use. For example, Dún Aonghasa, an all-stone Iron Age Irish hill fort on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, is still surrounded by small cairns and strategically placed jutting rocks, used collectively as an alternative to defensive earthworks because of the karst landscape’s lack of soil.

    In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes. In Iceland, cairns were often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving “lane”, used to direct reindeer towards a game jump.[5]

    In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict they were given pebbles, and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn.
    In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.

  • 38cm is how many inches
  • In Portugal a cairn is called a moledro. In a legend the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile.[6] The cairns that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus. The same name given to the stones was given to the dead whose identity was unknown.[7] The Fieis de Deus or Fes de Deus are, in the Galician legends, spirits of the night. The word “Fes” or “Fieis” is thought to mean fairy, the same root as “fate”[8] (fado), that can take the same meaning as the proto-Celtic *bāsto-, *bāsso-, meaning “death”.[9]

    Cairns (taalo) are a common feature at El Ayo, Haylan, Qa’ableh, Qombo’ul, Heis, Salweyn and Gelweita, among other places. Somaliland in general is home to a lot of such historical settlements and archaeological sites wherein are found numerous ancient ruins and buildings, many of obscure origins. However, many of these old structures have yet to be properly explored, a process which would help shed further light on local history and facilitate their preservation for posterity.[10]

    Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has become drier. A reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in a great variety of forms and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: cairns (kerkour), dolmens and circles like Stonehenge, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step pyramid-like mounds.

    The Biblical place name[11] Gilead (Genesis 31 etc.) means literally “heap of testimony/evidence” as does its Aramaic translation (ibid.) Yegar Sahaduta. In modern Hebrew, gal-‘ed (גל-עד) is the actual word for “cairn”. In Genesis 31 the cairn of Gilead was set up as a border demarcation between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban at their last meeting.

    Starting in the Bronze Age, burial cists were sometimes interred into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. Though most often found in the British Isles, evidence of Bronze Age cists have been found in Mongolia.[12] The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. Another explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person’s grave as a token of respect, though this is generally to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion. Stupas in India and Tibet probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.

    A traditional and often decorated, heap-formed cairn called an ovoo is made in Mongolia. It primarily serves religious purposes, and finds use in both Tengriist and Buddhist ceremonies.

    In Hawaii, cairns, called by the Hawaiian word ahu, are still being built today. Though in other cultures the cairns were typically used as trail markers and sometimes funerary sites, the ancient Hawaiians also used them as altars or security tower.[clarification needed][13] The Hawaiian people are still building these cairns today, using them as the focal points for ceremonies honoring their ancestors and spirituality.[14]

    In South Korea cairns are quite prevalent, often found along roadsides and trails, up on mountain peaks, and adjacent to Buddhist temples. Hikers frequently add stones to existing cairns trying to get just one more on top of the pile, to bring good luck. This tradition has its roots in the worship of San-shin, or Mountain Spirit, so often still revered in Korean culture.[15]

    Throughout what today are the continental United States and Canada, some Indigenous peoples of the Americas have built structures similar to cairns. In some cases these are general trail markers, and in other cases they mark game-driving “lanes”, such as those leading to buffalo jumps.[16]

    Peoples from some of the Indigenous cultures of arctic North America (i.e. northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland) have built carefully constructed stone sculptures called inuksuit and inunnguat, which serve as landmarks and directional markers. The oldest of these structures are very old and pre-date contact with Europeans. They are iconic of the region (an inuksuk even features on the flag of the Canadian far-northeastern territory, Nunavut).[17]

    Cairns have been used throughout what is now Latin America, since pre-Columbian times, to mark trails. Even today, in the Andes of South America, the Quechuan peoples build cairns as part of their spiritual and religious traditions.[18]

    In February 2020, ancient cairns dated back to 4,500 year-old used to bury the leaders or chieftains of neolithic tribes people were revealed in the Cwmcelyn in Blaenau Gwent by the Aberystruth Archaeological Society.[19]

    Although the practice is not common in English, cairns are sometimes referred to by their anthropomorphic qualities. In German and Dutch, a cairn is known as Steinmann and steenman respectively, meaning literally “stone man”. A form of the Inuit inuksuk is also meant to represent a human figure, and is called an inunguak (“imitation of a person”). In Italy, especially the Italian Alps, a cairn is an ometto, or a “small man”.

    Coastal cairns called sea marks are also common in the northern latitudes, and are placed along shores and on islands and islets. Usually painted white for improved offshore visibility, they serve as navigation aids. In Sweden they are called kummel, in Finland kummeli, in Norway varde, and are indicated in navigation charts and maintained as part of the nautical marking system.[20] Inversely, they are used on land as sea cliff warnings in rugged and hilly terrain in the foggy Faroe Islands. In the Canadian Maritimes, cairns have been used as beacons like small lighthouses to guide boats, as depicted in the novel The Shipping News.

     This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Lock-green.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Wikisource-logo.svg”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#3a3;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Cairn”. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.


    A Genética e a Teoria da Continuidade Paleolítica aplicada à Lenda da Fundação de Portugal e Escócia Apenas LivrosDownloads-icon


    Notes on Building a Cairn (pdf)Downloads-icon

    A cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn [ˈkʰaːrˠn̪ˠ] (plural càirn [ˈkʰaːrˠɲ]).[1]

    Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. However, since prehistory, they have also been built and used as burial monuments; for defense and hunting; for ceremonial purposes, sometimes relating to astronomy; to locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes. Stonehenge Cairns are used as trail markers in many parts of the world, in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, as well as in barren deserts and tundras. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or for religious reasons.

    An ancient example is the inuksuk (plural inuksuit), used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. Inuksuit are found from Alaska to Greenland. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

    Different types of cairns exist from rough piles of stones to interlocking dry stone round cylinders. The most important cairns commonly used around the world are interlocking stone survey cairns constructed around a central survey mark about every 30 km on the tallest peaks across a nation. These physical survey mark cairn systems are the basis for national survey grids to interconnect individual land survey measurements for entire nations. On occasion these permanent interlocking stone cairns are taken down then reconstructed to re-mark measurements to increase the accuracy of the national survey grid. They can also be used in unpopulated countries as emergency location points. In North America and Northern Europe any type of cairn can be used to mark mountain bike and hiking trails and other cross-country trail blazing, especially in mountain regions at or above the tree line. For example, the extensive trail network maintained by the DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, extensively uses cairns in conjunction with T-painted rock faces to mark trails. Other examples of these can be seen in the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park to mark several hikes.[2] Placed at regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers. Such cairns are often placed at junctions or in places where the trail direction is not obvious. They may also be used to indicate an obscured danger such as a sudden drop, or a noteworthy point such as the summit of a mountain. Most trail cairns are small, usually being a foot or less in height. However, they may be built taller so as to protrude through a layer of snow. Hikers passing by often add a stone, as a small bit of maintenance to counteract the erosive effects of severe weather. North American trail marks are sometimes called “ducks” or “duckies”, because they sometimes have a “beak” pointing in the direction of the route. The expression “two rocks do not make a duck” reminds hikers that just one rock resting upon another could be the result of accident or nature rather than intentional trail marking.

    The building of cairns for recreational purposes along trails, to mark one’s personal passage through the area, can result in an overabundance of rock piles. This distracts from cairns used as genuine navigational guides, and also conflicts with the Leave No Trace ethic. This ethic of outdoor practice advocates for leaving the outdoors undisturbed and in its natural condition.

    history of rock stacking

    Coastal cairns, or “sea marks”, are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada. Often indicated on navigation charts, they may be painted white or lit as beacons for greater visibility offshore.

    Modern cairns may also be erected for historical or memorial commemoration or simply for decorative or artistic reasons. One example is a series of many cairns marking British soldiers’ mass graves at the site of the Battle of Isandlwana, South Africa. Another is the Matthew Flinders Cairn on the side of Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, Australia. A large cairn, commonly referred to as “the igloo” by the locals, was built atop a hill next to the I-476 highway in Radnor, Pennsylvania and is a part of a series of large rock sculptures initiated in 1988 to symbolize the township’s Welsh heritage and to beautify the visual imagery along the highway.[3] Some are merely places where farmers have collected stones removed from a field. These can be seen in the Catskill Mountains, North America where there is a strong Scottish heritage, and may also represent places where livestock were lost. In locales exhibiting fantastic rock formations, such as the Grand Canyon, tourists often construct simple cairns in reverence of the larger counterparts.[4][better source needed] By contrast, cairns may have a strong aesthetic purpose, for example in the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

    The building of cairns for various purposes goes back into prehistory in Eurasia, ranging in size from small rock sculptures to substantial man-made hills of stone (some built on top of larger, natural hills). The latter are often relatively massive Bronze Age or earlier structures which, like kistvaens and dolmens, frequently contain burials; they are comparable to tumuli (kurgans), but of stone construction instead of earthworks. Cairn originally could more broadly refer to various types of hills and natural stone piles, but today is used exclusively of artificial ones.

    The word cairn derives from Scots cairn (with the same meaning), in turn from Scottish Gaelic càrn, which is essentially the same as the corresponding words in other native Celtic languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, including Welsh carn (and carnedd), Breton karn, Irish carn, and Cornish karn or carn. Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape, such as Cornwall’s highest point, Brown Willy Summit Cairn, a 5 m (16 ft) high and 24 m (79 ft) diameter mound atop Brown Willy hill in Bodmin Moor, an area with many ancient cairns. Burial cairns and other megaliths are the subject of a variety of legends and folklore throughout Britain and Ireland. In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your stone”. In Highland folklore it is recounted that before Highland clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead. Cairns in the region were also put to vital practical use. For example, Dún Aonghasa, an all-stone Iron Age Irish hill fort on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, is still surrounded by small cairns and strategically placed jutting rocks, used collectively as an alternative to defensive earthworks because of the karst landscape’s lack of soil.

    In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes. In Iceland, cairns were often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving “lane”, used to direct reindeer towards a game jump.[5]

    In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict they were given pebbles, and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn.
    In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.

  • fall season months in usa
  • In Portugal a cairn is called a moledro. In a legend the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile.[6] The cairns that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus. The same name given to the stones was given to the dead whose identity was unknown.[7] The Fieis de Deus or Fes de Deus are, in the Galician legends, spirits of the night. The word “Fes” or “Fieis” is thought to mean fairy, the same root as “fate”[8] (fado), that can take the same meaning as the proto-Celtic *bāsto-, *bāsso-, meaning “death”.[9]

    Cairns (taalo) are a common feature at El Ayo, Haylan, Qa’ableh, Qombo’ul, Heis, Salweyn and Gelweita, among other places. Somaliland in general is home to a lot of such historical settlements and archaeological sites wherein are found numerous ancient ruins and buildings, many of obscure origins. However, many of these old structures have yet to be properly explored, a process which would help shed further light on local history and facilitate their preservation for posterity.[10]

    Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has become drier. A reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in a great variety of forms and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: cairns (kerkour), dolmens and circles like Stonehenge, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step pyramid-like mounds.

    The Biblical place name[11] Gilead (Genesis 31 etc.) means literally “heap of testimony/evidence” as does its Aramaic translation (ibid.) Yegar Sahaduta. In modern Hebrew, gal-‘ed (גל-עד) is the actual word for “cairn”. In Genesis 31 the cairn of Gilead was set up as a border demarcation between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban at their last meeting.

    Starting in the Bronze Age, burial cists were sometimes interred into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. Though most often found in the British Isles, evidence of Bronze Age cists have been found in Mongolia.[12] The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. Another explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person’s grave as a token of respect, though this is generally to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion. Stupas in India and Tibet probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.

    A traditional and often decorated, heap-formed cairn called an ovoo is made in Mongolia. It primarily serves religious purposes, and finds use in both Tengriist and Buddhist ceremonies.

    In Hawaii, cairns, called by the Hawaiian word ahu, are still being built today. Though in other cultures the cairns were typically used as trail markers and sometimes funerary sites, the ancient Hawaiians also used them as altars or security tower.[clarification needed][13] The Hawaiian people are still building these cairns today, using them as the focal points for ceremonies honoring their ancestors and spirituality.[14]

    In South Korea cairns are quite prevalent, often found along roadsides and trails, up on mountain peaks, and adjacent to Buddhist temples. Hikers frequently add stones to existing cairns trying to get just one more on top of the pile, to bring good luck. This tradition has its roots in the worship of San-shin, or Mountain Spirit, so often still revered in Korean culture.[15]

    Throughout what today are the continental United States and Canada, some Indigenous peoples of the Americas have built structures similar to cairns. In some cases these are general trail markers, and in other cases they mark game-driving “lanes”, such as those leading to buffalo jumps.[16]

    Peoples from some of the Indigenous cultures of arctic North America (i.e. northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland) have built carefully constructed stone sculptures called inuksuit and inunnguat, which serve as landmarks and directional markers. The oldest of these structures are very old and pre-date contact with Europeans. They are iconic of the region (an inuksuk even features on the flag of the Canadian far-northeastern territory, Nunavut).[17]

    Cairns have been used throughout what is now Latin America, since pre-Columbian times, to mark trails. Even today, in the Andes of South America, the Quechuan peoples build cairns as part of their spiritual and religious traditions.[18]

    In February 2020, ancient cairns dated back to 4,500 year-old used to bury the leaders or chieftains of neolithic tribes people were revealed in the Cwmcelyn in Blaenau Gwent by the Aberystruth Archaeological Society.[19]

    Although the practice is not common in English, cairns are sometimes referred to by their anthropomorphic qualities. In German and Dutch, a cairn is known as Steinmann and steenman respectively, meaning literally “stone man”. A form of the Inuit inuksuk is also meant to represent a human figure, and is called an inunguak (“imitation of a person”). In Italy, especially the Italian Alps, a cairn is an ometto, or a “small man”.

    Coastal cairns called sea marks are also common in the northern latitudes, and are placed along shores and on islands and islets. Usually painted white for improved offshore visibility, they serve as navigation aids. In Sweden they are called kummel, in Finland kummeli, in Norway varde, and are indicated in navigation charts and maintained as part of the nautical marking system.[20] Inversely, they are used on land as sea cliff warnings in rugged and hilly terrain in the foggy Faroe Islands. In the Canadian Maritimes, cairns have been used as beacons like small lighthouses to guide boats, as depicted in the novel The Shipping News.

     This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Lock-green.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Wikisource-logo.svg”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#3a3;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Cairn”. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.


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    A cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn [ˈkʰaːrˠn̪ˠ] (plural càirn [ˈkʰaːrˠɲ]).[1]

    Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. However, since prehistory, they have also been built and used as burial monuments; for defense and hunting; for ceremonial purposes, sometimes relating to astronomy; to locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes. Stonehenge Cairns are used as trail markers in many parts of the world, in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, as well as in barren deserts and tundras. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or for religious reasons.

    An ancient example is the inuksuk (plural inuksuit), used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. Inuksuit are found from Alaska to Greenland. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

    Different types of cairns exist from rough piles of stones to interlocking dry stone round cylinders. The most important cairns commonly used around the world are interlocking stone survey cairns constructed around a central survey mark about every 30 km on the tallest peaks across a nation. These physical survey mark cairn systems are the basis for national survey grids to interconnect individual land survey measurements for entire nations. On occasion these permanent interlocking stone cairns are taken down then reconstructed to re-mark measurements to increase the accuracy of the national survey grid. They can also be used in unpopulated countries as emergency location points. In North America and Northern Europe any type of cairn can be used to mark mountain bike and hiking trails and other cross-country trail blazing, especially in mountain regions at or above the tree line. For example, the extensive trail network maintained by the DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, extensively uses cairns in conjunction with T-painted rock faces to mark trails. Other examples of these can be seen in the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park to mark several hikes.[2] Placed at regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers. Such cairns are often placed at junctions or in places where the trail direction is not obvious. They may also be used to indicate an obscured danger such as a sudden drop, or a noteworthy point such as the summit of a mountain. Most trail cairns are small, usually being a foot or less in height. However, they may be built taller so as to protrude through a layer of snow. Hikers passing by often add a stone, as a small bit of maintenance to counteract the erosive effects of severe weather. North American trail marks are sometimes called “ducks” or “duckies”, because they sometimes have a “beak” pointing in the direction of the route. The expression “two rocks do not make a duck” reminds hikers that just one rock resting upon another could be the result of accident or nature rather than intentional trail marking.

    The building of cairns for recreational purposes along trails, to mark one’s personal passage through the area, can result in an overabundance of rock piles. This distracts from cairns used as genuine navigational guides, and also conflicts with the Leave No Trace ethic. This ethic of outdoor practice advocates for leaving the outdoors undisturbed and in its natural condition.

    history of rock stacking

    Coastal cairns, or “sea marks”, are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada. Often indicated on navigation charts, they may be painted white or lit as beacons for greater visibility offshore.

    Modern cairns may also be erected for historical or memorial commemoration or simply for decorative or artistic reasons. One example is a series of many cairns marking British soldiers’ mass graves at the site of the Battle of Isandlwana, South Africa. Another is the Matthew Flinders Cairn on the side of Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, Australia. A large cairn, commonly referred to as “the igloo” by the locals, was built atop a hill next to the I-476 highway in Radnor, Pennsylvania and is a part of a series of large rock sculptures initiated in 1988 to symbolize the township’s Welsh heritage and to beautify the visual imagery along the highway.[3] Some are merely places where farmers have collected stones removed from a field. These can be seen in the Catskill Mountains, North America where there is a strong Scottish heritage, and may also represent places where livestock were lost. In locales exhibiting fantastic rock formations, such as the Grand Canyon, tourists often construct simple cairns in reverence of the larger counterparts.[4][better source needed] By contrast, cairns may have a strong aesthetic purpose, for example in the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

    The building of cairns for various purposes goes back into prehistory in Eurasia, ranging in size from small rock sculptures to substantial man-made hills of stone (some built on top of larger, natural hills). The latter are often relatively massive Bronze Age or earlier structures which, like kistvaens and dolmens, frequently contain burials; they are comparable to tumuli (kurgans), but of stone construction instead of earthworks. Cairn originally could more broadly refer to various types of hills and natural stone piles, but today is used exclusively of artificial ones.

    The word cairn derives from Scots cairn (with the same meaning), in turn from Scottish Gaelic càrn, which is essentially the same as the corresponding words in other native Celtic languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, including Welsh carn (and carnedd), Breton karn, Irish carn, and Cornish karn or carn. Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape, such as Cornwall’s highest point, Brown Willy Summit Cairn, a 5 m (16 ft) high and 24 m (79 ft) diameter mound atop Brown Willy hill in Bodmin Moor, an area with many ancient cairns. Burial cairns and other megaliths are the subject of a variety of legends and folklore throughout Britain and Ireland. In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your stone”. In Highland folklore it is recounted that before Highland clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead. Cairns in the region were also put to vital practical use. For example, Dún Aonghasa, an all-stone Iron Age Irish hill fort on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, is still surrounded by small cairns and strategically placed jutting rocks, used collectively as an alternative to defensive earthworks because of the karst landscape’s lack of soil.

    In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes. In Iceland, cairns were often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving “lane”, used to direct reindeer towards a game jump.[5]

    In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict they were given pebbles, and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn.
    In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.

  • can integers be negative
  • In Portugal a cairn is called a moledro. In a legend the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile.[6] The cairns that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus. The same name given to the stones was given to the dead whose identity was unknown.[7] The Fieis de Deus or Fes de Deus are, in the Galician legends, spirits of the night. The word “Fes” or “Fieis” is thought to mean fairy, the same root as “fate”[8] (fado), that can take the same meaning as the proto-Celtic *bāsto-, *bāsso-, meaning “death”.[9]

    Cairns (taalo) are a common feature at El Ayo, Haylan, Qa’ableh, Qombo’ul, Heis, Salweyn and Gelweita, among other places. Somaliland in general is home to a lot of such historical settlements and archaeological sites wherein are found numerous ancient ruins and buildings, many of obscure origins. However, many of these old structures have yet to be properly explored, a process which would help shed further light on local history and facilitate their preservation for posterity.[10]

    Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has become drier. A reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in a great variety of forms and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: cairns (kerkour), dolmens and circles like Stonehenge, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step pyramid-like mounds.

    The Biblical place name[11] Gilead (Genesis 31 etc.) means literally “heap of testimony/evidence” as does its Aramaic translation (ibid.) Yegar Sahaduta. In modern Hebrew, gal-‘ed (גל-עד) is the actual word for “cairn”. In Genesis 31 the cairn of Gilead was set up as a border demarcation between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban at their last meeting.

    Starting in the Bronze Age, burial cists were sometimes interred into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. Though most often found in the British Isles, evidence of Bronze Age cists have been found in Mongolia.[12] The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. Another explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person’s grave as a token of respect, though this is generally to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion. Stupas in India and Tibet probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.

    A traditional and often decorated, heap-formed cairn called an ovoo is made in Mongolia. It primarily serves religious purposes, and finds use in both Tengriist and Buddhist ceremonies.

    In Hawaii, cairns, called by the Hawaiian word ahu, are still being built today. Though in other cultures the cairns were typically used as trail markers and sometimes funerary sites, the ancient Hawaiians also used them as altars or security tower.[clarification needed][13] The Hawaiian people are still building these cairns today, using them as the focal points for ceremonies honoring their ancestors and spirituality.[14]

    In South Korea cairns are quite prevalent, often found along roadsides and trails, up on mountain peaks, and adjacent to Buddhist temples. Hikers frequently add stones to existing cairns trying to get just one more on top of the pile, to bring good luck. This tradition has its roots in the worship of San-shin, or Mountain Spirit, so often still revered in Korean culture.[15]

    Throughout what today are the continental United States and Canada, some Indigenous peoples of the Americas have built structures similar to cairns. In some cases these are general trail markers, and in other cases they mark game-driving “lanes”, such as those leading to buffalo jumps.[16]

    Peoples from some of the Indigenous cultures of arctic North America (i.e. northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland) have built carefully constructed stone sculptures called inuksuit and inunnguat, which serve as landmarks and directional markers. The oldest of these structures are very old and pre-date contact with Europeans. They are iconic of the region (an inuksuk even features on the flag of the Canadian far-northeastern territory, Nunavut).[17]

    Cairns have been used throughout what is now Latin America, since pre-Columbian times, to mark trails. Even today, in the Andes of South America, the Quechuan peoples build cairns as part of their spiritual and religious traditions.[18]

    In February 2020, ancient cairns dated back to 4,500 year-old used to bury the leaders or chieftains of neolithic tribes people were revealed in the Cwmcelyn in Blaenau Gwent by the Aberystruth Archaeological Society.[19]

    Although the practice is not common in English, cairns are sometimes referred to by their anthropomorphic qualities. In German and Dutch, a cairn is known as Steinmann and steenman respectively, meaning literally “stone man”. A form of the Inuit inuksuk is also meant to represent a human figure, and is called an inunguak (“imitation of a person”). In Italy, especially the Italian Alps, a cairn is an ometto, or a “small man”.

    Coastal cairns called sea marks are also common in the northern latitudes, and are placed along shores and on islands and islets. Usually painted white for improved offshore visibility, they serve as navigation aids. In Sweden they are called kummel, in Finland kummeli, in Norway varde, and are indicated in navigation charts and maintained as part of the nautical marking system.[20] Inversely, they are used on land as sea cliff warnings in rugged and hilly terrain in the foggy Faroe Islands. In the Canadian Maritimes, cairns have been used as beacons like small lighthouses to guide boats, as depicted in the novel The Shipping News.

     This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Lock-green.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Wikisource-logo.svg”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#3a3;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Cairn”. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.


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    From Maine to Mongolia, rock piles mark paths, tombs, and create art. But they come with complications.

    Scramble around Maine’s Acadia National Park long enough, and you’ll spot the distinctively stacked rocks amid the bigger granite boulders.  Known as the Bates Cairns, they’re like miniature stone bridges: two base rock columns, one mantel, and, on top, the smallest rock or pointer. You might mistake them for accidental, humble art arranged by kids, but the cairns are actually a big—and purposeful—part of Acadia’s heritage.

    “The cairns date back to Waldron Bates, one of the original pathfinders on Mount Desert Island,” says Acadia Summit Steward coordinator Steph Ley. “In the 1900s, he built some of the trails that we still walk on today.” Ley and her team are volunteers who educate park visitors about leave-no-trace practices and help to maintain trails. This includes repairing and restacking cairns, which serve as both guideposts for hikers (the pointer stone points the way) and aesthetically appealing objects.

    Call them cairns, piled up rocks, or stone johnnies—stacked stones seem to be everywhere. They turn up in national parks, balance on graveyard tombstones, and heaped at the feet of statues at religious sites.

    It’s tempting to create your own as you travel, but that’s not always a good idea: misplaced rock stacks can lead hikers off trail; endanger fragile ecosystems (like Acadia’s alpine plants); or, if stones are pried loose for cairn-making, promote erosion.

    history of rock stacking

    “Above the tree line as the fog rolls in, a rock stack could be the thing keeping you on the ground,” Ley says. “I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, because they look pretty and people want to make their own, but.”

    The desire to stack rocks is understandable from a practical, aesthetic, and spiritual perspective. It seems almost primal. “As a species, we evolved in rocky landscapes,” says David B. Williams, who wrote the book Cairns: Messengers in Stone. “We have been building these things for thousands of years. They’re a way to say: I am here. I have lived.”

    Stone piles have been built by world cultures from nomadic to agricultural to tribal. Ancient Mongolians erected cairns, as did mountain dwellers in South America. Often, the stacks were intended to help people find their way safely around areas with little vegetation.

    Where I live, in the Maine woods, it’s not hard to make a trail—just walk through the forest and break a few branches as you pass under the pines. But in the desert or in the high arctic, with no grass to stomp or saplings to bend, humans relied on rock stacks.

    Such navigational stacks helped humans move from one settlement to the next before the water ran out; they’ve been found on the Tibetan Plateau, the Mongolian steppe, and on the Inca Trail in the Andes. English speakers dubbed them “cairn” from Gaelic for “heap of stones.” At burial sites, archeologists classify them as tumuli, barrows, dolmen, or stupa.

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  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the American West was settled, cairns sometimes delineated property lines. You’ll see huge ones in the mountains of Montana and Colorado. Known as “stone johnnies”, they were put up by Indigenous people as well as sheepherders who immigrated from Spain.

    Large cairns also served as lighthouses for ancient Norse, Celtic, and Scottish sailors. Often, these are huge things, taller than a human. They’re sturdy assemblages, and it would have taken a trailblazer an entire day to construct one. They have little in common with the shin-high Bates Cairns, except the basic idea.

    Stacks of stones also serve as talismans and symbols of faith. “You are balancing the deep time of geology with the human time in a cairn,” says Williams. “That’s a profound connection to make.”

    For instance, on the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile footpath through northwestern Spain and France, hikers heap up conical cairns on their way to the grave of the apostle Saint James. Though many travelers undertaking the 30- to 35-day journey are Christians treading the same steps as medieval pilgrims, the path, and the cairns, are as much about human passage as religion.

    “In Judaism, when you go to a cemetery, you often leave a rock on a tombstone to honor the person,” adds Williams. “In some [Indigenous] cultures in the American Southwest, people would spit on a rock and place it on a cairn to transfer energy, to rejuvenate yourself.”

    Humans also bury their dead under cairns. Perhaps the most famous instance is Scotland’s Clava Cairns, Bronze Age tombs outside Inverness guarded by standing monoliths and stacked mounds of stone. They’re decorative and functional; the bodies below clearly revered.

    (Related: See how cultures around the world mark graves.)

    Similarly, Jordan’s Jebel Qurma desert made headlines in 2017 when burial mounds dating back 8,000 years were discovered in this “land of dead fire.” Archeologists uncovered hundreds of cairns and tall, narrow “tower tombs.”

    Sculptors also rely on stacked stones. My favorite work, Opus 40, hides in the woods of Saugerties, New York. Constructed over 37 years by sculptor Harvey Fite, it’s a complicated bluestone earthworks flowing through 6.5 acres. Fite built the meandering series of platforms, pools, and assemblages using techniques he picked up visiting Aztec and Mayan ruins. 

    (Check out the wildest outdoor art museum in the American West.)

    Other stacked stone sculptures act as both place markers and art. Outside the western Icelandic village of Arnarstapi, Ragnar Kjartansson’s monumental statue of Bárður Snæfellsás is a house-sized rock tribute to the half-troll, half-man believed to be the protector of the region. In 1970, conceptual American artist Robert Smithson famously used six thousand tons of black basalt to create Spiral Jetty, a snake-like coil jutting into the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

    If cairn art feels chilly (the temperature literally drops as you walk through Opus 40), stone labyrinths often envelop users with warmth. Near my home in Maine, Portland’s University of New England Art Gallery uses simple things (granite, sand, fallen pine needles) to make a path winding around inside a circle on the ground. Place one foot in front of the other, but you’ll never really go anywhere.

    I’ve walked labyrinths in Abiquiu, New Mexico, at Boston College, outside churches, and synagogues. Unlike cairn-building, you don’t leave anything behind when you stroll a labyrinth. Pacing contained trails with hairpin turns is increasingly popular, perhaps due to the pandemic. “Historically, there are periods when the labyrinth experiences a kind of revival,” says David Gallagher, executive director of the Labyrinth Society. “It happens during periods of unrest.”

    There are hundreds of these stone paths around the world; Labyrinth Locator pinpoints many of them. My dream walks: a mile-long labyrinth tucked in South Africa’s Amathole Mountains, a simple path at the Kloster Damme, a mid-century monastery-turned-hotel in the hills of Germany’s Saxony region.

    Gallagher believes labyrinths and cairns share DNA, both symbols of journeys and pointers towards the transience of life.

    Visits to labyrinths feel like little pilgrimages, made with the intention of finding calm. It’s probably why people also drive to Rock Sculpture Point in Rye, New Hampshire or hike out to Laufskálavarða in Iceland, two places where visitors are welcome to build cairns by the hundreds, harming nothing by stacking rocks.

    Together, the cairns in these places look incredible, big sculptures made by many hands. You don’t need religion or artistic skills to participate. Just steady your hands and wait for the natural balance to reveal itself. 

    Katy Kelleher is a Maine-based writer. Her work also appears in The Paris Review and Longreads. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

    Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic SocietyCopyright © 2015-2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved

    Rock cairns consist of rock balancing on top of one another, all usually varying in size along the cairn. They rely on a “perfect balance point” to stabilize itself properly; some well-balanced cairns can even withstand weather and time. What makes rock cairns so interesting, however, is not just their aesthetically appealing look, but a rich history full of unique cultural and social meanings.

    Rock cairns are used to mark trails or upcoming water in places where the path might not be obvious. Cairns acts as a guide for travelers. There is a difference between rock stacking / art and cairns being explicitly built to mark the trail. The unique silhouette of rock cairns makes them relatively easy to spot in any terrain. The low-effort it takes to construct prompts many hikers and travelers to make them whenever possible. Often showcasing a crowd of them on social media but clusters of cairns are confusing to unknowing travelers, thus harm the surrounding environment.

    There are many different types of cairns, all with various meanings and uses. In America, Cairns are used to marking trails and paths that are not obvious. These cairns are the most commonly made. Its simple structure is easy to create with smooth, circular stones, allowing for easy balancing. Rock cairns are embedded into the indigenous culture from Canada, Greenland, North and South America. There are Inuksuk (stone sculptures that acted as landmark or directional markers) that predate European contact.

    Rock cairns were imperative during the Neolithic period. Cairns became sculptures embedded in folklore, culture and travel. Modern-day Germany, Scotland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Ireland and England have viewed cairns as symbols of respect. Many cultures adopted an ideology that rocks have a more in-depth, spiritual meaning; traditions like the Jewish religion place rocks or cairns on loved ones’ graves to signify eternal love. Sea-faring countries all used larger cairns to mark trails and oceans. Within Buddhist practicing countries, large rock cairns are famous atop peaks near temples. Rock cairns hold a deep meaning within Buddhist traditions. Cairns are seen as the epiphany of stability through centering the mind, body and soul. Also popular are ceremonial cairns, which are made to create spectacle as a means of honoring ancestors.

    Other types of rock compiled structures include Clava cairns, clearance cairns, dry stone and dolmen.

    history of rock stacking

    Lately, rock cairns have become a nuisance to the nature preservation team that maintains trails and pathways. Unnecessary cairns become confusing when so many of them are built in a single area. Travelers that rely on cairns when lost in paths can quickly become disoriented when a single spot is overpopulated with them. Cairns should only be built by those who know how to do it, what it means, and are there to maintain the forest trail. Cairns improperly made or unnecessary are subject to being toppled over either by nature or by a park ranger. When the cairn comes down, it often displaces surrounding nature, interfering with the “Leave No Trace” rules when it comes to sharing the outdoor space. By building cairns, you show a disregard towards the sanctity of nature; you are expected to leave whatever you’ve gone through better than when you found it. Cairns, especially when fallen, disrupt the next traveler’s experience in the area.

    Most national parks forbid the formation of cairns, deeming them environmentally disrupting and a form of vandalism. Check with your park’s regional regulations if the creation of rock cairns is illegal before thinking about snapping that picture on Instagram.

    Though beautiful and easy to formulate, rock cairns are something that all travelers should educate themselves on. Cairns are much more than temporary structures to make. Even if you’re building them under good intentions, you may accidentally be doing more harm than good.

    Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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    By

    Greg Uyeno

    published 10 June 19

    Rock cairns are human-made stacks, mounds or piles of rocks. They take different forms, and have been built by cultures around the world for many different purposes. Cairns may serve as monuments, burial sites, navigational aids (by land or sea), or ceremonial grounds, among other uses. They may stand alone, in clusters, or in a network of related cairns; for example, as trail markers in a park.

    Larger cairns can withstand time and weather, and archaeologists believe that some examples are hundreds of years old. Rock cairns are considered cultural features, or parts of a landscape built by humans. They’re similar to works built with larger stones, such as megaliths, earthen mounds or stone geoglyphs, which are stones arranged to outline an image when seen from above.

    Cairns aren’t just structures — their locations may be carefully chosen, and the construction process or ceremonial use may be culturally important. Because of this, rock cairns can be “very difficult to understand without looking at a landscape scale,” said María Nieves Zedeño, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona. [Spectacular Images Reveal Mysterious Stone Structures in Saudi Arabia]

    history of rock stacking

    While many cairn traditions are very old, one type of cairn-building feels distinctly modern. There’s a controversial trend of artistically stacking stones in the wilderness, expressly to post pictures to social media. Conservationists criticize these amateur stacks, saying they can be confused for trail markers, and lead hikers astray. They also note that these amateur piles can disturb wildlife when they’re built or fall apart and that they leave a human mark in places that should be left in a more natural state.

    Most of these artistic stone stacks are not easily confused with older cairns, which, over hundreds of years, have had soil and vegetation build up around the rocks. Historical cairns may be so old that they’ve sunken into the ground, have been covered in lichen, or are otherwise obscured from view.

    The scale is also typically different. Older cairns may be made of stones too large for a single person to easily move, or they may consist of thousands of individual rocks. For example, at a Mohican stone memorial pile at Monument Mountain, in western Massachusetts, it was customary for visitors to add a stone. The votive cairn was 18 feet long and 6 feet high when it was first described in detail by a colonist in 1762, said Lucianne Lavin, the director of research and collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut.

    The word cairn comes from Scottish Gaelic. In Scotland, burial cairns are well-known, but there are many possible uses for cairns, which vary from culture to culture.

    In the West, native peoples have sometimes constructed burial cairns, Zedeño said, but there’s no clear evidence for astrology-based cairn positions. Instead, at memorial sites that are sometimes confusingly called medicine wheels, a central cairn might be surrounded by other cairns that point toward important places in a person’s life.

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  • In Montana, Zedeño has studied a series of cairns built around 500 years ago by the ancestors of modern-day Blackfeet Indians to funnel herds of buffalo to their death at cliff sites called buffalo jumps. The cairn construction displays a great deal of organization and understanding of buffalo behavior. “A site could have anywhere from 500 to 5,000 cairns,” Zedeño said. “It’s very large-scale landscape engineering.”

    In the northeastern United States, grave sites are just one possible context for cairns, Lavin said. They take other forms, including animal effigies and split stones filled with smaller rocks that are considered portals to the underworld. There are also stone ceremonial grounds that were built in spiritually significant places, with astrological stones that marked the position of celestial bodies in the sky at the start and end of dayslong festivals.

    But the origin or purpose of Native American cairns or other stone features is often disputed in the region. “There are some archaeologists who think that everything is farm clearing,” Lavin said. In other words, the stones are just piles of rocks that have been pulled from an agricultural field. “There are other archaeologists, including myself, who realize that there are a diversity of features out there.” She points to records from settlers, like the accounts of Monument Mountain, as evidence that Native Americans were building stone structures in Colonial America.

    The question isn’t just academic. Cairns are sometimes destroyed by construction, and recognition of these sites by the government is critical to preserving their ongoing cultural value to Native Americans, Lavin said.

    Additional resources:

    Correction: This article was updated on June 17, 2019 to state that the ancient cairns in northeastern United States may have served various cultural purposes and grave sites are just one possibility. 

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    A curious trend has emerged here around our facility in recent weeks. In the spirit of traditional inukshuks, rock stacking has taken hold here at SCHC.

    As more structures ascended, so too did their level of intricacy and sophistication. With each new structure, my fondness for them increased just a little bit more. What was it that I found so endearing or interesting about these little monuments? I couldn’t quite place it. I had to know more about why these structures have come to prominence in this corner of the world and now at SCHC. Why do we all like them so much? This is what I found…

    Inukshuks have become a symbol associated with Canada and the North in general. Inuit peoples used these balanced rock structures as navigation and communication aids that could be interpreted to designate anything from the location of a food cache to a place of spiritual significance. The term inukshuk means “to act in the capacity of a human”. Inukshuks have been found adjacent to archeological sites dating back to 2400 BCE.

    Woah, pretty mind blowing stuff. It is quite remarkable how much a simple act can say. It is an unequivocal and stark reminder that serves to connect past and present peoples – the beautiful and haunting contrast that they reveal is perhaps why they are so beloved and symbolic. Quite simply, to me, an inukshuk says – while separated by thousands of years, a human has once stood where you are standing now and took the time to create this perfectly balanced monument. That person faced different challenges and lead an unimaginably different life. Despite leading vastly different lives the similarities of our shared human experience are unmistakably clear. The feeling of connection is profound.

    history of rock stacking

    So, it got me wondering, what was the purpose or thought behind all these structures on site, in the here and now. Rather than wonder, I decided to ask. This was the response…

    One day while I was waiting for an appointment I pondered a lesson I had learned during one of the large group sessions we have every afternoon here at SCHC.

    The lesson was about ways to find meaning and purpose in your life. One of the strategies presented was to find activities we used to love to do as a child and re-discover them. Where I was waiting there were some small terrariums of small plants and rocks. I remembered how I liked playing with rocks as a child and decided to try and stack some rocks while I waited. It was fun and it got me thinking about stacking larger rocks on the beach.

    I now stack rocks almost every day. Sometimes the stacks stand for days or weeks and sometimes just hours. Like life and recovery, it takes regular work and maintenance to keep things upright especially after heavy winds and turbulent events. It takes work to stack and re-stack rocks and the stack will never be the same way twice. The point is it that it gets re-stacked. Like life, struggle and challenges will come, the important thing to remember is to keep on trying, seeking help and guidance. For failure only exists when you stop trying.

    I have received many comments from people who enjoy walking by and seeing the rock stacks I have built. I often stack rocks with others and in conversations I have realized that there is more significance to this activity due to its relevance in history. This has added even more meaning and purpose to this rock stacking hobby.

    SCHC, like the rock stacks, can serve as a guide to those who are desiring and yearning for ways to add wholesomeness to their lives and a sense of engaged presence, with ears to hear and eyes to see. I came here looking and listening, needing help and guidance. Every person here at the Centre is like a rock stack, all unique and all with something to share to help you on your journey.

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  • The stacking of rocks and creating inukshuks is therapeutic and symbolizes creation, this in turn helps others while helping oneself. It is for this reason that I stack rocks.

    I encourage you to give rock stacking a try. Whether the rocks are big or small does not matter. Instead, like so many things in life, what matters is finding a way to make action happen.

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    By Rebeccca Ruger

    The sea glass stack, while wildly popular and pleasing to look upon when the light and colors and glass work so harmoniously together, is actually just another form of the ancient practice of stone stacking. It’s a form of a cairn. From the Gaelic “càrn,” literally meaning “heap of stones,” the practice has been around for centuries, as far back as prehistoric times. Keep in mind that cairns, defined as simply a heap of stones, differ from other ancient monuments, called megaliths, which incorporated large stones, or many large stones, to create a structure or monument—Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, is one of the world’s most recognizable megaliths.

    history of rock stacking

    The first cairns were, as all successors, human-made stacks, but these served a greater purpose than simply a delight to the artistic eye. The earliest cairns were used as burial monuments, or for the defense of a town, beach, or village, and some were used for ceremonial purposes. The ancient Norse people used cairns rather as lighthouses to help with safe navigation through their rivers, fjords, and coastal waters. These types of coastal cairn—sea marks—are common in and around Scandinavian and eastern Canadian waters, and can even sometimes be found on navigation maps. They were often painted with bright colors, or enhanced by lights for greater visibility from the sea.

    In the Americas, as far back as 12,000 years ago and as recently as the 16th century, indigenous people used cairns to create ‘highways’ to steer their prey toward the buffalo jump. A buffalo jump is a natural cliff structure which Native Americans used to hunt and kill bison of the plains in large numbers. Hunters herded the bison toward the cliff, using the erected cairns to keep the animals on the right path. The bison were driven over the cliff, usually suffering injuries which rendered them immobile, allowing hunters waiting below to finish the kill with spears

    While we are familiar with the ‘stack’ or tower shape of modern cairns, many ancient cairns, being still a “heap of stones,” were much more significant than a single layer of stacked stone. In County Sligo, in northern Ireland, sits a large hill known as Knocknarea (Cnoc na Riabh). The hill itself is over 1000 feet high, but atop this hill, which sits almost majestically on the Cúil Irra peninsula, is a cairn measuring 180 feet wide and 33 feet high, and likely dates to 3000BC. It is believed to be the final resting place of Queen Maeve, the mythical Iron age ruler of the territory of Connaught.

    There are cairns that mark mass graves, such as the ones that dot the landscape of the Isandlwana Mountain, 10 miles east of the Buffalo River in Zululand, South Africa, where more than 1300 British troops were slain in January 1879 during the Zulu war.

    Scottish history provides that warriors of the Highland Clans, before they fought in battle, would place a stone in a pile. After the battle, those who survived would return and remove a stone. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honor the fallen.

    On the grounds of the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, one of the royal residences of the British monarchy, there are 11 cairns, most built for, or commissioned by, Queen Victoria to celebrate life events of the royal family. The largest of these was specially made in remembrance of her husband, Prince Albert, after his death in 1861.

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  • In the United States, the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, are notorious for having severe and unpredictable weather. The highest peaks of the Whites are named for American presidents, and are said to have some of the most impressive cairns in the northeast. These cairns, some actually considered works of art, serve a great purpose in the range known for its bad weather. And there are enough of them that hikers discuss not being able to see from ‘cairn to cairn’ in the most inclement conditions. Still, “the benefit of cairns is that they can withstand the punishing above-treeline weather in the Whites, they’re visible in the heavy cloud cover that shrouds the high peaks, they’re effective in all 4 seasons, and there is no shortage of good rocks to build them with!” says Philip Werner, hiker, editor, and author at SectionHiker.com.

    It’s possible that some of today’s cairns support some form of spiritual significance, but mostly, modern cairns seem to serve little purpose other than to say, “I was here.” But did you know, that building unauthorized cairns on many public lands is actually illegal, certainly within the boundaries of national parks and national forests? Apparently, what are considered ‘pointless’ cairns—those built with only an artistic appeal, are frowned upon. Critics spout different rationales to ‘stop building rock piles!’ The very obvious reason is that any newly built cairns on public hiking lands may misdirect hikers and cause trouble for them. A less obvious reason: apparently moving only handfuls of rocks increases erosion by exposing the ground and soil beneath the disturbed area. Thus, the leave no trace ethic (suitable as a motto for beachcombers, too) is well remembered when enjoying any public lands.

    *Note: this article speaks of rock cairns, and does not infer that the sea glass “stacks” and “towers” are the same as cairns, or serve any purpose other than photo opportunities, or that they have any negative consequence on the beaches, or wherever erected.

    This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine September 2017 issue.

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    By

    Julia Clarke

    published 6 October 21

    Navigational device or work of art? We look at rock cairns, their meaning and history to illuminate this fixture on our trails, parks and beaches

    Stacks of stones, everywhere. On the hiking trail up above treeline, in National Parks, at the beach and perhaps most of all, on Instagram. Stone stacks, or rock cairns as they are more traditionally known, seem to be cropping up at every turn. If you’ve seen them, you may have wondered about them. Who put them there and what are they for? In this article, we take a look at rock cairns, their meaning and history to illuminate this ubiquitous fixture on the hiking trails. 

    Cairns are man-made rock piles. The word “cairn” is a Scottish Gaelic word literally meaning “heap of stones” but while they are a common sight in rural Scotland, rock cairns are also  found on every continent across the globe. 

    history of rock stacking

    Rock cairns range in size from the small ones you might see when you’re hiking that are just a foot or two high to hulking constructions such as the Brown Willy Summit Cairn in Cornwall, England which towers at over 16 feet tall. 

    They are used as navigational tools in hiking, burial sites in many ancient cultures and more recently are being constructed as a form of artistic expression, or even a competitive game like a game of Jenga in the wild.

    Rock cairns have been built since prehistoric times and are used across many different cultures as landmarks, burial sites and trail markers. The Aberystruth Archaeological Society in Wales recently revealed ancient cairns dating back 4,500 years that they believe were used to bury the leaders of neolithic tribes.

    In Scotland, it is traditional to bring a rock with you when you climb a mountain to place it on the pile at the top, while highlanders returning from battle would remove a stone from a pile to mark their survival. In northern Europe and North American indigenous cultures they’ve been used to mark gravesites, while in Scandinavia they were historically used to mark coastal pathways. In Peru, rock cairns are built as shrines and they hold symbolism in folklore from Britain, Ireland and Greek mythology.

    Finally, there are many rock cairns across the world that archaeologists still haven’t uncovered a meaning to.

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  • One setting where we do understand the meaning of rock cairns is in hiking. Today, rock cairns are most often constructed and used for navigation in the wilderness, and even form part of the national survey grid in some countries, placed at the highest peaks across the land.

    For hikers, they’re basically the original compass or GPS device. Though states like Colorado and Montana are known for their well-marked trails, rock cairns are particularly useful and common in places like Scotland, where trails are a little less well-established, and in barren areas of mountainous states, such as in alpine tundra zones, or boulder fields on your way up a 14er. In such areas, if you lose the trail you can stop and search for a cairn to take you in the right direction. When you arrive at that cairn, if the trail is still unclear, look for the next one and follow them like that until you either find the trail again or arrive at your destination. 

    The one caveat to this is that in recent years, people have taken to building rock cairns for artistic, rather than navigational, purposes. These may appear like harmless outdoor fun, but experts warn they can be dangerous on the trails as they might unintentionally lead unsuspecting hikers astray. To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, look for rock piles that are pyramid-shaped and appear as though they’ve been there a while (they may be covered in lichen, for example). If a pile of stones appears precarious and looks like it’s recently been stacked, it’s probably just the recreational endeavour of a modern day stone-stacking enthusiast.

    This brings us to an increasingly common topic of debate: are rock cairns bad for the environment? They seem benign at worst and aesthetically pleasing at best, however while stacking stones at the ocean’s edge isn’t a problem since that ecosystem changes with the tides, inland the activity may pose a problem. 

    Some opponents argue that cairns fly in the face of the Leave No Trace rule of recreating in the outdoors, while ecologists suggest that stacking stones disturbs the natural ecosystem of the landscape and exposes soil to unnecessary erosion. Some wildlife experts even argue that precarious piles of rocks can pose the danger of falling and harming insects and animals.

    The real problem seems to lie in the recent explosion of creating rock piles everywhere, seemingly for photo opportunities and social media posts. Ultimately, the common sense message seems to be that true rock cairns on hiking trails have been there a long time and serve an important purpose, but any time you head out in your hiking boots, you should leave the rocks alone. 

    Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.  

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