The Riddle of the Rock Piles—Effigies and Enigmas: A Southeastern Mystery Story – Part I
Southeastern United States: 2000 years ago | For hundreds of years, people had been accustomed to gathering in this special place near the great river at the sacred time of the winter solstice. Families who spent most of the year scattered about met to share news, introduce a developing crop of young people to each other, learn about new techniques of stone working and food production, and generally do what people always do when they meet together for celebrations - party!
What drew them to this spot originally was the stone quarry located at the confluence of the river and one of its many tributaries. It was easily accessible by both canoe and overland routes, offered high, flat ground upon which shelters could be safely erected above the reach of flood water, and featured plenty of game, natural foods, building supplies, and an endless supply of quartz cobbles, from which blanks could be struck that would provide next year's tools and weapons.
High overhead in the night sky at this time of year, the constellation that would later be named Cygnus the Swan stood solidly on the horizon at sundown, its six main stars forming a great cross. Backlighting it lay the narrow band of stars future generations would call the Milky Way.
A beautiful view of the night sky. (Ryan Hallock/CC BY 2.0)
The constellation Cygnus, the swan, hightlighted. (Till Credner/CC BY-SA 3.0)
No one knows exactly what this grouping of heavenly bodies meant to these people. A hundred miles southwest, others of their culture were in the process of laying up piles of stones that people from a distant land would someday call a hawk and eagle effigy. Here on the river they practiced a different custom.
From the place where the elders gathered each evening to share stories and tribal myths, ridge tops could be seen across the savannah-like plains to the south, east and west where fires would be built on one of the most sacred nights of the year—the longest night. Over the years, clusters of stone piles had been built to mark these locations. Groups of five or more mounds appeared as each year people placed a few more rocks on the piles, either to honor departed loved ones or simply to say, “We were here.”
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At each of these carefully selected locations, when the sun fell behind the horizon to the west, a sacred myth would be enacted. Huge fires would blaze up into the heavens in six separate locations. From each location, but especially at the central village where the majority of the people gathered to wonder at the spectacle, what they would see would appear to be a miracle.
The six central stars of the great bird in the night sky above would be reflected by the ceremonial flames of the earthly fires below. Thus, on the longest night of the year, heaven was brought down to earth. As above, so below. Balance was established. From now on, the days would grow longer, the sun warmer. Life would begin a new cycle. The people could relax and enjoy themselves. It was time to dance!
Fires and Dancing (Amy/CC BY-SA 3.0;Deriv)
Present Day | No one knows, of course, if such a scenario ever took place exactly in this way. We will never know what went on in the minds of people so separated from us by both time and culture. But the scenario just described seems to fit the available evidence and may offer insight into what one archaeologist has called the "problem" of rock piles.
The Problem of Rock Piles
Throughout the Southeast are found piles of stones that may or may not be considered mysterious, depending on your views concerning traditional archaeology. In Tennessee the rocks sometime take the form of stone pillars that may be stacked as much as ten feet high. In Georgia, besides the eagle and hawk effigies already mentioned, some of the rock structures are built into walls that snake through existing mountains. In the Carolinas are found rough mounds made up mostly of quartz piled two or three feet high and as much as ten to fifteen feet across.
Traditionally these rock piles are explained away as the work of early farmers clearing their land for agriculture. This is, no doubt, a perfectly acceptable explanation for some, maybe even most, of the mounds. But it doesn’t explain them all. In many cases, their locations just don't make sense. That’s the “problem.”
Piles of rocks are very difficult to date by traditional methods, but the first European explorers of the southeast interior, going back to the time of De Soto, wrote diaries which contain the first written descriptions we have of the area. They noted the presence of stone piles all over the place; that eliminates 17th and 18th century European farmers. Those diaries also recorded a lingering mystery.
Offerings of Stone
When Spanish adventurers asked the indigenous people about how the piles came to be, they got a curious reply. In some cases it was a tribal tradition to pick up a small rock and toss it on a pile whenever you came to one, as a way of saying something that was beyond the ability of words to express. It might mean, “I was here.” It could be seen as an offering to some god or spirit who might be in a position to grant traveling mercies.
Some Native American traditions speak of honoring warriors who died in battle by burying them beneath piles of stone and continuing the honor by throwing a new rock on a pile every time you passed by. Maybe it was just a superstition or habit. No one knew why, exactly. It was just something they did. A similar practice is often followed by hikers today.
But when Europeans asked who originally started the tradition, the Indians didn’t know. In some cases the piles were said to have been started by the "old ones," long before people then alive came along.
Digging Into the Mystery
This prompted some archaeological digs in Georgia, one of which resulted in an article featured in the 1990 issue of Early Georgia (Volume 18), called Historic Patterns of Rock Piling and the Rock Pile Problem, by Thomas H. Gresham. Mr. Gresham's excavation, it seems, turned up some ambiguous results. Some piles were considered modern. Others were deemed to be much older.
Only a few produced datable artifacts, but some of those artifacts went back much further in time than others. You might find a relatively recent horseshoe near the top, and a broken Clovis point near the bottom. Hence, the “problem” of rock piles. They refuse to be pigeon-holed and neatly filed away.
Aside from Gresham's work, extensive archaeology has yet to be done outside of Georgia. In South Carolina, for instance, a number of piles yield similar results but have been examined only by amateur diggers - such as my wife and I. Because we live in an area that features quite a few mysterious rock piles, some of which certainly cannot be attributed to agricultural use, we decided to look for ourselves to see if we could solve the "problem." Without a lot of fanfare, we simply started to dig. Our results were at first quite normal. But their locations eventually yielded what was to us a revealing result.
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The first layers we removed from rock piles on our own property seemed to consist of large stones piled on top of one another roughly in the shape of a circle. Many are above ground. That might have been done by farmers clearing their land when grazing was common and cotton was king.
In some cases, these rock piles might be explained by reading local records about German prisoners in South Carolina during World War II. They were brought into the south and made to work for the United States Forest Service, clearing rocks from fields and woods, while piling them up for later use in construction projects. In our area, however, the old timers tell us that didn't happen around here.
In the second layer, things started to get interesting. The deeper we went, the smaller the rocks became. If these piles were agricultural in nature one would think that they would show just the opposite tendency. The usual custom involves placing the big ones in a convenient location and gradually adding smaller stones as the pile grows taller.
The location of the biggest rocks in the field would tend to mark where the piles would be in the first place. Why move the biggest ones when you can just build around them?
Jim Willis is author of nine books on religion and spirituality, he has been an ordained minister for over forty years while working part-time as a carpenter, the host of his own drive-time radio show, an arts council director and adjunct college professor in the fields of World Religions and Instrumental Music. He is author of Ancient Gods: Lost Histories, Hidden Truths, and the Conspiracy of Silence , and Supernatural Gods: Spiritual Mysteries, Psychic Experiences, and Scientific Truths
Top Image: Image of the North America Nebula, an emission nebula in the constellation Cygnus, close to Deneb (the tail of the swan and its brightest star) (Gianni/CC BY 2.0), and Rock Hawk Effigy Mound in Putnam Co, Georgia, USA (Public Domain);Deriv
By Jim Willis
Updated on December 16, 2021.
Collins, Andrew. The Cygnus Mystery, [Online] Available at: http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/ciencia/ciencia_cygnus02.htm.
Gresham, Thomas H. Historic Patterns of Rock Piles and the Rock Pile Problems, in Early Georgia, Volume 18. [Online] Available at: http://thesga.org/wp-content/uploads/1990/11/gresham_historic_rock_pilin....
Williams, Mark. Rock Mounds and Structures. New Georgia Encyclopedia. 21 August 2013. Web. 26 April 2017.
Willis, Jim. Ancient Gods: Lost Histories, Hidden Truths and the Conspiracy of Silence. Detroit, MI, Visible Ink Press, 2016.
Willis, Jim: Supernatural Gods: Spiritual Mysteries, Psychic Experiences, and Scientific Truths. Detroit, MI, Visible Ink Press, 2017.)