Why Do People Stack Rocks

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Why Do People Stack Rocks

Why do people stack stones in the wild

Cairn de Bernenez is known as one of the largest in the world, one of the oldest Egyptian pyramids and the largest megalithic mausoleum in Europe. This cairn is situated in France and was used as an ancient burial site.

Why Do Hikers Stack Rocks? (Explained)

Most well walked trails will have a cairn, otherwise known as a stack of rocks made by hikers carefully balanced on top of each other. The name ‘cairn’ originally comes from the traditional Scottish language, Gaelic. Whilst the Scottish hills and landscapes are covered in cairns, they are only one of many places. Cairns can be found all throughout Europe, North America and other parts of the world.

Today, hikers stack rocks to signify landmarks or to be used as navigation markers. Often, trails can be hard to follow or unclear. Cairns mark the path and give a clear direction as to where the hikers should be heading.

To some people, these stacks of rocks are simply a visual beauty, however to others, they are almost as useful as a compass. Their design allows them to be seen in low visibility, giving them the power to navigate outdoor enthusiasts and assist discombobulated hikers.

What Is a Stack of Rocks Called?

As previously stated, a stack of rocks is called a ‘cairn’, however, here is a slightly more detailed version.

The word ‘cairn’ is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word ‘carn’, which means ‘heap of rocks’. ‘Cairn’ is a fluid word which means it has a much wider definition.

Therefore, a ‘cairn’ is used to reference different types of rock formations that are either man-made or naturally made.

‘Carn’ or ‘Cairn’ also comes from a Scottish surname, and can be given to someone as a topographic name if they lived near a cairn.

Cairns are ancient markers with roots leading back to Scotland, however now they can be found all over the globe. In February 2020, it was found that some cairns in Scotland have been around for more than 4,500 years.

What Does a Cairn Symbolize?

Why Do People Stack Rocks

It has become a long-standing Scottish tradition to carry a stone from the bottom of the hill, and then place it on the cairn at the summit. This tradition shows a sign of respect.

There is an old Scottish saying that goes, ‘Cuiridh mi clach air do charn’, meaning ‘I will put a stone on your cairn’. This respect can be given in different forms; either to the land on which you’re walking, or any loved ones left behind.

Getting away from the Scottish tradition, a cairn can also symbolize balance. These stacks of rocks have carried a spiritual meaning throughout different cultures for centuries.

The act of placing a stone on a rock pile signifies the art of practicing patience. Each rock can be given out of thankfulness, or as a thought to someone else who is in need.

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Ancient Uses and Modern Uses of Cairns

Why Do People Stack Rocks

Cairns have been used since ancient times and over the years, their usage has changed. Some religious traditions have been known to use cairns as a place to meditate or perform rituals, however, there are four main purposes for cairns;

  • As a form of navigation
  • As a memorial for loved ones
  • To guide mariners
  • To signify the top of a mountain

Navigation

Cairns are used for hikers to help them navigate their way across the terrain. They are especially used on land that is barren, stony, or on glaciers.

On occasion, this can prove a problem when inexperienced hikers who do not understand their meaning, build mini cairns of their own accord. This action could confuse the experienced hikers and even lead them astray.

Burial Site

In ancient times, cairns were first used in Scotland, Scandinavia and even Peru as memorials for loved ones who have passed away.

Some parts of the world will still use cairns as burial sites, especially if the soil is difficult to excavate. Primarily, cairns used as burials date back to the New Stone Age.

The word ‘cairn’ can sometimes be interchanged with the word ‘barrow’, meaning ‘burial mound’. However, the term is not well used.

Sea Marker

Cairns have also been used to guide mariners in the correct direction in place of lighthouses. As well as highlighting how close they are to land, cairns also determine their location.

Mountain Peak

Another common use for cairns in the modern day is to signify the highest peak of a mountain. This works to build a hiker’s motivation, and confirm their success once they reached the top.

For a more practical use, they can sometimes be used as a windbreaker.

Is It Bad to Stack Rocks on a Trail?

Why Do People Stack Rocks

Unfortunately, there is also a downside to these beautiful stacks. The hiking sport, in general, has been criticized for causing erosion to the land, and often hikers are encouraged not to follow the exact same route as others to prevent this. Building cairns creates the same problem.

In recent times the amount of cairns has dramatically increased, with many building extra cairns next to already existing ones.

Moving so many stones like this can cause land erosion, damage the wild animal’s ecosystem and disrupt the flow of rivers. Following on from this, as previously mentioned, incorrectly placed cairns can confuse hikers.

These rocks can be necessary for the ecosystem and are homes for many different organisms. If rocks are removed from streams and rivers, it will disrupt the homes of water insects and fish who solely rely on crevices to make their homes.

Additionally, it will reduce the amount of algae in the water which is essential for filtering and providing oxygen.

This being said, cairns can still be put to good use. With the appropriate amount of cairn building and minimal disruption to the ecosystem, cairns can be used safely without causing irreparable damage.

Famous Cairns

Cairns are based all around the world, each with different formations and lines of history. Below are some well-known or distinguished cairns.

Clava Cairns

clava cairns

Clava Cairns is arguably the most famous cairn in Scotland. It is a circular tomb cairn, made in the Bronze Age and situated near the most northern city, Inverness. It is said that people used to perform black magic rituals here, and if you take a rock away from the site, you will be cursed.

Cairn of Kjerag Mountain

cairn of kjerag

This cairn is particularly beautiful as it has an unusual, well-defined shape almost mirroring a long, pointed hat. It is formed of smaller rocks at the base, and one larger pointy rock on the top. The Kjerag mountain is situated in Norway with a breath-taking view.

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Cairn de Barnenez

Why Do People Stack Rocks

Cairn de Bernenez is known as one of the largest in the world, one of the oldest Egyptian pyramids and the largest megalithic mausoleum in Europe. This cairn is situated in France and was used as an ancient burial site.

Laufskalavarda

Why Do People Stack Rocks

These cairns form just one of the dramatic landscapes in Iceland. They were built on a lava ridge, designed to look like miniature mountains and bring luck to travelers who pass by.

Apachetas of Chivay

Why Do People Stack Rocks

The Apachetas are multiple piles of small cairns, made by the Incas in Peru. They are situated on one of the highest points of land on earth, around 3 miles above sea level.

The Apachetas were used to connect to higher powers on a spiritual level.

Final Thoughts

Cairns have been around for thousands of years and have many different purposes, meanings and traditions. Throughout the years, as recognition of cairns grew, so did their demand.

As with most things rooted in Scotland, cairns have a vast amount of interesting history, making them so much more than visual beauties.

Nowadays, the most frequent use of cairns is for navigation, however, as we make our cairns and use them to navigate our routes, it is also important to respect the ecosystem and the creatures living in it.

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Why do people stack stones in the wild?

Rock cairns in snow

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

In Austria’s Zillertal mountain range, hikers find stone cairns on Petersköepfl Peak outside of the village of Ginzling.

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.

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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.

“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.”

Stones mark a path

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.

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.

Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Left: Artist Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty juts out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Photograph by Adam Gray, Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Right: A house-sized rock sculpture of legendary half-troll, half-man Bárður Snæfellsás stands guard in western Iceland.

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.

See also  What does the name Maui mean in Moana?

Stones as memorials or pilgrimage points

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.

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.”

Rock artistry

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.

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.

Into the labyrinths

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.

Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

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.

Why do people stack stones in the wild?

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

Cairns at Peterskoepfl with view towards Zillertal mountain range, Zillertal Alps, Zillertal, Tyrol, Austria

D20137 Cairns at Peterskoepfl with view towards Zillertal mountain range, Zillertal Alps, Zillertal, Tyrol, Austria

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. In Britain they are a ubiquitous feature of mountain summits, can mark the way up (or down) a mountain – or, alas, mean nothing useful at all.

C14MT3 CLAVA CAIRNS HIGHLAND INVERNESS SCOTLAND UNITED KINGDOM

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 path; endanger fragile ecosystems (like Acadia’s alpine plants); or, if stones are pried loose for cairn-making, promote erosion.

“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.”

See also  What does the East Bay include?

Stones mark a path

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.

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. In the UK, mountaineers called them “stone men.”

UTAH, UNITED STATES – AUGUST 26: An aerial view of Roberth Smithson’s Spiral Jetty earthwork sculpture on the Northern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. 26 August 2018. Built of mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks, Spiral Jetty forms a 1,500ft long, 15ft wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake. It is located down a remote gravel road far away from any local towns. PHOTOGRAPH BY Adam Gray / Barcroft Images (Photo credit should read Adam Gray / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Photograph by Adam Gray , Barcroft Media/Getty Images

PTM151 Stone figure Bardur Snaefellsas, Legend figure, Halbtroll, Artist Ragnar Kjartansson, Arnarstapi, Snaefellsnes, Vesturland

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.

Stones as memorials or pilgrimage points

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 travellers 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 honour 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.

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.”

Rock artistry

Sculptors also rely on stacked stones. My favourite 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.

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.

Into the labyrinths

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.

PWM01X The moon and an ovoo or traditional shrine in Mongolia marks the mountain pass and the open blue sky and Tenger or sky spirit. Arkhangai, Mongolia

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.