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.

By Katy Kelleher
Published 31 Mar 2021, 13:29 BST
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
Photograph by Andreas Strauss, Alamy

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
Photograph by Albert Knapp, Alamy

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.”

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
Photograph by Stefan Ziese, Alamy

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.

(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.”

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
Photograph by Alamy

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.

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