Building of cairns has a long history

A Cairn is a man- made pile of rocks. The word cairn is derived from the Gaelic word carn or karn which translates to a “heap of stones”. Since the dawn of time, humans have been building rock cairns for a number of reasons, including religious ceremonies, burial monuments, survey markers, astronomy applications, landmarks, trail markers, practical purposes, and recreational reasons.

Identifying burial sites is one of the main reasons for cairn building used throughout the world. Throughout Eurasia there are some very large man-made hills that were created during prehistoric times to identify burial sites. In the African country of Somalia, some large cairns are found alongside ancient ruins that are also believed to be burial sites. In the Middle Ages it was common for Scottish clans to pile rocks before a battle, then return to remove the rock if they survived the fight.

The ancient Greeks built large cairns to honor Hermes, considered to be the god of overland travel. The Incas also built stone cairns in honor of the goddess Puchamama. The Incas and Mongolian tribes erected cairns for religious services. Adding a stone to a cairn for good luck dates back to the ancient Koreans who observed this practice honoring the Mountain Spirit.

There are some large man-made rock formations scattered around the globe that are believed to have some astronomical significance such as the famous Stonehenge in England. This formation was made to study the sun and the moon, and to serve as a calendar.

Often a boundary corner will be delineated by a pile of rocks on the landscape. These stone piles might also delineate international boundaries as is the case between the countries of Sweden and Norway in a desolate area along the Riksrosen Divide.

Before the use of light houses, large cairns were built in the Canadian maritime and Scandinavia for navigation purposes or to warn of rocky hazards.

Rocky cairns have seen longtime use in marking trails, especially in the Arctic, desert, and other desolate areas. Indigenous hunting parties used these structures to mark game driving lanes leading to game jumps, steep areas that the game would fall from, thus immobilizing the quarry.

Sometimes a mountain peak will be marked with a cairn and people who scale the mountain will add a stone to the pile. Cairns were built out of necessity by early settlers as they cleared land for agriculture. These rocks were either piled or stacked into stone fences, many of which are still present.

In recent times, the building of cairns has become very popular, especially in heavily used recreational areas like the Appalachian Trail. These “recreational” cairns are built for a number of reasons, including signifying one’s passage through the area. The widespread building of recreational cairns is beginning to clash with established trail markers, historical cairns, or other aesthetic sensibilities which focus on leaving no trace on the landscape. In many cases land managers have no other choice than to disassemble the recently built cairn.

Article from FCFCDB

Nature Note for 1/17/2016