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Waterloo State Recreation Area Stone Fence

Stone walls and rock piles are everywhere.  Ever wonder what they used to be?  Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, but often, not so much.  Archeologists have identified many different uses:

  • Walls and fences: This is the most obvious use, and even in ruins, it’s still pretty clear.  Over time, in especially wet or sandy soil, stone fences can actually sink, leaving little but a single layer of rocks in a line, or even just a long, running mound over the tops of the rocks.
  • Building ruins: For larger, “newer” ruins, these can be easy to identify, since they tend to be a nice, uniform, rectangular shape.  For older ruins, the corners tend to round, and they can become more like rock piles.
  • Farm-related rock piles: Very common in old farms, and often left intact when farms are converted into parks and allowed to overgrow, these piles, whether in old fencerows (look for straight lines of older trees), dumped down the side of a steep hillside, or into a wetland or sinkhole, are formed by farmers removing the large rocks from their fields to avoid damage to equipment.  They piled them up out of the way.  Sometimes these piles later found their way into building stone foundations and chimneys, but most often, they were just left.
  • Temporary support structures: An unusual use for areas which have been clearcut is to provide support for portable boilers used for portable sawmills.  These rock piles are usually round with a depression in the middle.
  • Transportation aids: Either for navigation (think cairns) or filling in wet, muddy parts of trails and roads.
  • Burial mounds: Practiced by various cultures around the world, either through tradition or necessity, burial mounds are far from uncommon, although may be hard to identify.
  • Unknown: A surprising number of rock piles simply can’t be identified by archeologists.  Even with full deconstruction, the original reason for it being there is unknown.

When you find stones alongside the trail in places that nature clearly didn’t place them, take a few minutes to think about why they’re there.

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