Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways:
- Stacked rocks or cairns can be used to mark hiking trails, maritime routes, or ancient burial sites. They also serve as a creative form of expression and have been used this way for thousands of years.
- The practice of rock stacking has different meanings including way marking, communication, aesthetic purposes, spirituality, and meditation.
- A cairn, a typically conical marker made from stacked stones, can signify a burial site, a boundary marker, or a trail signpost.
- While rock stacking can be an engaging and relaxing activity, it’s important to consider its environmental impact. Removing and stacking rocks can disrupt habitats, cause erosion, and mislead other trail users.
- Stacked rocks and cairns can be found globally. They have been used in art installations, spiritual rituals, and as practical navigational tools throughout history.
Cairns can often be found on wilderness trails, but what do stacked rocks mean?
It can be a simple way to mark a hiking trail or a safe passage for ships. They can also mark ancient, prehistoric burial sites. Some sculptors make stacked rocks into stunning art, as you will see below.
The rock artists on Lisbon’s main beach make tall towers of perfectly balanced rocks from beach pebbles. The art is in the play of color, texture, and balance. Tourists throw money in appreciation of the skill.
There are cairns of smooth gray rock on National Trails through bleak, windy moorland. Here they have a different significance; as a communication to other travelers. They mark the route of a hiking trail.
There are neolithic dolmens made of stones quarried far away and weighing many tons each. How and why they were made is still a mystery that many archeologists have tried to solve.
Why Do People Stack Rocks?
People have been stacking rocks on trails through natural areas for thousands of years. There isn’t just one reason why they did this and why it is still done today.
- Way markers. Stacked rocks act as way markers on trails through the wilderness. They keep hikers on the path in difficult weather conditions like fog. They are sometimes used like lighthouses by ships at sea.
- Aesthetics and art.
- Communication. People like to create them to say “I was here” and to create a record of passing through for others to find and add to. In this way, stacked rocks are a form of collective consciousness and art.
- Spirituality.There is also a spiritual meaning to stacked rocks. Cairns have been made to appease sky gods in Mongolia and nature spirits in Japan.
- Meditation. Stacking rocks is good for your brain and coordination.
What is a Cairn?
A cairn is a marker made of stacked stones. They are usually conical in shape. They are found in high places. They were and are built for one of three reasons:
- A burial site
- Boundary markers to show where the edge of someone’s land is
- Signposting the way on a trail
Cairns were often used as burial sites where the ground was too hard to dig a grave. Many date from the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages. Barrows are a type of cairn where the stones are covered with soil. Barrows were often used as burial sites, sometimes for a whole clan or tribe, in Neolithic times.
Other Rock Structures You Might Find
Not every rock structure is a cairn or stacked rock tower. There are several human made rock monuments you may encounter on your hikes or travels.
Dolmens are stacked rocks from the Neolithic period. They’re made of two upright stones, with another stone lying across them. They are usually large and very heavy. Dolmens can be found all over Europe, including France, Britain, and Ireland. They can also be found in Scandinavia, Africa, and Asia.
These single large stones are placed at ancient megalithic sites, for example, Carnac in France.
Labyrinths are built for the purposes of meditation and to create a peaceful state. They can be made of different rocks, hedges, bamboo, or many other materials.
The Spiritual and Symbolic Meaning of Stacked Rocks
Stacked rocks can symbolize strength, as they did for the Native Americans. They can also symbolize unity, balance, harmony, and the physical manifestation of prayer.
Each stone put down is an addition to the collective consciousness surrounding a site. This makes a large cairn a spiritually powerful place.
Historical Stacked Rocks Around the World
You can find stacked rocks in many places around the world. Geologists believe stacking rocks started 8,000 years ago. Here are some places where you can see cairns that have been built over long periods of time.
Inukshuks, Canada, and Arctic
Inukshuks are the North American First Nations version of cairns. They were not just made to show the right path. They could be made to warn others of dangers nearby or to show that a place was a good hunting ground.
Inukshuks were built by the Inuit and other peoples of Canada. The national flag of Nunavut shows an inukshuk.
The word “inukshuk” means “to act in the capacity of a human” in the local language of Inuktitut. It stems from the word “inuk,” meaning “a human being.”
You can see inukshuks on Baffin island, where there are many archaeological sites. These date from 2400 to 1800 BCE. The one above is near the Athabasca Glacier.
Oovoo Cairns, Mongolia
Oovoo stacked cairns were built to honor the sky spirits in Mongolia. They became more numerous with the advent of Tibetan Buddhism. They were originally built to worship the older deities of the shamanic religion.
Mongolian shamanism recognizes no less than 99 tenger, 55 of which are kindly towards humans and 44 of which are not.
Many oovoo are simple piles of rocks, but some are fenced around and made of wicker filled with soil or sand.
Sometimes from 7 to 13 oovoo are built together, with the largest in the middle. This has offerings inside it for the deities. Bows, corn, and Buddha figures are popular gifts.
Notice the line of horse skulls outside the oovoo image above.
Clava Cairns, Scotland
Kerb cairns are a small ring of large stones with the center filled in. Ring cairns are a larger ring of smaller stacked stones.
The Clava cairns are part of a large burial complex, including passage graves. They are a good example of cairns built to commemorate the dead. They date back 4,000 years. They are free to visit.
Camino De Santiago, Spain/France
The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile (805 km) pilgrimage path through Spain and France. The way on this ancient, deeply spiritual journey is marked with cairns. Pilgrims on the route built cairns to mark their passage to the tomb of St. James.
Symbols of the long route include the scallop shell. This is because a knight was raised from the dead after drowning in the sea.
He was covered with scallop shells. It’s also proof that a pilgrim has made it to the end of the route at Finisterre and the Atlantic Ocean.
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Why You Shouldn’t Always Stack Rocks
It’s not always a good idea to stack rocks, tempting though it may be. Here are a few reasons to avoid stacking rocks.
- Environmentally sensitive areas: Rocky habitats on shorelines, for example, where rocks can provide shelter for rockpool animals like crabs and eels. Removing stones from the water to build cairns can remove habitat from creatures and leave them vulnerable.
- Erosion: Taking rocks from rocky areas can lead to erosion. In the case of cliff faces, this can destabilize the cliff and lead to landslides.
- Misleading trail users: If the stack of rocks you build is off the trail, it could potentially mislead other trail users and cause them to get lost. So, if you do stack rocks, add to previous cairns or at least make sure your cairn is on the trail path.
Rock Cairn Artworks
Check out these beautiful stone landmarks and special rock sculptures, made by modern day artists and sculptures.
Bárður Snæfellsás: The Giant Rock Troll Of Iceland
Bárður Snæfellsás was a half man, half troll who protected the Snjófellsnes peninsula in Iceland. His father was King Dunbar, who had the blood of Titans. The sculpture you can see today at Arnarstapi was built by Ragnar Kjartansson.
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Utah, US
The Spiral Jetty coils out into the ocean at Rozel Point, in the Great Salt Lakes. Sculptor Robert Smithson used 6,000 tons of black basalt and earth to make it in 1970. The full coil is 1,500 feet (457 meters) long and 15 feet (4.6 meters) wide.
You can visit the artwork, but make sure to leave no trace. It is strictly forbidden to remove any of the stones.
Three Cairns, Andy Goldsworthy, US
Andy Goldsworthy is a sculptor and artist who works with found natural materials. He painstakingly creates not just with stones but with ice, leaves, petals, and berries. Much of his artwork is transient, lasting only long enough for photos to be taken before it is carried away in the current.
His work in rock is much longer lasting. You can see his ‘Three Cairns’ sculptures in Iowa, US. They are made of local Iowa limestone.
To see the rest of this artwork, you will need to travel along an imaginary line crossing the entire continent, from the east to the midwest to the west coast of the US.
The picture below shows another of Goldsworthy’s artworks at Storm King Art Park, US.
Rock Sculpture Point, Rye, New Hampshire
Local artist James Ayer builds cairns and rock towers at Periwinkle Cove Beach in New Hampshire, US. He began by building sculptures from twigs and leaves as a child, moving on to other found materials at the age of 15.
25 years ago, he built the first rock sculptures and cairns at Periwinkle Cove. At first, people and the weather knocked them down, but Ayer persisted and built more. Now, people add to them. There are many cairns all over the beach. This is an example of truly collaborative artwork.
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How to Make Your Own Stacked Rock Art
Some stacked rock art may look almost impossible. However, the artists have made use of two important laws of physics. These are:
- Counterbalance: You can use another rock to change the center of gravity of another rock that won’t balance. Placing the other rock above it or to the side will help you arrange rocks at odd angles. You can even make them stick out to the side of the stack.
- Center of gravity: As long as there’s the same amount of weight on all sides, a rock will stay in position. Until something shoves it, of course. The area that touches the rock below or the ground must be exactly the point of the center of gravity.
- Three points of contact: Ensuring there are three points where one rock joins another will greatly aid your chances of balancing it.
- Patience: This is one thing you will need to practice to find the perfect balance for your rock sculpture.
You can also check out this video to know how rock sculptures stay up.
Cairn Fun Facts
- The cairn in Storfjord, Norway, is the world’s northernmost three country cairn. It marks the border of three countries. There is another three country cairn in Finnmark County. It is illegal to walk or jog around this second cairn.
- Holcombe Moor in Lancashire is home to one of the spookiest cairns; that of the memorial to murdered woman Ellen Strange. She was suspected of having been murdered by her husband after an argument in 1761. He was released due to lack of evidence.
- One of the oldest cairns in the world is the Holm of Papa Westray Chambered Cairn in Scotland. It is 5,000 years old and has a strange shape. It dates from the Neolithic era.
The three-country cairn is found in Scandinavia. Modern cairns like this look very different and are used to delineate boundaries between countries.
Stacked Rocks FAQs
Are cairns natural or man made?
Cairns are man made stacks of rocks. They can be made for many reasons, but always by humans. There are many natural rock formations that are made by processes such as the retreat of a glacier or by wind, but these are not cairns.
Are there health benefits to stacking rocks?
Stacking rocks is said to aid focus and hand to eye coordination and has therapeutic benefits when you are out in nature. It inspires creativity and resourcefulness, as you must work with whatever you have on hand.
Are there Art Festivals where you can see stacked rocks?
You can see art made of rocks, sand, and many other natural materials. Two good festivals to go to are the European Land Art Festivaland the Llano Earth Art Festival in Texas.