Regarding Violet Snow’s article,“The Cairns of Overlook” (March 25), last summer I was contacted by Mr. James Bogner of the Woodstock Land Conservancy regarding the Lewis Hollow property, and the fact that local people thought the cairns and walls on the property were Native American in origin. My response is included below. I might add that I was surprised to find Sherry White, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Stockbridge-Munsee, quoted in the article as saying the cairns were Native American, because she has told me just the opposite. Like professional archaeologists throughout the northeast, she has found no evidence to suggest that these stone piles were constructed by her ancestors.
Jim Bogner, Secretary
Woodstock Land Conservancy, Inc.
P.O. Box 864
Woodstock, NY 12498
July 31, 2011
You contacted me to ask my professional opinion about the stone cairns on the Lewis Hollow property in Woodstock, and I gave you a valid and informed archaeologist’s view of the data. When we spoke on the phone on 7/21/11, I informed you that there are five burial programs for Native Americans in the northeast. These are: extended (like ours), flexed (or foetal), upright seated position, secondary burial, and cremation. Secondary burial involves the removal of bones after decomposition and the placement of the remains elsewhere with relatives. Cremation was popular c.1200-600 BC during the Orient Phase, and later during the Meadowood Phase. None of these burial programs involve cairns, or large mounds composed of stone. Most of them involve simple burials in base camp locations where people carried on their daily activities. Please note that these base camp locations were not on the sides of mountains, but on level, well drained ground in river valleys.
However, you seem to believe that my view is incorrect, and have chosen to side with “alternative historians” who are neither archaeologists nor anthropologists, and who know nothing about Native Americans. These “alternative historians” have changed their erroneous views concerning stone cairns over the years. In the 1970s-1990s, they believed cairns were associated with Celtiberians at c.4000 BC. Today, they believe that these same cairns are Native American in origin. They are not. During a field season in 1986-1987, several fellow archaeologists and I conducted a survey west of Delhi, N.Y. and came across some farmers who were clearing their fields and making “stone cairns.” When we informed them of the “Celtiberian hypothesis,” they started laughing. With this in mind, I would also plug in “Occams Razor” here — the idea that the most simple explanation is often the most fruitful.
I might also add that Woodstock is not the epicenter of cairn construction — they occur across the northeast and are very common throughout the Catskills. The presence of stone cairns is certainly not unique to Woodstock. Additionally, no one has ever found a burial under one.
In an e-mail you wrote: “I’d only like to pursue this w/you if you’re open to the possibility that the unique cairns, stone walls and large mounds found on the Lewis Hollow property could be Native American in origin. If you’re open to the possibility of discovering this then I’d welcome the opportunity to show you the property. Otherwise, if you’re not, then I don’t think it will be worth our while.” To me, this implies that you would only like to hear my professional opinion on the matter if it coincides with your own.
With that in mind, I would like to point out that the current situation regarding the cairns and their Native American “origins” could best be summed up by an idea framed by Claude Levi-Strauss, the famous French structural anthropologist. Levi-Strauss suggested that sometimes people create categories that are, in his words, “good to think.” In the case of the Lewis Hollow cairns, it is probably much more interesting to think of these as Native American in origin, rather than what they truly are — stone piles built by the nineteenth-century Irish bluestone cutters of Irish Village, which was located next to the Lewis Hollow property. I am sure that fundraising efforts would benefit from the cairns being Native American rather that 19th century Irish immigrant in origin, although representing them as Native American would be, in my opinion, incredibly misleading.
One reason that I strongly believe that these cairns are historic is that we have no evidence to suggest otherwise. Additionally, as a professional archaeologist of 35 years, I am expected to follow one very basic principle that “alternative historians” do not have to follow — never misinform the general public about archaeological data and discoveries. It would behoove the Woodstock Land Conservancy to get professional opinions from credible archaeologists rather than jump to “alternative “opinions that are not based on the facts, but that are essentially fantasy constructions that lack data and credibility.
In summary, I believe that the Lewis Hollow property is worth preserving, due to the fact that it contains historic remains constructed by Woodstock’s nineteenth century Irish immigrant bluestone cutters. These stone cairns are visible remnants of Woodstock’s past.
Joseph E. Diamond, Ph.D.
Joseph Diamond is the Chair of the Anthropology Department at SUNY New Paltz. He has an MA in Anthropology from NYU and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from SUNY Albany. He has been working in northeastern Prehistoric and Historic archaeology for 35 years.