A puzzle ring

In a couple of previous blog posts, I told you about how important context was in archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador. In this post I’ll present you with lots of context but very little interpretation, that’s what I expect you to help me with.

Finding a ring of stones on an archaeological site in Newfoundland and Labrador is not uncommon. They are on precontact aboriginal, post-contact aboriginal and European sites. On the aboriginal sites, the rings are usually interpreted as hold down rocks for a tent ring. Essentially, they functioned as tent pegs around the outer edges of the tent, holding down the tent edges. On European sites, they may have had more diversified roles. Regardless of culture, usually these rings of stone were constructed of one or two tiers of rock.

In June of 2007, a colleague was told of a ring of stones by local informants. The site is located approximately 4.5 kilometres inland from Northern Bay, Conception Bay.

Location of Northern Bay and the site

The site lies within the Maritime Barrens forest eco-region. Vegetation, at lower elevations, is comprised of a mixture of Larch (Larix larcina), Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) and Alder (Alnus crispa) intermingled with berry bushes and other low-lying bushes and shrubs. At about 3.5 kilometres from the coast and at an elevation of around 150 masl the country opens into a barren ground of stunted Alders, Junipers, Partridgeberry and other low ground cover. The terrain at both lower and higher elevations is rocky and dry.

Flat barrenlands around the site

Late in the fall of 2007 we were guided by two locals to the site which we briefly investigated. It is approximately 210 masl and near a pond called Cod Looter Pond. The ring is constructed of dry laid, medium to large, lichen covered, flat and rounded fieldstones.

Cod Looter Pond ring

Overall the structure is sub-rectangular and the exterior measurements are 5m north-south by 4.20m east-west. The interior dimensions were 2.94m north-south by 2.27m east-west, giving a living space of about 6.67m². The interior is oval and may have been covered either by skins or canvas depending on the site’s age. The walls are not typical “hold-down-stones” as they are several tiers high, approximately 40 cm in height and about a metre in width.

Part of the wall of the feature

Vegetation in and around the feature consists of caribou moss, berry bushes and stunted alders and juniper. Small to medium sized rocks made up the living floor of the majority of the interior. However, there were large stones which appeared to be in situ. Some of the smaller to medium sized rocks located in the northern quadrants of the feature had been removed by pot hunters who had discarded them on top of the wall; these were replaced as best as possible at the end of the investigation. Other rocks appear to have slumped from the walls both to the inside and outside of the feature. Turning over of stones near the centre of the structure uncovered charcoal flecks and possible fire-cracked rocks, some of which were quartz, which is common throughout the area. A forest fire had gone through the region in the early 1960’s, though the presence of fire-cracked rocks would point to human activity being responsible for the charcoal. Usually forest fires do not burn hot enough to split rocks.

Overturned rocks showing small pieces of charcoal

A possible exterior feature was noted at the north-west corner of the feature where a partially buried, upright stone surrounded by at least four other flat laying stones was observed. This of course could be a natural event, though the appearance of the stone as a post support deserves comment.

In the end, it was concluded that the feature was made by someone, though by whom and how long ago could not be determined; this is where you come in. This is a task faced by archaeologists on a regular basis; what was this structure? It is substantial for being in the middle of the Bay de Verde Peninsula, hinting at long-term use but with no apparent function. Someone went through considerable effort to construct this ring from several hundred rocks. What do you think this structure was? Keeping in mind that the site is:

  • 4.5 km inland
  • ~200 masl
  • 4×5 m in size with interior space at ~6.6m2
  • walls were ~40 cm high and in places nearly 1 m wide composed of several tiers of rock in an area with very little loose rock

Thank-you very much to the informants and guides. This site is in such an unusual location that it likely would never have been found without the cooperation of the general public. If you think you have found an archaeological site or artifact you can contact me though this site or someone at the Provincial Archaeology Office.

Another view of the Cod Looter Pond feature

21 thoughts on “A puzzle ring

  1. I’ve seen similar features, but not exactly the same. If at all rectangular I would guess a crude foundation, but you didn’t mention any wooden remains of a superstructure so that likely isn’t it. I’ve also seen stone walls erected around historic burials, but these are typically stacked neatly, rather than piled and there and have an entrance.

    So really I guess I’m no help at all!

    1. Getting any kind of comment is a help.

      Yip, as archaeologists we’ve all seen these types of stone rings before but this one seems a little more puzzling. It is sort of subrectangular in shape. In our cursory look we did not see any wood but we have suspected maybe it is some form of a crude foundation. But why are the walls up to 1m wide? And the rocks at the widest part don’t look jumbled as you would expect if it was a collapsed wall.
      Burial? Maybe but again the walls seem too substantial for a ring around a grave. And it’s a long way from the nearest community.

  2. The closest thing I’ve seen to this is a hunting blind. I’ve found quite a few examples of stone built hunting blinds, almost exactly like this, except this one is slightly bigger and uses more stones than the ones I’ve seen (but only slightly). The walls were probably originally taller, and have collapsed. Hunting blind walls are only roughly built so tend to collapse from frost over the years, if they are not regularly repaired. Maybe this was for cariboo hunting? Most of the ones I’ve seen are for waterfowl hunting, but I’ve seen several for deer hunting too.

    1. Yip, I’ve seen lots of hunting blinds constructed of rocks as well. Usually hunting blinds are not rings, usually there is an opening or a section of the wall left incomplete to allow you to access the inside of the blind. There was nothing like that in this case.

  3. Stone rings are extremely common in the western United States and I’ve seen them from the Mohave Desert north to the Columbia River and from the Cascade Ranges to the Rocky Mountains. They are also common found on the Great Plains in the US and Canada. It seems that stone circles served no general purpose with function varying from culture to culture and from region to region. Stone circles might be a single course or possess several courses but rarely would one characterize them as walls. I have also encountered numerous examples of multi-tiered historic hunting blinds in the California Sierra Nevada foothills. These features can be short linear walls, semi-circular, U-shape, angular, or sub-angular, and I have seen them a high as 1.6 meters (~5-ft).

    A recent article published in the journal Geoarchaeology reported thousands of stone rings extending from southern Syria south through Jordan and Saudi Arabia to northern Yemen. They were first reported in 1927 by a British aviator conducting archaeological explorations. Bedouins say they were made by the old men of the desert and they don’t just occur as circles. Anyone interested in sources advise and I would be happy to provide.

    1. Thanks
      Stone rings are no uncommon here either. Usually they are hold down rocks for tents or part of a hunting blind. But this particular ring has many more rocks than would be necessary for hold down rocks for tents and it’s not likely a bird blind either. Usually those are open/have an entrance on one end. This one does not.

  4. I have talked to people further down the shore around Blackhead who told me that their ancestors (European descent) regularly built cabins or shelters back in the woods to spend the winter, near wood and away from the coast. Could it be the remains of a winter cabin? Peter Pope discusses something similiar as ‘seasonal transhumance’ in his book Fish into Wine.

    1. It may be the remains of a cabin but there seems to be no defined entrance and the wood for kilometres around the site is very sparse. I believe in seasonal transhumance the winter homes were not that far from the shore. Even with those problems a winter home does make the most sense though.

  5. Working in the SW I’ve seen many storage features in caves. lacking the dry cave areas, could this be a place to cache food? Or given the charcoal possibly a roasting pit for larger game?

    1. We did consider a cache but it very large compared to the known caches around here and it is much more heavily constructed than known caches. I don’t believe it is a roasting pit again it is heavily constructed and would have been huge for roasting.

  6. I believe the answer lies 25-30km to the north in Grates Cove where the settlers built similar rock walls to subdivide the landscape into gardens, pens, and shelter. Although there is no apparent entrance, perhaps it was meant to keep livestock in or out. The charcoal may indicate that it was also used for shelter on occasion.

    1. Thanks for the comment.
      There are a few reasons why I doubt it was used as a pen. For one thing it is only 2.94m north-south by 2.27m east-west or ~9×7 feet. That’s pretty small for a pen. Also, the walls are very low, only 40 cm and there did not appear to be any evidence of posts in the walls to hold up a fence.

      1. It’s a good suggestion and there is certainly a possibility that the walls are related, I hadn’t though of that.

  7. Might there be some affinity to the numerous stone structures on the South side of Trinity Bay? The concentration of structures is in the Hants Harbour area, directly across the peninsula and about 10 km to the West of the stone ring..

    1. That is certainly a possibility we cannot rule out. However, other than being constructed of stones most likely by Europeans, I don’t think these features have anything else in common.

      1. Or any of the four Indigenous groups who occupied the Island. There were also English and French here with the Irish. So a date would not help much.

      2. Indeed, but if there is a suggestion that it is non-indigenous, it could help to identify the original settler group. For example, if pre-10th century it would probably be Irish. Remember the Viking writing distinctly mention the Irish being there before them. If 11th century it would suggest Vikings. If 16th century onwards it would suggest French, Spanish or English.

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