What are Stone Cairns?

N. Phipps

Stone cairns are nothing more than rock piles which are constructed by people. Once considered an ancient art form, stone cairns were often constructed by balancing large rocks or stones on top of smaller ones. No mortar is ever used in making a stone cairn, which is what makes this feat so amazing. Cairns have been popular in many cultures since the prehistoric times.

The prehistoric stone cairns that dot Ireland have inspired much of that island's rich storytelling legacy.
The prehistoric stone cairns that dot Ireland have inspired much of that island's rich storytelling legacy.

As stones are found nearly anywhere, the same holds true for cairns, which can be found worldwide. The purpose of cairn construction varies depending on its creator and culture, however. One of the most common reasons for building the cairns is to mark a specific location. They can be constructed to mark a burial site or other significant historical monument.

Stonehenge is made of several stone cairns.
Stonehenge is made of several stone cairns.

In olden times, cairns were often constructed and used for ceremonial purposes. Their most popular use today, however, remains that of trail marker. Cairns are commonly seen along hiking trails, put in place to help navigate others safely through rugged terrain. They can also indicate nearby food, shelter, or paths. While many trail markers look new, some of these stone cairns were constructed long ago for helping those that may one day take the same path.

As the trails or landscape changes, so do the cairns. In fact, people are continually adding to these rock piles. However, it’s important that people understand what they’re looking at. It’s not always just a pile of rocks. For instance, the larger stones on top are often situated in a distinct manner, usually indicating a turn.

There are many types of stone cairns. The most basic cairn consists of a single stack of small, loose stones. There are also more complex cairns that include strategic balancing of large rocks over small ones. Older, prehistoric cairns contain several different designs. However, they all generally occur in groups that are sporadically placed.

There are also stone cairns that can range in size from a few small stones to hundreds of large ones. Boulder cairns include small and medium sized stones in addition to large and even extra-large boulders. A good example of this type of cairn construction is that of Stonehenge. Cairns not only vary in building technique but also with the choice of stone used. Often, cairns are constructed with rocks that are indigenous to that particular area.

Stone cairns are also constructed as interesting art forms or focal points. Stacked rock piles or balanced sculptures in the garden or landscape can provide the prefect opportunity for people to reflect on nature’s beauty. Whatever the reason for cairn construction, these unique rock piles seem to serve their purpose well.

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