The mountains of Appalachia are filled with mystery and intrigue.
Having been occupied by a countless number of differing cultures for thousands of years, the land often yields questions but seldom offers any hint as to the vast underworld hidden beneath her leaves and ancient soil.
One question that is asked with surprising frequency has to do with the origins of mysterious rock piles located in overgrown forests — occasionally these rock piles are perfectly squared, whereas at other times, they seem as though they are merely a mound of stones gathered from across the hillside and collected into one location.
Paul Hopkins of Pike County, Kentucky, has one such rock structure in his area (pictured above), measuring approximately 20′ long, 8′ wide and 6′ high in the front. Perfectly square and plumb.
Hopkins says his great-grandfather died in 1981 at age 101 and had told him that the rocks had been there since at least he was a boy.
But where did they come from?
Were these stones laid by America’s first human inhabitants, ancient aliens or something less exotic? Like so many others, the answer to this question all depends on whom you ask!
For most rock piles found throughout the mountains of Appalachia, there seems to be a general consensus that as early settlers would begin clearing a hillside in order to farm, they would stack all rocks gathered along the mountainside into one giant pile – this would allow opportunities to plant corn on what had previously been ground too rocky to farm.
One Internet commenter said that there “were numerous stacks in the hollow I grew up in. I have even helped remove a few in my great-grandmothers gardens.”
Regarding this particular photo, another person stated, “It’s a rock fence. When they plowed their fields they would stack the rocks that way. The woods in this picture is a growed up farm.”
If this is true, it’s both heartbreaking and reassuring to realize just how temporary man’s mark upon a hillside can be: only a few tons of displaced rocks stand as a silent witness to the lives of the individuals who once worked the land.
However, not all rock walls or rock mounds found in the Appalachian Mountains were laid by the hands of early settlers.
Hopkins says that the location in which this particular rock formation was found has no evidence of any roads or previous farming having taken place — which is on a “very steep mountain,” this begs the question, what else could have done this?
Numerous large rock mounds throughout Kentucky-West Virginia have been discovered as being grave sites of an ancient native nation known simply as “the Mound Builders.”
Other rock formations, though most often much smaller than the one in this photo, are known as cairns – a human-made pile (or stack) of stones that have been used by a variety of cultures for a countless number of purposes, including being erected as landmarks, burial monuments, defense and hunting structures, ceremonial purposes, and sometimes relating to astronomy.
Massive rock piles have also been used to help individuals locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes.
Unfortunately, the rocks on this eastern Kentucky mountainside are keeping their silence, unwilling to share a secret which only they know.