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Updated Monday, November 5, 2012 at 11:29 AM

Author David B. Williams stacks up interesting facts about cairns

By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor

Lit life |

A cairn is a simple thing — "a heap of stones, or a pile of stones," says author David B. Williams, with nothing but the laws of physics and gravity to hold it together.

And yet, cairns have exercised a pull on humans throughout history, pointing the way for tired travelers, marking burial places for the dead and offering inspiration for pilgrims. From Inca apacheta shrines to Inuit inuksuk markers to sentinel stones that mark trails for Cascade hikers, cairns are everywhere.

Seattle writer Williams has published a lively new book about the subject, "Cairns: Messengers in Stone" (Mountaineers Books, 158 pp., $15.95). A student of geology and history, Williams, who reviews natural history books for The Seattle Times, tells the story of how these humble structures have fascinated mankind for millennia. He answered some questions about cairns:

Q: I did an unscientific poll around the newspaper and discovered that many people don't know what a cairn is. For the uninformed: What is it?

A: A cairn is a heap of stones, or a pile of stones. They come in all shapes and sizes, from two or three rocks to a classic big pile of rocks. The joke I make about them is that it's like the Supreme Court definition of pornography — you know it when you see it.

Cairns are a means of communication, a man-made feature in a natural landscape.

Q: How many different types of cairns are there?

A: There's the basic one, which we associate with marking direction on a trail. There are cairns used to mark a ceremonial spot, or where an important event took place, or where someone died. In the old days people would mark a territorial boundary or a mining claim with cairns, though that's all done with GPS units now.

Then there are Scottish and English burial cairns (basically tombs made of rock and earth, overtopped by many smaller rocks). They were built three or four thousand years ago. People still bring rocks to those burial cairns. It's like in Judaism, where you leave a rock on a gravestone as a sign of respect.

Q: People have been making cairns for a very long time. What impels a person to build a cairn?

A: Part of it is a statement: I am here. And it's a way to connect to a place, or to show the way from place A to place B. ... People build them not so much to connect to the place as for the other people who have been there. There's also a sense of whimsy, a sense of fun.

Q: In the book, you talk about the fact that scientists can now measure the age of cairns through carbon dating and other techniques. What are some of the world's oldest cairns?

A: The oldest ones I came across are built in Rocky Mountain National Park. They are 9,000 years old. There was one found in Greenland that had a Nordic rune stone. They were able to date that one to around the year 1300 (A.D.). It's a fair assumption that it was built by one of the Nordic explorers.

Q: There's a subcategory of cairns I would call cairns of tragedy. Talk about them.

A: The most famous is the cairn from the Franklin expedition (Sir John Franklin led an expedition to find a North American Northwest Passage that vanished in 1845). The only written evidence ever found from this expedition was a single note in a stone cairn.

There's the cairn of ice that was built over Robert Falcon Scott's grave in the Antarctic (Scott died in 1912 after his expedition reached the South Pole). It was made of ice. It's 50 feet under the sheet ice now.

Q: Give readers some tips for making a cairn that's built to last.

A: Start with flat rocks with good textures, as opposed to rounded rocks that are polished. Angle them towards the center. When you're stacking them like bricks, you want them to be staggered ... a lot of little rocks will cause it to have a bigger chance to fail, [so] use larger sized rocks.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

Author appearance

David B. Williams

The author of "Cairns" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Friday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).


MARJORIE KITTLE
Seattle writer David B. Williams tells the story of how cairns, or piles of stones, have fascinated mankind for millennia.




JOHN BARNETT/4 EYES DESIGN
Burial cairns similar to this one have been found in Scotland and England.




JOHN BARNETT/4 EYES DESIGN
Small cairns like these are often built by hikers to mark the direction of a trail.




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