Stone Structures of Northeastern United States Logo (c) 2008 Historic Structures Link Native American Structures Link Stone Quarrying Link

How to Document a Stone Structure Site
By James Gage
© 2014

 This presentation was prepared by James Gage,, and given at the Spring 2014 NEARA Meeting in Warwick, RI. Some additional materials not presented at the meeting are included in the appendices. The text is accompanied by a Powerpoint slide show (click here to download it).

 Introduction (Slide 2 – Six Steps)

 Steve Dimarzo, Pete Dimarzo, and Todd Carden have located and documented well over 50 stone structure sites in RI. In 2012, I contacted the RI Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission and inquired if they would be interested in us filing site reports for them. They said yes. To-date we have filed reports for 38 sites in RI and 2 in CT. Copies of those reports have been added to the NEARA site files at NHTI Library in Concord NH and also copies were sent to the Narragansett Historic Tribal Preservation Office.

 We have developed a simple but efficient system for documenting and reporting these sites. This system doesn’t require any expensive equipment or special skills.

 Research Ethics (Slide 3 – Ethics)

 There are some basic ethical rules which stone structure researchers should follow when documenting these sites. Archaeological sites on public lands are protected by state and federal law. It is illegal to disturb any archaeological site by digging, metal detecting, or collecting artifacts. NEARA has a strict policy against disturbing sites whether on public or private lands. Excavations should only be done by professional archaeologists with proper permits.

 Many of these sites are spiritually important to the Native American people. It is important to treat them with respect and cultural sensitivity.

Please …

Do not move any stones
Do not add any stones
Do not climb on top of the structures
Do not remove any artifacts

It is okay to

Take photographs and measurements
Brush the leaves away

Documentation (Slide 4 – Number Sign)

 It is really helpful to assign a number to each structure and feature you document. If you document a site over several days, start with the next number in sequence when you come back the next day. It saves a lot of confusion later when writing the report.

Some researchers like to lean a sign board with the structure # on it against the structure when photographing it. You can make a simple sign board using a cheap spiral bound notebook with a number written on each page with a black marker. It allows you to quickly flip to the next number.

 Step 1 – Photography (Slide 5 – Multiple Views of Structure)

 Digital cameras today allow one to take hundreds of picture on a single battery charge. Take advantage of this, and take lots of pictures of each structure. Walk around the structure and photograph each side of it. If possible take a top down photo. If the structure has any special features, take close-up photos.

 (Slide 6 – Photo scales)

 It is helpful to place a scale in your photo. This can be a card with a checker board of white black squares denoting inches or centimeters. An inexpensive folding 6 foot ruler works great too. You can also mark a rod with alternating color bands in this case each band is one foot in length.

 Step 2 – GPS (Slide 7 – GPS units)

 A variety of devices today can provide GPS coordinates like handheld GPS units from Garmin, smartphones, and tablets. If you use a smart phone, I recommend you purchase an external USB or Bluetooth GPS which generally cost between $50 and $100. This will greatly improve the accuracy of your readings over the built-in GPS chip in your phone.

 You do not need to be an expert to use the GPS. Switch the unit to longitude & latitude display, place it on top of structure, and leave it there for a couple of minutes to get a good reading of your position. Take a photo of the screen. This will help to separate the photos of one structure from the next.

 GPS has accuracy about 10 to 20 feet under tree cover. This is enough accuracy to allow a researcher looking at your data to get a good sense of what structures are grouped together, how many groups are at a site, the relation of the structures to natural features like streams. All of this information is useful when they do a preliminary analysis of the site.

 Step 3 – Measurements (Slide 8 – Taking Measurements)

 There are two ways to get some basic measurements. If you have time in the field, take a tape measure and get some basic measurements like length, width, and height. Record them in a small notebook. More complicated structures like chambers will require more detailed measurements. The second option is to take the measurements off the photos when you get home. You can get a good idea of a structure’s size by using the photo scale you placed on the structure.

 Step 4 – Mapping (Slide 9 – Topo Map Computer Program)

 You can plot your coordinates on your favorite topo map program or on Google Earth. If you have a group of structures very close together mark them on the map with a single dot or pin marker for the group. It will be too confusing to try and add all of them.

 (Slide 10 – Todd’s Map)

 Another simple thing you can do is draw a basic sketch map of the site. It doesn’t have to be fancy or artistic. This is Todd Carden’s sketch of a site in RI. It shows a rough layout of the stone walls, the location of natural features like a pond, and the location of different groups of stone cairns. This simple map conveys a lot of useful information. It is being included in the official site report. It is helpful if you add structure numbers to your sketch map.

 Step 5 - Site Report (Slide 11 – Reports)

 Filling out a form and writing a report is everyone’s least favorite part of exploring sites but it is the most important part. Site reports provide the means to share what you have discovered with fellow researchers. If the site is destroyed this will be the only record we have of what was there. Filing the report with the State Archaeologist office will improve the chances of the site being protected in the future.

 Site reports do not have to be long and complicated. Some basic information will go a long ways.

 NEARA has an easy to fill out site form. The form is available on their website Instructions for filling out the RI State site form can be found below.

 You will need to attach a report documenting all of the structures to the form.

 Structures (Slide 12 – Sample Entry)

 For each structure, list the number assigned to the structure, what the structure is (cairn, chamber, house cellar, etc), some basic measurements, GPS coordinates and a brief description. Include one or more photos of the structure.

 We like to include a copy of all the photos on CDROM with the report.

Step 6 – File Your Report (Slide 13 – Addresses)

It is important that your report is on file someplace other than your computer. It is recommended that copy be sent to NEARA, State archaeologist Office, local historical society or commission, and Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Please check in advance to see if the organization is interested in receiving the report. Sadly, some State Archaeologists like Massachusetts refuse to accept reports on stone cairns and other stone structures believed to be Native American.

[See appendix for addresses]

New Interesting Discoveries (Slide 14)

Steve, Pete, and Todd’s explorations have resulted in some interesting discoveries. I would like to share with you two of the more important finds.

Miniature Chambers (Slide 15 – Voluntown)

One of these is a small miniature corbel chamber. These structures which look like a cairn with niche built into them. (slide 16) However, when they felt around inside of the structure, they discovered it was hollow inside. This one was found in Voluntown CT. I recommend shining a flash into any dark recess before putting your hand inside to make sure there are no critters inside.

Niche-Shaft (Slide 17)

In Exeter, RI they found this structure which at first glance looks like a boxed-in free-standing niche. Closer inspection reveals it has an intentional vertical shaft in the top of the structure. This is a rare type of structure know as a niche-shaft. Only a few have been found.

This presentation available at

Appendix A - How to Fill Out the RI state site report form

On the first page of RI state form you will need to fill in some basic information:

 Site Name

Quad – Which USGS topo map is you site located within. You can get this information from your topo map program.

Town – Name of town the site is found in

Street Address / Plat / Lot – We use the GPS coordinates of the site

PresentLand Use – Conservation land, wood lot, private residence, etc.

HistoricLand Use – Old farm, wood lot, or if you don’t known write “unknown.”


How Located – Write the names of who found the site.

Site Type – A brief description of the site. Keep it factual “Group of xx stone cairns, x chambers, etc.”


On the second page fill in:


Site Integrity

Threats to Site

Environment Section


Skip the rest of the entries for this page, they are used only by archaeologists.


On the third page fill in:


Reported By


Skip the rest of the entries for this page, they are used only by archaeologists.


Site Report


Attached your site report to the form


Appendix B – Contact Information


Charlotte Taylor

Senior Archaeologist

RI Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission

150 Benefit Street

Providence, RI 02903


Anne Wikkala [NEARA Librarian]

NHTI Library

31 College Dr.

Concord, NH 03301


Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office

Narragansett Indian Longhouse

PO BOX 700

Wyoming, RI 02898



Copyright (c) 2005-2008, James E. Gage & Mary E. Gage. All Rights Reserved.