Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sorry for the lag in posting

I've been very busy writing papers lately, so getting those Devil's pool pics up has taken a back seat. But I expect to have them up late tonight or tomorrow sometime, if all goes well.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Recreating a lived mythology: the landscape of the Lenape imagination

Perhaps its that we moderns are so removed from our mythology, or that our modern mythology is very much of the "placeless" variety (consider Batman, or Superman as modern Olympians) that it's hard for us to recognize the mythological character of a place, unless we have it documented, imaged, or otherwise historicized.

So it's with some trepidation that I attempt to "re-mythologize" my little slice of heaven here. Some trepidation, and a bit more worry that I'm getting things flat out wrong and the disrespect that could entail for peoples long gone.

However I think it does more good than harm, especially in this rootless time, to take a place and attempt to re-embed it in the appropriate mythological matrix.

Philosophy aside (and isn't it wonderful that it's even possible to put it aside) let me lay out the following items for consideration.

It's fairly well known that many native America groups acknowledged a "horned serpent" of some sort as an enemy, or malignant spirit. Known by some groups as Uktena or Uncegila, and here by the Lenape as Maskanako (or Ma'xanaxo). The spirit is universally associated with water and more specifically, the destructive unleashing of water. The horned serpent is said to live in a bottomless pool, a pool which often may lie in a deep gash of rock.

But Masknaako is not the only water manitou. A more beneficent spirit in Lenape mythology is the Toad manitou, who controlled the waters in a more measured fashion, holding back the floods. Maskanako, devil that he/she was, killed the great Toad and stole the waters. Either because Maskanako lacked the Toad's ability to restrain water's natural chaos, or because it did not wish to, Maskanako used this power to unleash a great flood from its lair in the underworld. Only the timely intervention of the creator and the great world turtle (The "Turtle Island" beneath our feet) saved humankind from extinction. Maskanako, chastened but not destroyed, still lurks at the interface of the underworld and great pools of water, seeks the destruction of mankind, and is often and only thwarted by the beneficent "Thunder Beings" (the closest thing the Lenape have to Thunderbirds).

Variants of this horned serpent story are familiar to afficionados of Native American mythology. Less familiar, perhaps related to this myth cycle is the following Micmac myth: Glooscap, Micmac culture hero, notices that the land has grown very dry and his people are thirsty. All the water in the land has been dried up. Glooscap, having nothing better to do, decides to find out what's going on and take the matter in hand. After some travel, and some investigation, he finds that a great Toad spirit is responsible, having stopped up all the water behind a great weir of rocks and drunk everything else. As a culture hero is wont to do, Glooscap defeats the monster, smashes his dam and wrings all the excess water out of the creature, shrinking him down to the right and proper size for a toad.

So here we have, again, a (much more malignant) toad responsible for the restraining of water. And he does it, through the building of great rock wall (and through gluttonous sousery...but I digress)

What does any of this have to do with Devil's Pool? Well let's consider what we know. First, a great battle of manetuwak happened here. And one manitou, the bad one, dwells in the great pool to this day, and was of sufficient spiritual power to be more or less equated to the Christian Devil. Interestingly, Devil's pool is commonly held by locals to be "bottomless" (actually extending downward to hell itself) much like the abode of Uktena/Uncegila/Maskanako. However deep the pool is, it isn't *that* deep, perhaps bottoming out at 9 or (at most) 14 feet. Anyone jumping from the rocks learns this rather quickly, as their toes dig into the shimmering mica sand coating its bottom. So why did this place, in a valley full of deep pools of water, obtain a reputation of bottomlessness?

It is a rocky valley, riddled with points which seem likely entrances to the underworld.

As I've documented, the pool is constrained and channeled by series of rock weirs of unknown provenance but that are at least older than a century. Some of these weirs terminate in large flat stones, or standing stones, like this one:

Additionally, the large cave shown above is interesting in that is lies below an opening in the rock that is connected by a longish"tube" (for lack of a better word) to a location removed from the cave. Perhaps some kind of "speaking tube" for ritual use?

Is is possible, then, just possible, that this location represented a sort of spiritual re-enactment of the toad-serpent flood cycle? Are the weirs a representation of the restraining power of the toad, holding back the bottomless depths of the horned serpent's flood? Was this a site of initiation into the mysteries of Turtle Island (would the "speaking tube" find use in this scenario)? Or was it regarded as the actual place where the great world flood began? And where Maskanako resided, gnashing his teeth in eternal frustration?

Lots more pics from here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Return to the "Cairn"

(note: some of the following images aren't as well resolved as I'd like. Blame it on the rain and my cameras attempts to autofocus).

In comments on this post, pwax raises the possibility that the "cairn" I found Saturday represented a recent reconstruction of a (possibly) older pile. The condition of the pile (at least as seen from the angle at which I photographed) may be too good to be true. So I returned to the site, in the hopes of shedding some light on this question.

The first thing I did was to confirm that portions of the pile were below the modern ground level, an observation I made in a cursory fashion Saturday. Checking at 4 locations around the pile, this appeared to be the case. Secondly, I wanted to examine the other faces of the pile in detail to see if they showed more wear than the front of the pile (as I had photographed it).

Here is a shot from the rear of the pile.

The left hand portion of the pile shows considerable breakdown and there is a lot of detritus and earth as fill. Examining the right rear of the pile we have
again, more breakdown and detritus here. The leaf fill is pretty deep, and proceeds, with increasing depth, into a rich, loamy soil fill.

At the top center of the pile, was a thin capstone, partially occluding a small niche. Peering into the niche, I found the following beautiful piece of quartz.
(this stick is the one I mentioned in the preceding post. It actually wasn't very long and may well have just fallen into the niche at the top of the pile)

If a recent construction, then word about quartz nuggets in niches has gotten out there. Again, there is considerable detritus in the center of the pile, as seen in this picture.

Now these results are leading, but of course not conclusive. I feel I can be pretty confident, then, in a few statements about the "cairn".

1) The bulk of the pile is not recent construction.
2) At least one or two layers of the pile are below the current ground level.
3) Aspects of the pile construction are consistent with other piles we believe to be ceremonial in nature and Native American in origin.
4) Some portion of the pile may have modified in recent times.

Now, on to some other features of the site. I wanted to include a picture of the paving/wall remnant I found, because it really is quite remarkable.

(in the above pic you can just make out the paving as it makes its way up the hillside)

I followed this pavement from the base of the hill to its crest. About halfway up the hill I saw these quartz twins (each about the size of a basketball), or perhaps a single large piece of quartz split. They are resting on a flat slab of Wissahickon Schist, partly buried.

Scattered along the wall were multiple shattered piles

This one sporting a nice piece of quartz.

Finally, past the "cairn", the wall appeared to terminate here (At least I could find no evidence of it past this point), where I found the following tilted standing stone. It is nearly knee high and does not appear to represent an extrustion of the underlying bedrock.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Devil's Pool: a brief introduction.

I mentioned Devil's Pool in an earlier post.

Devil's Pool is a small pool, ensconced in a rocky vale, formed by the falls of the Cresheim creek. Over the millennia, the falls have carved out a deep trench and filled it with cold, very cold, water.

As children in Roxborough, we believed it to be bottomless, and that we could be dragged down to hell if we swam there after dark.

As is often the case, when Europeans have moved into a previously non-Christian area, places that were sacred to the indigenous religion and were tied to the name of the local spirit, deity, or divinity found themselves dedicated, instead, to the Christian Devil.

Devil's Pool is interesting in that it has a documented history (albeit cursorily documented) as a "haunted site" (or sacred site, depending on which source you read) according to the Lenape. What's left of the legend is that two powerful manetuwak engaged in battle here. One of them, a water spirit, lost and was consigned to the depths of the pool. Given the context, (and certain other features of the location) I think I'm probably not too off base to conjecture that the "bad" manitou here was Maskanako, the horned serpent/water spirit responsible for floods and heavy rains.

Anyhow, I was at Devil's Pool this weekend, during a cleanup activity sponsored by the Friends of the Wissahickon (which I wish I had known about in advance), a necessary and good undertaking, as the area is regularly trashed by local swimmers. I took a few shots, and a few items stuck with me. First, the following weir, which closes off the pool and prevents a too rapid outflow of its water.

There are some reasons I think a weir to be an important ceremonial structure here, and I'll get into them in a later posting. But it's probably not for fishing. Cresheim Creek is a very, very small stream and contains no fish of any significance. Furthermore, the local Lenape did not regard this as a spiritually "safe" location and its doubtful they'd eat anything they caught here (one local historian has asserted that they avoided the Wissahickon Valley altogether, unless spiritual necessity forced a visit on them, prefering to stick to the Manatawna "plantation" up the hill from the vale).

There are several other weir-like structures here, creating little pools in this area. Immediately to the right and toward me, we see the following pool/weir:
Given the abuse this location has absorbed in the 20th century (the large slab in the background is defaced with graffiti), it is entirely reasonable to assume these weirs represent modern constructions. However, I have evidence that they were present, at least at the turn of the 20th century. The following postcard, dated 1907, clearly shows the large weir pictured in the first image, enclosing the pool proper, from a slightly wider-angled view. Several white figures, I assume well-to-do, vacationing women, are standing on it.

So, why were these weirs constructed, and how did they fit into the ritual significance of Devil's Pool (if they did)? More on that later.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Looking for Mr. Goodpile

When I go pile hunting in Roxborough, specifically in the Wissahickon valley, I don't expect to see too many of the intact piles that we see on other blogs documenting more rustic locations. Like everywhere else, time takes its toll here. But the toll a large town or a city exacts on history and its physical remembrances and that the countryside takes are of vastly disparate magnitudes.

So I was pretty excited this morning to find a small stone wall snaking its way up to the crest of a hill. The wall is unremarkable, and really amounted only to "pavement": a row of rocks at ground level. Given its appearance, though, and the scattered stones I found about it, I suspect it was once a bit higher. Shortly the wall expanded into the following shattered pile:

And this, I thought, was as good as it gets. I was wrong, as happily wrong as I've ever been when out pile hunting. The wall/paving continued for a bit and erupted into the following beauty at the very top of the hill:

note the wall I mentioned off to the right of this pile. It continues a good bit farther.

I have never found piles of this caliber in the Wissahickon Valley. Never. I'm still a bit stunned. Given the multiple millworks down below, I figured most of the easy to access stone lying about would have been used in the construction of dams, millhouses, and living quarters. That this site was maintained in such condition is impressive.

All told, I found about 6 piles up here including this magnificent cairn. All connected by the wall, which seemed to snake around the site, forming a natural enclosure with the northern lip of this steep hill (more or less the the horizon in this picture).

I will not be giving any further hints about this location. If you're a dedicated hiker of the Wissahickon, you have a decent chance of finding it. Clearly, the stick jammed into its center indicates that I'm not the only one who's been here. But this locale is too precious to risk exposing to the local flavor of ne'er-do-well.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Manitou Stone?

Found almost a year ago, at the bottom of a wash.

If this isn't a "manitou stone", I don't know what it is. The rectangular portion at the top, the head, is clearly the work of human hands. Any ideas?

Some perched and otherwise interesting boulders

I went running yesterday along the Wissahickon. Found what I thought would be a great site (the hill's spine had broken through the earth in multiple locations, creating overhangs and smallish rock shelters. I had brought my camera along, but in the end, all I found were a few perched boulders/niches and maybe the remains of a pile.

And is this the remant of a pile?

Today's run was much more fruitful, I found some truly interesting and strange stuff. But I didn't bring my camera along (it was to be a long run, and I was concerned about rain). So I'll try and get some pics before the weekend.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

More from the ridge site

Or, more accurately, from the ascent to the ridge. Near the foot of the hill, I encountered a broad, flattened region, large enough for a small building. Interestingly, at the base of a small tree was a large, deep, rock-lined hole. I would have thought it the den of some animal, but it made a vertical descent for at least 6 feet (according to my preliminary probings), not a good orientation if you don't want to collect rainwater. Did this hole represent a break through into an old and buried basement?

Farther up the hill, I found the following mossy pile. Yes, that is a cat skull someone has placed on top. Clearly, if this location ever had any ceremonial value in the past, it does for at least someone, today.
Somewhat disturbingly, I believe the cat skull was placed there rather recently. And given its state of insect occupancy, it was placed there with considerably more flesh on it. Poor cat.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Extensive ridgetop site on the Wissahickon.

Traveling down Wise's Mill road, I've often felt drawn to the bluffs on either side of the chasm occupied by the old milling road. I've explored the crest of the hill on the right hand side already, and found some truly wonderful lithics there, but yesterday and today I had an urge to explorethe left hand side. From the road, it's possible to make out boulder fields dotting the steep ascent (above). So, finding the least dangerous path up the valley wall, I picked my way between the boulders, some of which were amazing. Consider this boulder (which I'm calling Open Mouth Rock). It was spectacular, a surface projection of the spine rock running under the crestof the hill.

Making the crest of the hill, I was not disappointed. The first thing I noticed was this wonderful, and very long, stone row...or really stone "platform". It appeared to extend the horizon of the hill outward over the valley, rather than to add elevation, although it could have been much higher long ago. It continued along the edge of the ridge. It must have been fairly old, because the wall would periodically be submerged under years of detritus, emerging at points along the ridge.

At one point, I noticed the following structure attached to the wall (after it emerged from the accumulated leaves and earth). It appeared to be some kind of enclosure or embrasure. If this was a natural, eroded feature, a result of a treefall exposing the buried wall or an intentional construction, I couldn't say. It is interesting to note that several people could sit within the enclosure and take in a commanding view of the valley below.

Above the enclosure, in a large, open area, overshadowed by well-grown conifers, there were several interesting rock piles. Three in particular were arranged in a straight line, starting with what looks like a toppled standing stone and ending with the final pile at the very top of the hill.

(toppled standing stone? Note white quartz in middle pile near the center back of the photo. )

(middle of line, featuring quartz
shown in preceding picture)

(Apex-of-hill pile)

Now, for my thoughts: the most interesting aspect of this site is the linear set of piles/standing stone(s) near the hill's apex. The large platform/stone row skirting the hill's edge is also interesting in that it snakes its' way down the steepest portion of the hill (one reason why I doubt that it's a field clearing pile). The pile begins to break apart and spread out a bit but its remains clearly directed toward and connected to the Open Mouth rock identified above. Is this an example of the walls-connecting boulder motif?

In any event, finding a site this extensive was a surprise. Sometimes it pays to follow a hunch.

Looking for petroglyphs on the Wissahickon

My son and I took a hike to see an old dam on the Wissahickon Creek, part of the Wise's Mill complex formerly occpying this stretch of the creek. The damn is constructed at a minor narrowing of the creek, between two sets of large, riverine boulders. It is a picturesque location. It's long been held by locals that the Lenape considered the Wissahickon Valley a sacred place, or at least a "haunted" one (to the extant that a distinction was made). With legendary locale's such as Devil's Pool (purportedly the site of a great spiritual battle) and (local witch ) Mom Rinker's Rock, the Valley has the potential to yield a great many lithic surprises.

After some foraging along the river bank below the dam, we moved closer to it, and took special notice of the large boulder at the foot of the falls. It is seen here slightly left of center in this image, behind the leftmost tree. It was possible to get closer to this boulder, and of course, we did so. We were rewarded for our efforts with the following image:

Ancient Native American petroglyphs? Maybe there are some cursory similarities to a few of the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs, but for the most part, not really. The Ogham alphabet? Please. Some miller's idle scratchings? Who knows? Natural anomaly? Could be.

The fun of doing this is that I just don't know what I'm looking at. Speaking as a scientist, there isn't a better feeling in the world.


Among [Johannes Kelpius'] legacies was the naming of Roxborough. Kelpius called his cave [pictured -Corey]"The Burrow of Rocks" because foxes often burrowed into the rocky cellar. The name was eventually formalized into "Rocks Burrow" when he used the term in a letter dated May 25, 1706. Eventually "Rocks Burrow" was changed to the spelling we use today, Roxborough, and that is how the section of Philadelphia known as Roxborough got its' name.

A fable, most likely. But it speaks to the role stone has played in shaping the Roxborough experience. Stone has dictated where and how and with what denizens of "the borough" can build. And this is true whether those denizens are modern day developers, intrepid colonials, or pre-Columbian Native Amercans mostly effaced from history.

Roxborough and the Wissahickon Valley are an urban Philadelphia site. Very little has been left undisturbed, although the setting is bucolic thanks to the mid-19th century decisions that helped protect these sites from development. Finding undisturbed colonial or precolonial relics is a minor miracle. And that's what this blog will be looking for...and maybe...will find: miracles of stone and time.