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A cairn marking a mountain summit in Graubunden, Switzerland. Cairn at Garvera, Surselva, Graubuenden, Switzerland.jpg
A cairn marking a mountain summit in Graubünden, Switzerland.
The biggest cairn in Ireland, Maeve's Cairn on Knocknarea. Maeve's Grave - - 254449.jpg
The biggest cairn in Ireland, Maeve's Cairn on Knocknarea.

A cairn is a human-made pile (or stack) of stones raised for a purpose, usually as a marker or as a burial mound. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic : càrn [ˈkʰaːrˠn̪ˠ] (plural càirn [ˈkʰaːrˠɲ] ). [1]


Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes. In prehistory, they were raised as markers, as memorials and as burial monuments (some of which contained chambers). In the modern era, cairns are often raised as landmarks, especially to mark the summits of mountains. Cairns are also used as trail markers. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to elaborate megalithic structures. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or for religious reasons.

A variant is the inuksuk (plural inuksuit), used by the Inuit and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America.



One of the cairns at Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery in Ireland, which covers a passage tomb. Carrowkeel Passage Tomb - - 1929464.jpg
One of the cairns at Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery in Ireland, which covers a passage tomb.

The building of cairns for various purposes goes back into prehistory in Eurasia, ranging in size from small rock sculptures to substantial human-made hills of stone (some built on top of larger, natural hills). [2] The latter are often relatively massive Bronze Age or earlier structures which, like kistvaens and dolmens, frequently contain burials; they are comparable to tumuli (kurgans), but of stone construction instead of earthworks. [3] Cairn originally could more broadly refer to various types of hills and natural stone piles, but today is used exclusively of artificial ones.

Cairn of the Neolithic-era passage tomb on Gavrinis island, Brittany Gavrinis cairn.jpg
Cairn of the Neolithic-era passage tomb on Gavrinis island, Brittany

Ireland and Britain

The word cairn derives from Scots cairn (with the same meaning), in turn from Scottish Gaelic càrn, which is essentially the same as the corresponding words in other native Celtic languages of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, including Welsh carn (and carnedd), Breton karn, Irish carn, and Cornish karn or carn. [2] Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape, such as Cornwall's highest point, Brown Willy Summit Cairn, a 5 m (16 ft) high and 24 m (79 ft) diameter mound atop Brown Willy hill in Bodmin Moor, an area with many ancient cairns. Burial cairns and other megaliths are the subject of a variety of legends and folklore throughout Britain and Ireland. In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, "I'll put a stone on your cairn". [4] In Highland folklore it is recounted that before Highland clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead.[ citation needed ] Cairns in the region were also put to vital practical use. For example, Dún Aonghasa, an all-stone Iron Age Irish hill fort on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, is still surrounded by small cairns and strategically placed jutting rocks, used collectively as an alternative to defensive earthworks because of the karst landscape's lack of soil.[ citation needed ] In February 2020, ancient cairns dated back to 4,500 year-old used to bury the leaders or chieftains of neolithic tribes people were revealed in the Cwmcelyn in Blaenau Gwent by the Aberystruth Archaeological Society. [5]

Scandinavia and Iceland

In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes, the most notable being the Three-Country Cairn. In Iceland, cairns were often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving "lane", used to direct reindeer towards a game jump. [6]

Greece and the Balkans

In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. [7] According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict they were given pebbles, and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn. In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.[ citation needed ]


In Portugal, a cairn is called a moledro. In a legend the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile. [8] The cairns that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus. The same name given to the stones was given to the dead whose identity was unknown. [9]

North and northeast Africa

Ancient cairns in Qa'ableh, Somaliland Qableh3.JPG
Ancient cairns in Qa'ableh, Somaliland

Cairns (taalo) are a common feature at El Ayo, Haylan, Qa'ableh, Qombo'ul, Heis, Salweyn and Gelweita, among other places. Somaliland in general is home to a lot of such historical settlements and archaeological sites wherein are found numerous ancient ruins and buildings, many of obscure origins. [10] However, many of these old structures have yet to be properly explored, a process which would help shed further light on local history and facilitate their preservation for posterity. [11]

Since Neolithic times, the climate of North Africa has become drier. A reminder of the desertification of the area is provided by megalithic remains, which occur in a great variety of forms and in vast numbers in presently arid and uninhabitable wastelands: cairns (kerkour), dolmens and circles like Stonehenge, underground cells excavated in rock, barrows topped with huge slabs, and step pyramid-like mounds. [12]

Middle East

Cairn in the Judean mountains Rock Cairn.jpg
Cairn in the Judean mountains

The Biblical place name [13] Gilead (Genesis 31 etc.) means literally "heap of testimony/evidence" as does its Aramaic translation (ibid.) Yegar Sahaduta . In modern Hebrew, gal-'ed (גל-עד) is the actual word for "cairn". In Genesis 31 the cairn of Gilead was set up as a border demarcation between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban at their last meeting. [14]

Asia and the Pacific

A Mongolian ceremonial cairn (ovoo) TallOvoo.JPG
A Mongolian ceremonial cairn ( ovoo )

Starting in the Bronze Age, burial cists were sometimes interred into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. Though most often found in the British Isles, evidence of Bronze Age cists have been found in Mongolia. [15] The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. Another explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person's grave as a token of respect, known as visitation stones, though this is generally to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion. [16] Stupas in India and Tibet probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.[ citation needed ]

A traditional and often decorated, heap-formed cairn called an ovoo is made in Mongolia. It primarily serves religious purposes, and finds use in both Tengriist and Buddhist ceremonies. Ovoos were also often used as landmarks and meeting points in traditional nomadic Mongolian culture. Traditional ceremonies still take place at ovoos today, and in a survey conducted, 75 participants out of 144 participants stated that they believe in ovoo ceremonies. However, mining and other industrial operations today threaten the ovoos [17]

In Hawaii, cairns, called by the Hawaiian word ahu, are still being built today. Though in other cultures, the cairns were typically used as trail markers and sometimes funerary sites, the ancient Hawaiians also used them as altars or security tower.[ clarification needed ] [18] The Hawaiian people are still building these cairns today, using them as the focal points for ceremonies honoring their ancestors and spirituality. [19]

In South Korea, cairns are quite prevalent, often found along roadsides and trails, up on mountain peaks, and adjacent to Buddhist temples. Hikers frequently add stones to existing cairns trying to get just one more on top of the pile, to bring good luck. This tradition has its roots in the worship of San-shin, or Mountain Spirit, so often still revered in Korean culture. [20]

The Americas

Throughout what today are the continental United States and Canada, some Indigenous peoples of the Americas have built structures similar to cairns. In some cases, these are general trail markers, and in other cases they mark game-driving "lanes", such as those leading to buffalo jumps. [21]

Peoples from some of the Indigenous cultures of arctic North America (i.e. northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland) have built carefully constructed stone sculptures called inuksuit and inunnguat, which serve as landmarks and directional markers. The oldest of these structures are very old and pre-date contact with Europeans. They are iconic of the region (an inuksuk even features on the flag of the Canadian far-northeastern territory, Nunavut). [22]

Cairns have been used throughout what is now Latin America, since pre-Columbian times, to mark trails. Even today, in the Andes of South America, the Quechuan peoples build cairns as part of their spiritual and religious traditions. [23]

Modern cairns

Modern cairn at the boundary of Counties Durham and Northumberland, England Cairn Northumberland and Durham.jpg
Modern cairn at the boundary of Counties Durham and Northumberland, England

Cairn can be used to mark hiking trails, especially in mountain regions at or above the tree line. Examples can be seen in the lava fields of Volcanoes National Park to mark several hikes. [24] Placed at regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers. In Acadia National Park, in Maine, the trails are marked by a special type of cairn instituted in the 1890s by Waldron Bates and dubbed Bates cairns. [25]

Sea cairns

Sea mark in Finnish coastal waters Kummel Korpo 2009.jpg
Sea mark in Finnish coastal waters

Coastal cairns called sea marks are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada. They are placed along shores and on islands and islets. Usually painted white for improved offshore visibility, they serve as navigation aids. In Sweden, they are called kummel, in Finland kummeli, in Norway varde, and are indicated in navigation charts and maintained as part of the nautical marking system. [26]

Other types

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chambered cairn</span> Burial monument (Usually Neolithic)

A chambered cairn is a burial monument, usually constructed during the Neolithic, consisting of a sizeable chamber around and over which a cairn of stones was constructed. Some chambered cairns are also passage-graves. They are found throughout Britain and Ireland, with the largest number in Scotland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Herm (sculpture)</span> Type of classical sculpture

A herma, commonly herm in English, is a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section, on which male genitals may also be carved at the appropriate height. Hermae were so called either because the head of Hermes was most common or from their etymological connection with the Greek word ἕρματα, which originally had no reference to Hermes at all. The form originated in ancient Greece, and was adopted by the Romans, and revived at the Renaissance in the form of term figures and atlantes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Menhir</span> Large upright standing stone

A menhir, standing stone, orthostat, or lith is a large upright stone, emplaced in the ground by humans, typically dating from the European middle Bronze Age. They can be found individually as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Menhirs' size can vary considerably, but they often taper toward the top.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Inuksuk</span> Inuit built stone landmark or cairn

An inuksuk or inukshuk is a type of stone landmark or cairn built by, and for the use of, Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. These structures are found in northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. This combined region, north of the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Court cairn</span> Type of chamber tomb found in Ireland and Scotland

The court cairn or court tomb is a megalithic type of chambered cairn or gallery grave. During the period, 3900–3500 BC, more than 390 court cairns were built in Ireland and over 100 in southwest Scotland. The Neolithic monuments are identified by an uncovered courtyard connected to one or more roofed and partitioned burial chambers. Many monuments were built in multiple phases in both Ireland and Scotland and later re-used in the Early Bronze Age.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cairnpapple Hill</span>

Cairnpapple Hill is a hill with a dominating position in central lowland Scotland with views from coast to coast. It was used and re-used as a major ritual site for around 4000 years, and in its day would have been comparable to better known sites like the Standing Stones of Stenness. The summit lies 312 m above sea level, and is about 2 miles (3 km) north of Bathgate. In the 19th century the site was completely concealed by trees, then in 1947–1948 excavations by Stuart Piggott found a series of ritual monuments from successive prehistoric periods. In 1998, Gordon Barclay re-interpreted the site for Historic Scotland. It is designated a scheduled ancient monument.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Slieve Croob</span> Mountain in Northern Ireland

Slieve Croob is a mountain with a height of 534 metres (1,752 ft) in the middle of County Down, Northern Ireland. It is the heart of a mountainous area, the Dromara Hills, north of the Mourne Mountains. It is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is the source of the River Lagan. There is a small road to the summit, where there is an ancient burial cairn and several transmitter stations with radio masts. It has wide views over all of County Down and further afield. The Dromara Hills also includes Slievenisky, Cratlieve, Slievegarran and Slievenaboley.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carrowmore</span> Megalithic cemetery in County Sligo, Ireland

Carrowmore is a large group of megalithic monuments on the Coolera Peninsula to the west of Sligo, Ireland. They were built in the 4th millennium BC, during the Neolithic. There are thirty surviving tombs, making Carrowmore one of the largest clusters of megalithic tombs in Ireland, and one of the 'big four' along with Carrowkeel, Loughcrew and Brú na Bóinne. Carrowmore is the heart of an ancient ritual landscape which is dominated by the mountain of Knocknarea to the west. It is a protected National Monument.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Trail blazing</span> Practice of marking footpaths by leaving signs that indicate the route

Trail blazing or way marking is the practice of marking paths in outdoor recreational areas with signs or markings that follow each other at certain, though not necessarily exactly defined, distances and mark the direction of the trail.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Petroform</span> Human-made shapes and patterns of rocks placed on the ground

Petroforms, also known as boulder outlines or boulder mosaics, are human-made shapes and patterns made by lining up large rocks on the open ground, often on quite level areas. Petroforms in North America were originally made by various Native American and First Nation tribes, who used various terms to describe them. Petroforms can also include a rock cairn or inukshuk, an upright monolith slab, a medicine wheel, a fire pit, a desert kite, sculpted boulders, or simply rocks lined up or stacked for various reasons. Old World petroforms include the Carnac stones and many other megalithic monuments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kilmartin Glen</span> British Neolithic monument site

Kilmartin Glen is an area in Argyll north of Knapdale. It has the most important concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in mainland Scotland. The glen is located between Oban and Lochgilphead, surrounding the village of Kilmartin. In the village, Kilmartin Museum explains the stories of this ancient landscape and the people who dwelt there. There are more than 800 ancient monuments within a six-mile (ten-kilometre) radius of the village, with 150 monuments being prehistoric. Monuments include standing stones, a henge monument, numerous cists, and a "linear cemetery" comprising five burial cairns. Several of these, as well as many natural rocks, are decorated with cup and ring marks.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Knocknarea</span> Hill in County Sligo, Ireland

Knocknarea is a large prominent hill west of Sligo town in County Sligo, Ireland, with a height of 327 metres (1,073 ft). Knocknarea is visually striking as it has steep limestone cliffs and stands on the Cúil Irra peninsula overlooking the Atlantic coast. At the summit is one of Ireland's largest cairns, known as Queen Maeve's Cairn, which is believed to contain a Neolithic passage tomb. In recent years there has been concern that the ancient cairn, a protected National Monument, is being damaged by climbers. There are also remains of several smaller tombs on the summit. Knocknarea overlooks the Carrowmore tombs and is thought to have been part of an ancient ritual landscape.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock balancing</span> Human-created installation rock art

Rock balancing is a form of recreation or artistic expression in which rocks are piled in balanced stacks, often in a precarious manner.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ovoo</span> Stone or wooden mounds used in Mongolian culture

Ovoo, oboo, or obo are cairns used as border markers or shrines in Mongolian folk religious practice and in the religion of other Mongolic peoples. While some ovoos simply consist of a mound of stones, most have branches and khadag stuck into them. In the absence of stones, ovoos can be made entirely of branches, or even soil or sand.

A cairn is a man-made pile of stones.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Slieve na Calliagh</span> Hilly area, with megalithic tombs, in County Meath, Ireland

Slieve na Calliagh are a range of hills and ancient burial site near Oldcastle, County Meath, Ireland. The summit is 276 metres (906 ft), the highest point in the county. On the hilltops are about twenty passage tombs, some decorated with rare megalithic art, which were built in the 4th millennium BC. Also called the Loughcrew tombs, it is a protected National Monument and is one of the main passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland, along with Brú na Bóinne, Carrowkeel and Carrowmore.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clearance cairn</span> Mound of stones cleared from an agricultural field

A clearance cairn is an irregular and unstructured collection of fieldstones which have been removed from arable land or pasture to allow for more effective agriculture and collected into a usually low mound or cairn. Commonly of Bronze Age origins, these cairns may be part of a cairnfield where some cairns might be funerary. Clearance cairns are a worldwide phenomenon wherever organised agriculture has been practised.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Midhowe Chambered Cairn</span> Neolithic chambered cairn on Rousay, Orkney, Scotland

Midhowe Chambered Cairn is a large Neolithic chambered cairn located on the south shore of the island of Rousay, Orkney, Scotland. The name "Midhowe" comes from the Iron Age broch known as Midhowe Broch, that lies just west of the tomb. The broch got its name from the fact that it is the middle of three such structures that lie grouped within 500 metres (1,600 ft) of each other and Howe from the Old Norse word haugr meaning mound or barrow. Together, the broch and chambered cairn form part of a large complex of ancient structures on the shore of Eynhallow Sound separating Rousay from Mainland, Orkney.


Wikisource-logo.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain :  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cairn". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

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