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Shapes used by Native Americans

By Mary Gage


The term shape refers to a specific recognizable form like triangle, rectangle, circle, pyramid, etc. A shape can be either solid or outline, two dimensional or three dimensional, naturally occuring or human-made. It can be created by the walls of a chamber or an enclosure forming a space with a particular shape, it can occur as a standing stone or boulder with a specific shape, and it can be a shape formed by stone walls. Basically, shapes come in numerous variations. With patience and experience one can learn to recognize these various shapes in their many manifestations.

For the Native Americans, shapes were more than simple geometric designs, they had symbolic meaning. They intentionally incorporated these shapes into certain stone structures because of their symbolic value in their ceremonies. The use symbolic shapes by Native Americans in their stonework was a wide spread practice throughout the northeastern U.S.  This article discusses eleven shapes which are found repeatly at prehistoric stone structure sites.

Description: A shape with three points

I. Stone Slab Forms
  1) Plain sided
  2) Two shoulders on Top of Triangle
  3) Triangular top (double slanted top) with
       rectangular bottom
  4) Triangular top (single slanted top) with
     rectangular bottom
  5) Flat-topped triangle
II. Three Dimensional Forms
  6) Prism (3 sided)
  7) Pyramid (3 or 4 sided)
III. Combinations
 8) Three boulders (Gloucester, MA)
 9) Three Standing Stones (Connecticut)
 10) Stone walls laid out in shape of a triangle
     (America’s Stonehenge)
Sizes: Range from three inch handheld to five feet tall standing stones
Types of Stone: Flat slab, boulder (prism and pyramid shapes only)
Positions: Vertical and horizontal
Colors: Gray stone, all white, gray with white bands
Material: Granite or other natural gray stone material; quartz
Usage: Protective symbolism; triangles with two shoulders used as spirit portals


Description: A double-ended triangle. Only three examples so far have been found. One is white quartz stone at Gungywamp, second is a tall slab at America’s Stonehenge and third is a purple shadow on a standing stone in Salisbury, MA.
Usage: Protective symbolism; possibly other


Description: A shape with two long parallel sides and two short parallel sides. Square a shape with four equal length sides. Square is rare and was interchangeable with rectangle.


1) Flat slab
2) Elongated boulder
3) Chunky block-like piece of stone
4) Any stone approximating a rectangular or square shape was acceptable

Positions: Horizontal and vertical
Size: Range from 10” H x 10” L up to 3’ H x 5’ L
Additional Feature: Small v notch on top, these are spirit portals
Colors: Shades of gray, solid white, gray with white band(s)
Stone Material: Gray granite and other stone material; clear and colored quartz
Usage: Protective symbolism


Description: A flat round shape


1) Flat stone slab with grooved circle (America’s Stonehenge)
2) Double circle of stones (Gungywamp)
3) Ring of stone around base of stone (Mavor & Dix, 1989: p. 57)
4) Stone wall in shape of circle (generally small 3 to 4 feet diameter enclosure)
5) Pendants with circle and half circles (See illustration in Lenik, 20002:  p. 200)

Position: Horizontal
Usage: Representation of Sun; full moon in association with crescents; other (?) containment and/or protective with circular enclosures


Description: A shape approximating a half-circle with a single    curved wall or letter U with a circular end and straight sides.

Found As:

1) Stone wall or several short lengths of stone wall enclosing an area (small to large) (with or without a wall across end) these are enclosures (Lochmere, NH)
2) Base stone of a cairn (America’s Stonehenge, No. Salem, NH)
3) Solid stone placed on top of a staff (pole) (Willoughby 1973: 63, 65, 69)

Usage: On top of staff represents the moon; at America’s Stonehenge an enclosure for people or spirit of people.


Description: A curved shape thick in middle and thin on ends

Found As:

1) Curved row of standing stones with short stones on ends and high stones in middle found at Gungywamp in Connecticut
2) Curved lines on pendants (Proctor Collection, Franklin Falls, NH)
3) Crescent shaped stone on top of a specialty cairn in Newbury, MA

Positions: Vertical and horizontal
Usage: Representation of moon


Description: Zigzag has angled lines that alternate back and forth to create the pattern; serpentine has alternating S curves to create a pattern similar to movement of a snake.
Usage: At America’s Stonehenge representation of rivers (serpentine veins in rocks)


Description: It has the shape of the letter L, some open L’s have a long side and a short side, others have equal length sides (as of present only found at America’s Stonehenge, No. Salem, NH)

Found As:

1) Open corner of stone slab in vertical and horizontal positions
2) Cutouts in bedrock
3) Two stone walls in L shape enclosing a space
4) Grooved drains
5) Chamber Unit (Sunken Ceremonial Unit, America’s Stonehenge [Not illustrated])

Usage: Spirit portal; to contain spirit within enclosure or specific area


Description: V has an open front which distinguishes it from the triangle.

Found As:

1) A horizontal V shaped opening in exterior (1A) and interior (1B) chamber walls at America’s Stonehenge, No. Salem, NH
2) A horizontal V opening in bedrock at Gungywamp Site, Groton, CT (Not illustrated)
3) Small v opening in top of rectangular standing stones
4) V or U shaped indentation in stone wall called an embrasure (Mavor & Dix, 1989: p. 61)

Positions: Vertical and horizontal
Size: Small to large
Usage: spirit portal, enclosure


Description: A line of colored material different from base stone color. Bands are veins of intrusive material that show up on exposed surface of stone.

Width: Narrow, thin, thick, wide
Length: Short to long
Shape: Straight, serpentine, wavy
Position: Vertical, horizontal, diagonal
Colors: White, rust, black, dark gray; color can be bordered by second color
Stone Material: Intrusive materials of unknown type; quartz
Usage: Protective symbolism; representation of specific spirits


Description: A shape with a neck and torso minus any appendixes

Size: A few inches up to two feet tall
Position: Vertical
Usage: Spirit stone


Shapes were a means to communicate. At Native American’s ceremonial complexes communication was between people and spirits. Spirits are beings. At ceremonial complexes specific spirits were invited to participate. For a spirit to participate it needed free movement, in some cases it needed to be directed where to go, at other times the spirit(s) needed to be contained and in a few cases, the spirit needed to represented. Spirits with free movement have the ability to wander at will. This occurs with invited spirits, uninvited benevolent spirits, and disruptive spirits. To maintain order people developed symbolic means of communication with the spirits. People used shape for several different purposes 1) protective/blocking symbolism 2) representation of various natural features like sun, moon, river, crystal 3) spirit portals and 4) to contain a spirit(s).

The most widely and universally used protective/blocking symbolism in the northeast region is the triangle shape. It was adaptable in many ways and forms. Some times it had dual usage of containing the invited spirit while at the same time blocking out uninvited spirits. Dual usage also extends to the triangle with two shoulders. The shoulders are a spirit portal and triangle is a blocking symbol. Most often the triangle was used strictly to block out uninvited spirits. The rectangle at America’s Stonehenge was used in unison with the triangle to protect. Outside this site rectangles were used as one of four basic shapes for low-walled enclosures. The consistency of its use suggests an importance was placed on the rectangle shape. Enclosures separate people and people/spirits from the world around them. By their nature they contain and at the same block out. The circle, open V, and U shape are the other basic shapes used to build low-walled enclosures. In reference to enclosures the four shapes appear to have some protective/blocking symbolism.

Representation of natural features was done for two purposes 1) to call forth a spirit to a man-made recreation of its natural feature as part of a ceremony, and 2) to recreate the natural feature to have the spirit present. Each representation is specific to the spirit invited to a ceremony. Each ceremonial complex appears to have developed its own form of representation with one exception, the Manitou “Spirit” Stone. Manitou stones universally have the same basic shape although they vary in size.

For a spirit to move from one world to another world or from one location on a ceremonial complex to another location it needs a spirit portal. Spirit portals take on many forms some of which have specific shapes. Shape was an important part of spirit portals at America’s Stonehenge. 

Native Americans utilized and used shape to work with the spirits. It was one of many ways in which contact could be made with spirits. Spirits for some unknown reason abide by the people’s rules and purposes set forth within the symbolic shapes. Some Native American groups incorporated shape to a high degree while others used it sparingly or not at all. The triangle has widespread use throughout the northeast region. To a lesser degree the rectangle and circle in reference to enclosures has widespread usage. Otherwise, shape was very individualistic from group to group.


Shape was used for symbolic protection, to represent a spirit, and to have continuity with a particular type of feature such as spirit portals. Any form of a particular shape was acceptable. This allowed any given shape to be adapted to different uses and situations. An example is the triangle when used as a support stone, a prism shape was placed in the exit of a drain and when used as standing stone in a processional way, a tall, flat slab was erected.  Each one exhibited the triangular symbol and each one blocked out uninvited spirits. Each one is the same basic shape but in different forms. The same basic shape can sometimes take on different purposes. Circles that show up in low-walled enclosures exhibit protective and containment symbolism. Circles in other features such as the grooved circle sundial at America’s Stonehenge and double ring of stones (stone circle) at Gungywamp are associated with the Sun Spirit. Pendants with a full grooved circle with repeated half circles inside it are associated with the moon. In the case, of circles each one must be evaluated individually. Some shapes retain their same form and purpose at all times. The small v notch in top of rectangular stones has been found at several sites in the same form. It does not appear to change in form. Usage is the same, a spirit portal wherever it appears. It is generally found in a stone within a stone wall. How it functions depends on how it is set up in a wall. In an across-wall position it allows the spirit to travel either up or down the length of wall. In an in-line wall position it allows the spirit to cross over the wall into another area of the site. Native Americans were practical in their use of symbolism at stone structure sites. The symbolism was used in a practical and logical manner. Understanding the logic behind the symbolism is the key to reading the various shapes integrated into the stone structures. At a site that has had successive building eras similar symbolism is generally used repeatedly with each new set of structures albeit in modified forms. When usage can be determined for a particular shape, then other local sites can be evaluated with similar symbolism for possible similar usage.

Triangle Shape

A fallen standing stone at America’s Stonehenge site. Note the three quartz veins in the stone.

Prism Shape

A standing stone with a prism shaped cross-section. A variation on the triangle concept.
(America’s Stonehenge)

Pyramid Shape
(3 Sided)

A standing stone with three flat sides coming to a point. Again, a variation on the triangle concept. Scale is in inches. (America’s Stonehenge)

Pyramid Shape
(4 Sided)

Artifact recovered from the drain exiting the Oracle Chamber at America’ Stonehenge. Again, a variation on the triangle concept. (Whittall, 1977: 21)


Roughly rectangular stone over the entrance to drain inside the sunken courtyard at America’s Stonehenge. (Symbolism can be found integrated into structures.)

Crescent Shape

Crescent shaped stone carefully placed on this stone cairn. (Newbury, MA)


Cahill, Robert

1993 New England’s Ancient Mysteries. Salem, MA: Old Saltbox Publishing Inc.

Goudsward, David with Robert Stone

2003 America’s Stonehenge: The Mystery Hill Story. Boston, MA: Branden Books.

Lenik, Edward

2002 Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands. Hanover, NH: University of New England.

Mavor, James & Byron Dix

1989 Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Whittall, James  II

1977 “Excavation Report: Oracle Chamber Drain.” Early Sites Research Society Bulletin vol. 5 no. 1 pp. 18-21 (February 1977).

Willoughby, Charles

1973 Antiquities of the New England Indians with Notes on the Ancient Cultures of the Adjacent Territory. New York, NY: AMS Press, Inc

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