The word “rock face” is not usually to be taken literally. Yet, around the world, all cultures find familiar-looking forms that appear spontaneously in the mineral masses. Rock is supposed to be “stone dead” but legends recount handiwork of the gods and entombed spirits that live on in local geological features. As we see pictures in the sky as constellations, we see faces emerging from rock.
Stone Faces Everywhere
Apophenia is the human tendency to perceive a meaningful pattern in random things. Pareidolia is a form of apophenia where the viewer experiences an illusion of seeing (or hearing) something specific in a vague stimulus – like seeing the religious images in food products, or hearing words and phrases in noise. Seeing faces in things that do not actually have faces – clouds, rocks, trees, stains, textiles, etc. – is a common experience for most people. Our brains are wired to seek familiar patterns, especially faces. So it is unsurprising that natural objects will readily be perceived to form or contain faces.
Fortean Times magazine still retains a section called “Simulacra Corner” where readers send in pictures of natural objects that seemingly depict interesting faces and creatures. It’s always a fun feature. These natural simulacra can be strikingly obvious or entirely subjective. Perspective, shadows, and light often come into play. Some of them are eerie. Inanimate material taking a seemingly familiar but uncanny form can be spooky.
Ancient cultures may have believed the stone itself was alive. A formation with a meaningful shape might be considered sacred, perhaps containing or channeling the spirit of the god or entity it resembled. Some rock formations are associated with tales of individuals who have been turned to stone. People may accept their essence still resides within the rock. Local myths and various folklore accrete to prominent features.
The madman may be tormented by seeing faces in things. Richard Shaver, who believed evil beings lived inside our hollow earth, split open rocks and considered the figures he perceived inside to be messages left from a past civilization (“rock books”). Many people attempt to gain attention from publicizing their finds of chunks or concretions that resemble sensational forms. They contend they are fossils of mysterious things, evidence for their beliefs turned to stone.
John Michell, an eclectic British author, assures readers in Natural Likeness: Faces and Figures in Nature (1979) that people have always seen faces and familiar figures in nature and we always will – it is a natural function of human consciousness. He relates the common theme of traditional creation myths where the local entity journeys through the land and influences the shape of the landscape features. Sleeping giants, reclining women, and devil’s marks are common interpretations.
Michell’s personal esoteric view was that there is a force in nature that is deliberately creating images that humans will recognize. Unfortunately, he promoted racist ideas that local rock faces resemble the characteristics of the local population. The “red Indian” example is particularly egregious. Michell interprets the characteristic features not in terms of population genetics, which he dismissed, but proposed the fantastic idea that the land itself had a unifying effect on the appearance of those who live there. As well as being illogical, it is easily falsified. For example, Michell shows the famous Sphinx Rock profile from the Lake District of England. Comparing this to a stereotypical Native American profile (that may or may not be a real person), it’s an impressive match. Yet, Michell fails to mention its resemblance to a man with feathered headwear who looks nothing like native Britons. Michell’s examples serve to illustrate how we project onto the stone what we find familiar or what we wish to see. We ignore out-of-place bumps and imperfections in these features, still clearly recognizing a face when the phenomenon is instead generated through our spontaneously imagined construct of a face.
The most common interpretation of stone faces around the world include witches, “Indian heads”, old men, and U.S. Presidents – notably Lincoln, Washington, Kennedy, and even Nixon.
Geology professor R.V. Dietrich saw the need to publish a name for the phenomena whereby a “natural topographic feature, rock outcrop, rock specimen, mineral specimen, or loose stone” resembles something else. He designates them mimetoliths after the Greek “mimetes” (imitator) and attributes the term to Thomas Orzo MacAdoo (1989). [Source]
The formation of such curiosities can be ancient, sudden, or just temporary. Many go undocumented and can appear at any time. Some are hidden in the forest, or become overgrown and “disappear”. Diverse mimetoliths have been formed as the result of solidification of magma, crystallization from solutions, chemical or physical weathering, abrasion either in place or during transport, as well as the result of several different combinations of such constructive and destructive geological processes.
Faces in rocks are ambiguous in that they require input and projection from the observer for them to designate the mimetolith. Some people spot the familiar pattern while others can’t see it at all.
Mimeotoliths attract viewers who strive to see the face for themselves and potentially imbue it with meaning. Such features were commonly used as landmarks and memorialized in postcards. Even today, mimetoliths are used to promote tourism. For example, in Malaysia, a study was conducted to document the geotourism possibilities of the local mimetoliths. Tourist caves almost always name and publicize speleothems based on their resemblance to recognizable things. Sadly, the notoriety of large mimetoliths, such as those on cliff faces, attract vandalism and graffiti.
Let’s look at some examples of famous mimetoliths, starting with the most famous U.S. location.
Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire
Also known as the Great Stone Face, this profile feature was first noticed by an 1805 survey crew at Cannon Mountain in the Franconia Notch. Formed in Jurassic Conway granite, the face feature was 13.7 m tall, 9.1 m wide, and was 370 m above the flat ground. In 1850, the short story, The Great Stone Face, by Nathaniel Hawthorn popularized the feature.
It seemed as if an enormous giant, or a Titan, had sculptured his own likeness on the precipice.
According to the belief of many people, the valley owed much of its fertility to this benign aspect that was continually beaming over it, illuminating the clouds, and infusing its tenderness into the sunshine.N. Hawthorn. The Great Stone Face
The “face” was fortuitously carved via glacial erosion and weathering. With the common freeze/thaw erosion that happens in New Hampshire, there was always concern about its inevitable collapse and there were attempts to preserve it, notably rods emplaced in 1915, cracks sealed in 1937, and turnbuckles and strain gages installed at intervals. The face became the New Hampshire state emblem in 1945.
The inevitable collapse of the Old Man still came as an emotional shock to geologists on May 3, 2003. Campers in the state park had heard a loud noise during the wet and windy night and awoke to find the great stone face was no more. The forces that created it had also worked towards its demise. Nothing could have been done with the available technology.
A similar stone face, called Old Man of Joshua’s Mountain, was visible in Freetown, Massachusetts. It possibly was created via dynamiting of the rock in the mid-1800s. Local legend was that it represented the face of Wampanoag Chief, Massasoit. The owner sold the mountain to the State of Massachusetts decades ago to be used as a state park tourist attraction. But there was never a concerted effort to promote it as an official attraction. Profile rock, as it was also called, suffered from repeated vandalism and was associated with the myriad supernatural legends of Freetown state forest. It collapsed (or was deliberately destroyed) in June of 2019.
The Deer Cave system in Gunung Mulu National Park, east Malaysia, is among the largest in the world. One of its interesting features is a profile in the wall of southern entrance formed by slow erosion of limestone. Silhouetted against the sky is the face of Abraham Lincoln. A 2017 paper noted the high potential of this site for tourism based on geological features (geotourism). Such whimsical features provide a fun bonus while learning about natural processes and will draw in additional curious visitors.
In Japan, Chichibu Chinsekikan houses a huge collection of jinmenseki – rocks that appear as human faces. In this hall of curious stones, you can see more than a thousand mimetoliths of various kinds with many having an indistinct but identifiable two eyes-nose-mouth configuration. The most famous stone head is that of Elvis Presley.
Pedra da Gavea in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has the appearance of a face with shallow eyes. Rock above the head appears like a crown and “inscriptions” were noted on the side of the feature. Some believe the engraving and carving of the rock were done by ancient Phoenicians while others believe it is the action of natural erosion.
While profiles are most popular, a few features emerge straight at you.
Here is a gallery of more world-famous mimetoliths.
Visit the Stone Face site for more mimetoliths documented through postcards and old photos.
A list of locations is also on Wikipedia: Rock formations that resemble human beings
Crowell. R. New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain falls (Benchmarks May 3, 2002). Earth. May/June 2018, 106-8.
Kowalick, C. Man claims to have found Bigfoot skull. Times Record News, June 2, 2016.
Nazaruddin, D. A., H.E. Mansor, M. M. Ali Khan. Some unique and imaginative geological features (mimetoliths) in selected limestone sites in Malaysia: Study on their formational processes and geotourism potentials. Bulletin of the Geological Society of Malaysia, 64, December 2017, 17 – 25.
Piepenbring, D. The Camera Wins by Being Honest. The Paris Review. October 8, 2014