September 13, 2015

America's Stonehenge: "The Most Weird and Fantastic Tales..."

Last weekend Tony and I met our friends David and Wayne at America's Stonehenge in Salem, New Hampshire. What? You didn't know that England's famous megalithic site has a southern New Hampshire cousin? Then read on.

I first visited America's Stonehenge way back in the 1970s when I was a child. At that time it was called Mystery Hill, but the name was changed in 1982 to distinguish it from all the other mysterious hillside attractions across the country. I still remember how impressed I was, particularly by the speaking tube and the sacrificial stone altar (more on that later).

America's Stonehenge is a 105 acre site that is covered with stone structures. There are walls, standing stones, wells, and chambers. Let's face it, there are a lot stone walls in New England, but there aren't that many chambers. And the chambers at America's Stonehenge are really amazing.

According to this site, there are 14 unique chambers. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some are quite small, like this one David is sitting in:

Others are much more spacious and can fit an adult standing up. One particularly impressive chamber has been named the Oracle Chamber. It's t-shaped, has two entrances, and includes what might be a petroglyph of the Merrimack River in Haverhill (my hometown). One of the strangest features of the Oracle Chamber is a small bed-like chamber inside it. Next to the bed is a small stone tube that leads up to the surface.

This tube has been named the Speaking Tube. It emerges from the Oracle Chamber underneath the Sacrificial Table. The theory is that someone could be hidden inside the Oracle Chamber and speak to religious celebrants gathered around the Sacrificial Table.

At this point the discerning reader will say: "What the heck are you writing about? Sacrifices? Hidden oracle chambers? In southern New Hampshire?"

I will try to explain. America's Stonehenge first appeared in the written records in Edgar Gilbert's 1907 The History of Salem, New Hampshire. It wasn't called by that name, but Gilbert wrote:

JONATHAN PATTEE'S CAVE: He had a house in these woods 70 yrs. ago; took the town paupers before the farm was bought. This is a wild but beautiful spot among rough boulders and soft pines, about which the most weird and fantastic tales might be woven. There are several caves still intact, which the owner used for storage purposes. 

Jonathan Pattee was a cobbler who lived with his family on the site in the 1800s. Please note that Gilbert makes no mention of sacrificial tables or anything of that sort, but the caves (chambers) were still considered noteworthy in 1907. Many Colonial farmers did create stone root-cellars, and one theory is that the Pattees created all the chambers for this and other purposes.

That is the theory professional archaeologists hold, so stop now if you don't want to hear the other, more imaginative theories. But I know you do...

Another theory was developed by William Goodwin after he purchased the hill in the 1930s. Goodwin noticed similarities between the chambers on his property and the ancient structures found in Europe. He first thought they had been built by ancient Norwegians, but later claimed America's Stonehenge had been constructed by ancient Irish monks who made their to New Hampshire centuries before Columbus. Goodwin moved many of the stones to what he believed were their original locations. Goodwin was not an archaeologist (he sold insurance), and many professional archaeologists feel that rather than restoring old structures he actually created most of what can be seen today.

 In the 1970s, Harvard professor Barry Fell became convinced that ancient Phoenicians were responsible for America's Stonehenge. The Phoenicians were famous seafarers and established cities all across the ancient Mediterranean, but could they have really sailed all the way to New Hampshire? Professor Fell and others who subscribe to his theory claim that markings on stones are ancient Punic writing, but others say are simply marks made by 19th century workers who quarried stone. It is important to note that while Fell was indeed a professor at Harvard, his field of study was invertebrate zoology, not history or archaeology.

A more current theory is proposed by author Mary Gage, who argues that America's Stonehenge was actually built by ancient Native Americans. Most historians claim the Indians in this area did not build with stone, but Gage argues that since Indians built stone structures further west it is not impossible that they built them here as well. Carbon dating indicates Native Americans occupied the site about 4,000 years ago, but it is difficult to connect the carbon dated ancient firepits with the stone structures. The firepits could have made by Native Americans many years before America's Stonehenge was built.

The most outlandish theory I have heard about America's Stonehenge (or really any strange stone structure) appears in Jim Brandon's book The Rebirth of Pan. Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit. Brandon claims that our planet is a conscious being and is trying to communicate with us. The Earth spontaneously creates things like America's Stonehenge, the Upton Chamber, and Dighton Rock as a way to tell us something. That's right, no human hands were involved in the building of America's Stonehenge. Unfortunately the Earth doesn't speak the same language we do (Brandon says it speaks the language of dreams and the subconscious), so we are unable to understand what is being said.

So many interesting theories, but I think the best way to learn about America's Stonehenge is to experience it. Because whether it was made by a 19th century cobbler or the restless spirit of planet Earth, it is a very cool place to visit. There is just something very impressive about underground chambers made from enormous slabs of stone. I could have spent all day just exploring those tunnels and visiting the standing stones. The cool air, the damp stones, the smell and sound of pine trees blowing in the wind...

 According to my friend David Goudsward, author of H.P. Lovecraft in the Merrimack Valley, it's possible that Lovecraft was inspired to write "The Dunwich Horror" after visiting America's Stonehenge. The stones there certainly could inspire one to ritual action, and the site hosts many Wiccan gatherings during the year.

Wiccans don't practice animal sacrifice, and it's a good thing too. The Sacrificial Table at America's Stonehenge was probably used to make lye in the 19th century, not bleed goats in the name of the Phoenician god Baal. But still, it's nice to dream sometimes.

Special thanks to Tony, David and Wayne for most of these photos!


Wade Tarzia said...

I read a paper about the site a few years back at a meeting of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut, posted on my blog: My website also has two essays I wrote that goes into other details (click on the Mystery Hill Demystified link and the Folkloric Approaches... link, a more detailed essay than the one I gave to the ASC).

Peter Muise said...

Hi Wade!

I read your paper, which is quite interesting. I think the idea that we all forget the history of our regions is compelling. Personally, I also think some people have a propensity to think about things in mythic terms, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. (I might be one of them!) It seems like there have always been myths and legends explaining some of the strange things in our New England landscape, and maybe these are some of the newer iterations. Maybe weird anomalous landscapes stir up something deep inside our minds that generates these stories. Of course, the stories about America's Stonehenge are couched in the language of science, which makes them even more interesting.

Wade Tarzia said...

Yes, we surely use the past to help us form cultural and individual worldview (which is a large part of the definition of what a myth is). I think much traditional fantasy fiction based loosely on history is the most overt of this behavior.

Wade Tarzia said...

By the bye, I highly recommend Giovanna Neudorfer's book, "Vermont's Stone Chambers." The stone chamber phase of 19th century New England agricultural history produced far more chambers than we realize. She focused on Vermont, but there are many stone chambers throughout New England -- they were so common few people ever thought about mentioning at the time (the same with privies!). John R. Cole's study of western Massachusetts chambers done as a U.Mass. fieldschool project is also useful.

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