MYSTERY OF STONE STRUCTURES IN AMERICA
EXPLORED BY ANDREW ROTHOVIUS
For years it has been widely assumed that Bronze Age megalithic people from the British Isles crossed the Atlantic around 1200 B.C. and established a short-lived colony in New England. Now it may be that it might have been the other way around—that is, that the stone-building culture which bloomed into Europe’s first civilization had its origins in Salem, New Hampshire about 4000 years ago.
In the May 1964 issue of Yankee, A. E. Rothovius reviewed the status of what were then termed the Great Stone Mysteries of New England. These are scores of enigmatic dry-stone constructions in may parts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine (Scan Photos). These structures were similar to those in the stone village at Mystery Hill in North Salem, New Hampshire, which since the 1930s had been a focus of archeological dispute and speculation. It was not yet possible in 1964 to offer hard facts to account for these puzzling structures, beyond pointing out that while most were locally known as root cellars, there was little real evidence that they had ever been used as such. The majority has a strong resemblance to the megalithic (= “big stone”) constructions of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in the British Isles and Western Europe, where they are variously called dolmens and cromlechs.
There has been much light shown on revealing the origin of these stone structures even though some mysteries still remain. It can be stated with some assurance that the central site, Mystery Hill, is of great antiquity, dating back to at least 2000 B.C. More importantly, the stone structures have astronomical alignments that are potentially as significant as those of Stonehenge, which is almost as old. The work of Dr. Colon Renfrew at Sheffield University in England during the 1960s has shown that the European megalithic civilization was older than Egypt or Crete or Mycenae, and also suggests that the antiquity and technical sophistication of Mystery Hill belong within the mainstream of the prehistoric cultural development that laid the foundations of all succeeding civilizations.
The New England Antiquities Research Association, a group of amateur archeologists who in the late 1950s and early 1960s became interested in locating and studying New England stone constructions, deserves much of the credit for resolving the Great Stone Mysteries of 1964. The president and moving spirit of NEARA was Robert E. Stone of Derry, New Hampshire, owner of Mystery Hill, who has devoted many years of effort to finding an answer to the puzzle of New England megaliths.
For the first few years, until about 1967 or 1968. the NEARA researchers concentrated on locating as many of the stone constructions as possible. More than 200 were recorded, the majority still intact, a few fallen into ruin or recently bulldozed away. There are certain areas where the sites are clustered, e.g., the eastern Berkshires around Shutesbury, Massachusetts; in central Vermont, around Royalton and Woodstock; in southeastern Connecticut, where a site with stonework second only to Mystery Hill was found near the Gungywamp marsh in Groton; and just outside New England, on both sides of the Hudson River in lower New York State (Scan Photos). Most extraordinary of all were the standing stones or “monoliths” discovered on a mountaintop in the northwestern Berkshires; the exact location is not being publicized for fear that vandals may damage the site. However, the site appears to be aligned on the Pole Star, and has close similarities to standing stone configurations in the British Isles that were used by Bronze Age people for observing the motions of the stars and planets and the rising and settings of the sun and the moon.
Some of the over 200 structures turned out to be of colonial origin; they were used for various purposes from gunpowder storage to settings for hunters’ traps. For instance, the stone “beehives” on Kennedy Hill in Acworth, New Hampshire, seem to fall into this latter category. But, by far the greater number were found to predate colonial times; their similarity to West European megalithic constructions indicated they were of equal antiquity.
None of these, however, except those at Groton, Connecticut were grouped into an entire settlement complex such as that at Mystery Hill (Scan Photos). Rather than disperse the investigation over a number of widely scattered sites, the group decided to concentrate on Mystery Hill, the site that was apparently central to all others, and with the greatest potential for significant results.
The NEARA workers searched for places where radioactive carbon dating might be applied to determine the age of material found. There was a small area in the center of the complex of 22 stone structures where the thin topsoil covering the granite bedrock of the hilltop had been less severely disturbed by previous diggers. An effort was concentrated here and each spoonful of earth was carefully sifted for any organic remains that could be carbon dated.
In 1967 a piece of pine root was obtained from the walls of one of the structures. It yielded a radiocarbon date of about 1690 A.D. (a century and a half before the time of Jonathan Pattee, who had build a house at the site and was credited by skeptics with having built the site itself, for some eccentric Yankee purpose, even though Pattee was a reputable citizen and definitely not eccentric). The stone structure penetrated by the pine root had to have been in place before the tree grew large enough to send out such a root, and thus this dating demolished once and for all the myth that Pattee was the architect of Mystery Hill.
But, 1690 was well within the colonial era. The dating did not disprove the possibility that the early colonists might have constructed the site. Therefore, the search continued for additional datable material.
In 1968 some charcoal was recovered from a stump pit at the northern exit of one of the rock-cut drains, and it yielded a date of 1540 A.D. This was almost a century before the landing of the Pilgrims; and since there was reason to believe that drainage from the Pattee house had contaminated the charcoal, its actual age was probably much greater.
The researchers resumed their search in the central area, and on May 17, 1969 they discovered almost directly below where the pine root had been found, some charcoal only 2-4 inches above bedrock and along with small granite chunks from the working of that bedrock. This charcoal had to be contemporary with the construction of at least that part of the site. The Geochron Laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts dated it at 1045 B.C., or about the time that the era of the European megalith builders had come to its close.
Then in 1971 another specimen of charcoal was obtained from the pine-root area, even closer to the bedrock. It was radiocarbon dated at 1525 B.C., contemporary with the later stages of the construction of Stonehenge. There could no longer be any doubt that Mystery Hill (and by implication, most of the other New England megaliths as well) and the European Bronze Age were linked.
In 1969 the swampy area to the left of the Mystery Hill entrance was investigated and was found to contain a large deposit of clay that had been worked for pottery material. Just to the right, researchers uncovered a very large fire-pit where the pottery had been fired; charcoal here was badly contaminated by swamp seepage, and yielded no consistent dates. However, this excavation had found the source of the clay for the peculiar soft yellowish pottery shards that have been found at the site, and which resemble Mediterranean ware of Bronze Age times, rather than native American Indian pottery.
Later refinements in the field of radiocarbon dating gave Mystery Hill an even greater antiquity, and at the same time proved that its megalithic counterparts in Western Europe were older than the Minoan and Mycenean civilizations (from which they had previously been thought to be derived). Dr. Hans E. Suess of the University of California at La Jolla, working with the tree-rings of the bristlecone pines of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, established that there had been fluctuations in the solar radiation affecting organic carbon, and that for several centuries before 1000 B.C. the radiation had been so much more intense that all radiocarbon datings for that period had to be radically revised in the direction of greater age. The recalibrated date for the original 1525 B.C. reading from the Mystery Hill charcoal found in 1971 is now 2000 B.C., and contemporary with the earliest stages of Stonehenge.
Mystery Hill contains numerous astronomical alignments similar to those in may of the British and French megalithic sites. From a point just to the north of the grooved stone platform popularly known as the Sacrificial Stone, but whose real function has yet to be determined, several lines can be drawn outward to stones that indicate the key points on the horizon of the astronomical year. To the southwest, the sun sets behind a triangular monolith on the year’s shortest day, December 21st. To the west and east are other stones marking the sunrise and sunset points on the dates of the spring and autumn equinoxes, march 21 and September 22. To the northwest another triangular monolith marks the setting point of the sun on the year’s longest day, June 21st. Due north is a monolith situated directly in line with the celestial North Pole (now located in the heavens by the current Pole Star, Polaris, but in 2000 B.C. by the star Thuban in the constellation Draco). In the northeast is a fallen monolith that appears to indicate the point of the longest day’s sunrise on June 21st.
To have laid out these lines of sighting and to have erected the marking stones at the correct locations, the builders of Mystery Hill must have possessed observational, surveying and measuring skills of the highest order.
The determination of the existence of these astronomical alignments at Mystery Hill has required several years of clearing of trees and brush that hid the sighting lines, and a survey of the entire site.
It has been generally believed by archeologists that the megalithic culture in Western Europe had flourished from around 1750 to 1000 B.C., and that it had been inspired by the great early civilizations of the Mediterranean: Egypt, Minoan Crete and Myceneae. A recalibration of radiocarbon dates now shows that the megalithic culture goes back to before 4000 B.C. and that it peaked before 2000 B.C. The great megalithic complex of New Grange in Ireland is now dated at 3300 B.C., 700 years earlier than the Great Pyramid of Egypt and 1800 years before the Minoan sea-kings ruled in Crete. Stonehenge, built between 2200 and 1700 B.C., is now viewed as representing a late and declining stage of the megalithic civilization.
But if the megalith builders of Western Europe were neither migrants from the Mediterranean, nor inspired by the early Mediterranean civilizations, then where did they come from ,and what was the origin of their stonework technique?
A suggestion, heretical to earlier archeologists, is that North America was where it all began. For evidence, the oldest megalithic sites so far dated in Ireland are in the northwest of that island, and have an age of around 4000 B.C.. Progressing southeastward toward New Grange, the sites are gradually younger and show an advance in quality of workmanship that culminates in the artistry of New Grange. Then a Neolithic settlement on the island of Harris in the Hebrides off northwest Scotland ahs been dated at 4300 B.C., with similar and progressively less primitive sites being found southward along the Scottish coast.
As a third argument, there is the evidence of human blood groups as determined by noted serologist A.E. Mourant in his work of the 1950s. There are three main blood groups, for convenience noted as Type A, B. and O. Type A is most common in Central and East European inhabitants; Type B in Asians and Type O in American Amerindians as well as in the Irish and the Scots!
Rothovius had noted in 1964 that there was a possibility that the New England megaliths were built by a native American culture, of which the crude stone constructions found in the Appalachians represented an early phase and Mystery Hill was an advanced phase. At that time it was believed that Bronze Age Magalithic people from the British Isles had crossed the Atlantic by the northern island-hopping route during the period of milder and less stormy climate that ended about 1200 B.C. [see Climate]; and that they had established a short-lived colony there, of which Mystery Hill and the new England megaliths remained as witness.
Now it appears as if the crossing may have been in the other direction, from America to Europe or there may have been crossings both ways. Whatever the details prove to be, the following scenario is beginning to emerge:
Sometime around 4000 B.C., a still unknown group of early American indegenous people in the Appalachian area started to build crudely in stone. Gradually the technique spread northward, improving in quality and dimensions. Finally some of these stone builders from new England were carried across the Atlantic in their skin boats, possibly caught in a strong westerly gale. Landing in northwest Ireland and the Hebrides, they communicated their skill to the Neolithic peoples there. The stone-building culture thus initiated bloomed into Europe’s first civilization, between 3500 and 2000 B.C. This culture was strongly oriented to the heavens, from whose movements it social rituals and rhythms were derived. In the mild North Atlantic climates of that age, there could have been voyages back to the ancestral shores of New England; and by 2000 B.C. [see Climate]. Mystery Hill was built as a center of ritual incorporating the astronomical knowledge attained by the megalith builders across the ocean. America. A prevailing obstacle to verifying Bronze Age voyages from Europe to America is the absence of bronze tools among the American artifacts. (Please see Bronze Age Tools).
Then, typical to human history, the Magalithic civilization faded and vanished. Essentially unwarlike, in Europe it was supplanted by the warrior culture of the Battle-Axe peoples from the steppes of the East, ancestors of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Teutons and Slavs. In America, the stone-building culture had perhaps flowered only at Mystery Hill and one or two other places. It declined when the Atlantic climate became more severe and terminated access to Europe; and it finally relapsed into the general barbarism of northeastern America around 1000 B.C.
Continued work on Mystery Hill and other great stone mysteries of New England will either confirm this picture and fill in the gaps, or derive an even more startling explanation.
Rothovius, Andrew E. 1975. The new thing at Mystery Hill is 4000 years old. Yankee. September 1975.