Everyone knows that stone walls cover the New England landscape like honeycombs. But far fewer people know about the region’s hundreds of mysterious stone structures. In the 1930s, someone estimated that New England had 250,000 miles of stone walls. In the following decades came inventories of the region’s stone structures, which some believed to be ancient. Some of those ancient stone structures are oriented to the stars and planets. They also stand near megaliths, cairns or dolmens. A few have what are probably stone beds or sacrificial altars.
Speculation now runs rampant about the origins of the mysterious stone structures. Did medieval Irish monks, American Indians or Vikings build them? Or did the English colonists just built them as root cellars? Most noteworthy, just three Northeast counties account for the majority of stone structures in North America: Putnam County, N.Y.; New London County, Conn.; and Windsor County, Vt. Massachusetts has the densest concentration of beehive-shaped stone chambers like those built by Culdee monks in Ireland. The state has 105 sites containing stone structures.
Connecticut also has quite a few at 62, New Hampshire has 51 and Vermont has 41. Tiny Rhode Island has only 12 stone structures, but still more than Maine, which has only four. Some speculate that perhaps ancient voyagers frequently traveled the Merrimack, the Thames, and the Connecticut rivers. They then built their stone structures along those routes.
Here, then, we bring you ancient stone structures (or maybe colonial root cellars), with at least one in each New England state. New England colonists found many stone buildings, when they arrived. Typically they were one story high, circular or rectangular and as long as 30 feet. Many had roof openings that allowed a little light to illuminate the interiors. As a result, early mercenaries to the Northeast wrote about ‘Indian stone castles.’ Furthermore, John Winthrop the Younger in 1654 received a letter from John Pynchon of Springfield, Massachusetts. Pynchon heard “a report of a stone wall and strong chamber in it, made all of stone, which is newly discovered at or near Pequot.” The 100-acre Gungywamp archaeological site in Groton, Conn., contains such stone structures as beehive chambers, petroglyphs, a double circle of stones, cellars and walls. All date back hundreds of years. Some of the structures are thought to be Native American and perhaps had ceremonial functions. Colonial settlers built others with purposes such as root cellars and birthing chambers. Some features of the site suggest they were originally built as fortifications.
There is plenty of speculation about the purpose of the Gungywamp stone structures. Some theorize that 8th-century Irish monks built certain structures. They argue ‘Gungywamp’ means ‘church of the people’ in Gaelic. Others say it is an Indian word. Gungywamp’s most famous chamber is the so-called ‘calendar chamber.’ Archaeologists suspect the colonists originally used it for storage for a nearby tan bark mill. A vent at one end of the chamber aligns with the spring and fall equinoxes. It thus allows a shaft of sunlight to fall directly on a smaller chamber within the larger structure. Gungywamp is preserved, but many of the structures stand on private land. It can be toured virtually here. Visitors can tour the Gungywamp through the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. More information is available here.
The Red Paint people of Maine once settled in the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge, a wetland preserve. Archaeologists discovered artifacts from the 7,000-year-old village along the Wabanaki Trail. Among the bogs and ancient burial grounds are at least 18 curious stone piles, clearly made by humans. But by whom and for what? And when? No one know. Most are 6-1/2 feet in diameter and a foot and a half high. The University of Maine owns the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge, which is open dawn to dusk all week long.
The largest and probably best known stone chamber in Massachusetts is the Upton Stone Chamber near Worcester in Upton. It includes a tunnel that connects to a roundish beehive room. A stone slab sits on top. In 1989, two archao-astronomists concluded that people used the chamber between 700-750 A.D. to study the Pleiades. Around 670 A.D., they used it to view the summer solstice. To see photographs from 1944 of the Upton Stone Chamber, click here. The Upton Heritage Park is at 18 Elm Street.
Thirty miles away in Acton, an underground stone chamber in the Nashoba Brook Conservation Area is known as the ‘potato cave.’ Residents had long assumed the structure was a root cellar. A 2006 excavation found evidence people stored food in it in the 18th or 19th century. Some argue Indians built it before the colonists arrived. Still others say railroad workers lived in it during the 19th century. You can visit the restored chamber at the Nashoba Brook Conservation Area in North Acton on the easterly side of Main Street (Route 27), toward Westford and Carlisle.
During the summer solstice, a procession of people banging drums softly come to America’s Stonehenge. They aim to honor Mother Earth. America’s Stonehenge is a 30-acre complex of standing stones, underground chambers and stone walls in North Salem, N.H. As the largest collection of stone structures in North America, it includes dolmens, or horizontal stone slabs on vertical stone uprights. It also has cromlechs, or circles of standing stones and barrows, or tombs. There’s a secret bed, an echoing oracle chamber, a sacrificial altar stone and a stone-lined speaking tube that gives the impression the altar is talking when someone speaks into it. Radiocarbon dating confirms that pagans built the structures as many as 4,000 years ago.
The written record doesn’t mention the ancient stone structures until 1907, in History of Salem, New Hampshire by Edward Gilbert. He wrote that a family named Pattee owned the land, called Mystery Hill, and had many of the stones carted away for construction in Lawrence, Mass. A retired insurance executive named William Goodwin bought the site in 1937. He had it excavated and became convinced Irish Culdee monks built the site about 1000 A.D. The monoliths are astronomically aligned, leading to the conclusion the stones were used as a prehistoric calendar. Mystery Hill was renamed America’s Stonehenge and as a result gets 15,000 visitors a year. The site can still be used as an accurate yearly calendar.
There is much more to read. I subscribed to this site a while ago and it is fascinating, especially since many of these structures are much older than European occupation of North American. One of them, the Upton Stone Chamber, is literally about 10 miles up the road in the middle of Upton — right here in the Blackstone Valley.
Please do check out the original site. If you think North America lacks its own ancient history, this will be an eye-opener.