Planet Earth

Light Elements: Yankee Doodle Druid

What were people in New Hampshire doing4,000 years ago with a sacrificial table?

By Karen WrightFeb 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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When i moved to new hampshire from the Pacific Northwest last year, I mourned the loss of a certain regional ambience. In my house on Puget Sound, I would wake to the chiming of sailboat riggings and the splashing of 40-pound salmon. The long, wet, evergreen winters conjured a sort of waking-dream state in which one could easily envision characters of mythic proportions lurking in the local coffee shops: Lewis and Clark, Chief Seattle, Kurt Cobain. For me the image of Sasquatch was especially compelling. Three more winters on the

sound, I imagined, and I, too, would gain 40 pounds, sprout a thick pelt of espresso-colored hair, and stumble about in the old-growth forest, barefoot as a discalced friar.

I didn’t expect to find a comparable delirium in New Hampshire, as conservatives generally shun such things. Yet within weeks of my arrival I learned that some major juju lingered in the Granite State. I began to suspect as much when my new neighbor Greg announced that he had decided to follow the Wiccan path. That is, Greg, a former altar boy and recent import from Long Island, was taking up witchcraft. And it was Greg who told me about America’s Stonehenge.

A GIANT MEGALITHIC ASTRONOMICAL COMPLEX CONSTRUCTED OVER 4,000 YEARS AGO*, said the pamphlet my neighbor offered me. Emphasis on the asterisk, I thought. The brochure described a hilltop complex in nearby North Salem consisting of subterranean chambers, ancient inscriptions, a four-and-a-half-ton sacrificial table, and an astronomically correct rock calendar the size of a cow pasture. The note referenced by the asterisk explained that the age of the site had been determined from radiocarbon dating, planetary alignments, and stone-construction techniques. America’s Stonehenge, aka Mystery Hill, was one of the most important archaeological sites in the western hemisphere, the pamphlet concluded.

I concluded that America’s Stonehenge was a hoax and wished my neighbor luck with his hexes. But in ensuing months I came to notice a peculiar aura surrounding many of the stone structures in New England. Just as Stonewall has particular connotations in New York City, stone wall seemed to have some larger meaning up here. The most innocent pile of rocks, I discovered, could be subject to the most fantastic claims. Where I saw ordinary boulders, outcroppings, and stone foundations, others saw prehistoric monuments of pagan ingenuity: dolmens (horizontal stone slabs resting on stone uprights), cromlechs (circles of standing stones), and barrows (stone-lined or earthen tombs). A lecture on the mysteries of ancient megalithic cultures drew a standing-room-only crowd in the Brattleboro, Vermont, public library. A megalithic stone mason introduced himself at a local dining establishment and invited me, in so many words, to come look at his henges sometime.

Clearly some primitive, lithophilic subculture was lurking beneath the placid surface of Yankee propriety. I ascribed it to rural boredom: just as my friends out west could spend hours watching the seals and sea otters in our bay, the residents of New England could spend hours watching rocks in their backyards. As winter approached I, too, became bored and decided to do a little investigative reading. I consulted the authoritative texts: Sermons in Stone, New England’s Ancient Mysteries, America B.C., and America’s Ancient Stone Relics. At the heart of the New England stone cult, I learned, lies the belief that many of the region’s more unusual structures were built by old-world explorers who settled the Northeast coast centuries before Columbus. These pre-Columbian voyagers are variously labeled Vikings, Libyans, Phoenicians, Celts, or all of the above. Many are thought to have worshiped the god Baal and to have written in ogham, an Irish alphabet comprised entirely of crosshatches. Legend has it that the stretch of real estate from Maine to Connecticut is lousy with shrines to Baal, identifiable by basementlike arrangements of stone and ogham inscriptions celebrating the double-voweled deity. What Sasquatch is to the Yukon, what Kokopelli is to canyon country, what Elvis is to Memphis—thus is Baal to New England. And America’s Stonehenge, it turns out, is a Mecca of sorts for pilgrims of the modern megalithic persuasion.

Mystery Hill is to archeology what the National Enquirer is to journalism, said the president of the New Hampshire Archaeological Society on a public radio program in December. But I had already decided that I would have to see the complex for myself. It’s closed to the public in winter months, but the manager agreed to give me a private tour. His family had owned and operated America’s Stonehenge for decades, he said, and he could tell me all about it. Why thank you, I said, I appreciate that, Mr.—?

Stone. Dennis Stone.

I drove to North Salem on a bitterly cold day in January, parked in the modest gravel lot just inside the Stonehenge compound, and made a beeline for the visitors’ center, which I incorrectly assumed would be warm. There I was greeted by Dennis Stone, a profoundly ordinary-looking 40-something guy wearing glasses and the New England winter uniform of hiking boots, blue jeans, wool sweater, and a weatherproof shell (I wore it too). There was nothing even vaguely druidical about him, and the center’s assortment of candles, crystals, key chains, postcards, potpourri, and propaganda hinted at forces no more mysterious than the profit motive. But a ten-minute video introduction reiterated the brochure’s unlikely claims. What ancient rituals were played out here in this mysterious chamber? asked the narrator from inside a stone-lined passageway. You can be inspired to come up with your own theory of who built the site 4,000 years ago.

We get all kinds of people here, from all different backgrounds, Stone told me, noting that visitors number about 20,000 a year. Some of them are straight; some are pretty weird. As long as they don’t mess up the site, we don’t care who they are. Stone’s father opened Mystery Hill to the public in the late 1950s and eventually bought the 30-acre property; Dennis has been giving tours there since he was a teenager. Several other landowners have figured prominently in the site’s history, Stone explained, including one William Goodwin, a retired insurance executive from Hartford, Connecticut, who ordered a series of excavations in the 1930s and 1940s, and a shoemaker named Jonathan Pattee, whose family called the site home throughout most of the nineteenth century.

Skeptics say the stone construction at Mystery Hill was the work of the Pattee clan, and Stone readily conceded that the Pattees probably did build some of the structures on the site—but not all of them. There is ample evidence of much earlier occupation, Stone said. Letters on display in the visitors’ center verify the radiocarbon ages of charcoal and other organic remains that suggest human activity on Mystery Hill. The youngest of these dates from the late 1600s; the oldest is 3,500, plus or minus a couple of centuries. I assumed that the family Stone had just rounded up to get the 4,000 figure, but a guidebook informed me that the number was in fact derived from the astronomical alignments of a series of upright stones strategically placed in the network of walls surrounding the central complex. Engineers had determined that these standing stones predict solar and lunar events as well as the position of Thuban, the polestar in ancient Phoenician times.

Stone added that many of the rocks on the site were quarried using stone-on-stone percussion techniques typical of cultures working thousands of years ago without benefit of drills or other metal tools. And archeologists had found Native American artifacts more than 1,000 years old on Mystery Hill, he claimed—an assertion I didn’t doubt, since even the derisive president of the New Hampshire Archaeological Society had admitted as much in his radio interview.

But what of the Baal worshipers? Here I was directed to the ancient inscriptions display, which held casts of alleged glyphs and possible interpretations of same by various authors consulting languages from ogham to Russian. The most baroque interpretation, a translation based on Iberic/ Punic, was ascribed to three evenly spaced parallel grooves in a rust-colored cast: In Baal on behalf of the Canaanites this is dedicated, read the translation. This, I decided, was the archeological equivalent of the scene from Lassie in which the dog barks once and Jimmy is given to understand that the leg of a six-year-old girl named Sally has been trapped under a fallen tree 30 yards north of the falls on Coldwater Creek near the old mine shaft and oh, by the way, she’s diabetic too, so bring some insulin.

It was time to see America’s Stonehenge. I followed Dennis Stone to a path that leads up the hill to the site. As we approached the first cordon of stone walls, I deduced that the Stonehenge comparison was a bit of a stretch. I have never been to the real Stonehenge, but in the slides shown at the Brattleboro lecture, the stately monoliths had dwarfed the speaker’s wife and four daughters (who had been dragged to every megalithic site in Europe over decades of family vacations). In contrast, the standing stones of Mystery Hill were shorter than the maple saplings that grew around them. These weren’t megaliths; they were, perhaps, mesoliths.

The central complex of structures was more impressive. A one-acre granite outcropping had been transformed into a kind of Habitrail in stone. There were chambers and chimneys and cairns and portals and ledges and maybe even dolmens and barrows (but no cromlechs), all underlain with a series of drainage ditches carved directly into the exposed bedrock. Many of the rocks were quite large, weighing several tons, and some had obviously fallen or been moved from their original positions. In fact, Stone told me, most of the largest stones on the site had been dragged into a nearby town and hewn into curbs and sidewalks in the 1800s. It soon became clear that America’s Stonehenge had something of a checkered past. Here was a well dug by pre-Columbians; here was the foundation of Jonathan Pattee’s house; here was a post socket used by postcolonial quarriers. Here was a wall rebuilt by William Goodwin, a capstone dislodged by vandals, and a platform erected by the Stones. The ground I trod may have been sacred, but it was far from pristine.

The centerpiece of Mystery Hill is the four-and-a-half-ton sacrificial table, a bell-shaped slab of granite set on four stone legs with a deep gutter delineating its perimeter, within which is a space just large enough to accommodate a spread-eagle virgin. As Stone and I surveyed the table from a small rise, I realized that my guide had failed to commit himself to any one claim for the site’s origins, preferring instead to invoke the myriad opinions of experts. So, I asked him as the temperature dropped another 5 degrees and a thin, mean snow began to fall, what ancient rituals were played out here? Cagily avoiding the subject of human sacrifice, Stone muttered something about religious ceremonies. Then, in a rare moment of cynicism, he said, In archeology, when they can’t explain something, they say it was used for religious purposes.

I left America’s Stonehenge more confused than I had arrived, because in truth I was more intrigued with the complex than I had expected to be. There was the matter of the radiocarbon dates, and the Native American artifacts, and there was, well, the juju. The stone walls were unlike any I had seen before, and while some structures in the central complex could pass as foundations or root cellars, others were utterly unfamiliar to me. And the sacrificial stone—what was that all about?

At home I delved more deeply into the Mystery Hill scholarship and learned that several notable archeologists had been intrigued by Mystery Hill, too. Junius Bird, a former director of the American Museum of Natural History, conducted excavations there half a century ago and concluded that the settlement was postcolonial, pure and simple. But the more esoteric texts portray Bird and his peers as Baal-busting conspirators bent on ignoring the truth about Mystery Hill. Goodwin, for example, was convinced that Mystery Hill held the remains of a 1,000-year-old settlement of outcast Irish monks, and he scorned the professionals who disagreed with him, railing in a 1946 text against the Harvard itch to tell somebody where to get off. Amateur archeologist Richard V. Humphrey similarly denounced what he called the Land of Academe: [The] set attitudes of mind—or delusions—of the archaeological profession have prevented objective research on the site by substituting gossip and myths for facts, he wrote. It is high time for professional archaeologists to get off their tails and do their homework on the subject.

After a few volumes of this, I was more than ready to talk to a professional, on or off his tail. I called Bob Goodby, the nhas president I’d heard on the radio, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Goodby assured me that no reputable archeologist took the pre-Columbian lure seriously. The inscriptions were bogus, and there was no other evidence that an ancient, old-world culture had ever occupied Mystery Hill: no signs of the food preparation, garbage disposal, living areas, or burial grounds that are associated with other megalithic sites. Although there is an unusual amount of stonework on the hill, he said, it doesn’t differ in kind from other structures built by New Englanders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sacrificial stone, for example, looked to him like a garden-variety lye stone, used in leaching lye from ashes to make soap. The astronomical alignments of the standing stones were coincidental. With so much stone around, it wouldn’t be that difficult to find some alignments that correspond to celestial things, said Goodby. And though the Native American artifacts were genuine, and the site probably had been used by indigenous people thousands of years ago, they didn’t build the stone structures, either. Why? Because the native New Englanders didn’t build with stone.

Ignoring this tautology, I called Richard Boisvert, the deputy state archeologist. Boisvert echoed most of Goodby’s statements but added that the complex at Mystery Hill did bear some resemblance to old-world megalithic structures. This was coincidence too, he said—convergence of forms that fulfill the same function.

I had begun to think I’d found a consensus when, in another of Humphrey’s vituperative tracts, I noticed that Boisvert’s boss was quoted as saying that some of the stones at Mystery Hill were quarried using primitive stone-on-stone techniques. This sounded suspiciously like what Dennis Stone had told me. I called Gary Hume, the New Hampshire state archeologist, and gave him a chance to back down. He stuck by the claim. They show the same kind of conoidal fracture on a massive level that you see in [Native American] stone tools on a micro level, said Hume. It was stone-on-stone percussion—whatever that means.

Well, what did it mean? There’s a possibility that the stones they’re using for astronomical alignments could actually date to Native American activity, said Hume, somewhat guardedly. So it really could be a giant megalithic astronomical complex constructed over 4,000 years ago? Well, maybe not quite that old, or that giant. But, Hume said, he wasn’t inclined to question the two reputable surveyors who had vouched for the alignments. And astronomical structures in other parts of the U.S. date to the time when Native Americans occupied Mystery Hill: a medicine wheel of boulders in Montana, architectural calendars in the Southwest, wooden henges on the upper terraces of the Mississippi Valley. Mystery Hill’s certainly not a really neat, symmetrical site like those—but that doesn’t mean it’s any less real.

Hume added that he’d wanted to have Mystery Hill listed with the National Registry of Historic Sites (but disagreements about the site have delayed his filing a petition). The complex deserved a place there, he said, if only because it had been celebrated in so many dubious theories of pre-Columbian visitation. It also exemplified nineteenth-century commercial stone-quarrying techniques as well as Native American occupation. He’d hoped that a listing would protect the site from further depredations and encourage serious research. More study was needed to determine whether the central complex showed signs of stone-on-stone quarrying, he said, which could support the claims for its antiquity.

Apparently science could not make sense of Mystery Hill any more than a Hartford insurance man could. Indeed, each new stone I overturned further complicated my impressions of the complex. The visitor-center video now seemed prescient: I would have to come up with my own theory of who built America’s Stonehenge and why. Several evenings after my interview with Hume, I sat down to watch X-Files, as I do every Sunday night. This particular episode featured modern-day witchcraft in New Hampshire and named America’s Stonehenge as a focal point of occult energies. Coincidence? I thought. Sure. Must be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Greg and I have a little matter to attend to in the basement.

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