An Archaeological Enigma: Colonial Root Cellars, Native American Sweat Lodges, or Prehistoric European Structures?
Megalithic chambers at "America's Stonehenge" in North Salem, New Hampshire.
Scattered across four New England states are approximately 800 stone–built chambers, possibly of an ancient origin. These remarkable chambers, found nowhere else in North America, can be circular or rectangular in form, up to 30 feet in length but usually half that, occasionally 10 feet wide and up to 10 feet tall in the central chamber. They are characteristically constructed of expertly–fitted dry masonry stones capped by megalithic slabs. Most of the best preserved chambers can be found sunken into the contours of the landscape. Although some structures are freestanding, the most fascinating structures are accessed by passageways driven into the hillside.
The most elaborate are described as "beehive" chambers, indicative of the conical shape in the central room, supported by a large ceiling capstone. These sophisticated structures sometimes feature "smoke holes" to ventilate the chambers, as well as shelves, benches or recesses incorporated into the walls. Some had blocked passageways and remained intact underground only to be discovered years later when a roof caved in, or a plow or pick–axe penetrated the chamber. It is unfortunate to mention that a vast majority of these New England stone buildings have been torn down for quarried stone, repeatedly vandalized, or otherwise dismantled, destroyed, or abandoned by the landowner blocking the entrance.
A Laundry List of Potential Builders
Early records of the New England colonists make mention of some of the chambers preexisting before they settled the land. Assuming that the structures were built by vanished Indian tribesmen and were free for the taking, New England colonial farmers put them to use as extra storage space shelters. Sometimes the age of the chamber could be authenticated by trees a hundred years old growing into the unmortared walls. The conventional wisdom at the time was that these enclosures were built as "colonial root cellars," or if an old tree dated their age then they were termed "steam baths for Indians." The root cellar and the Indian–built theories are dismissive because they overlook basic facts, such as the passageways being too low and narrow to wheel a cart into, most having soil floors that would rot vegetables, or that nowhere else in North America did Indians construct sweat lodges made of stone.
Let us use the logic test called Occam's Razor to our laundry list of potential builders. The test goes like this: when you have two or more competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is always better. If there is scant evidence for European colonials or Native Americans building the chambers, then who else could be responsible for their construction? Is it possible to contrast these chambers against anything of a similar design? Where else in the world are beehive enclosures located?
One possibility is the ancient Greek Mycenaeans who buried their nobles in beehive tombs called tholoi, large circular burial chambers with a high vaulted roof. This is a possible influence, especially since the pre–classical Greeks were contemporary with the Phoenicians who may have lived at America's Stonehenge, a location we will examine later. As for the beehive chambers of New England, like nowhere else in the world, they closely resemble smaller structures found around the islands of northern Europe. The New England chambers are dead ringers for those built by the Culdee Monks of Scotland, England, and Ireland who adopted the building style from their Celtic ancestry.
If we are to follow the prehistoric European theory then identifying the New England chambers' proximity to river routes is another important piece of the puzzle, because almost all of the sites are situated near a natural waterway. The Merrimack River valley flowing south through New Hampshire and into northeastern Massachusetts was a seemingly active avenue for ancient voyagers, as was Connecticut's Thames River drainage. Because of its long length the Connecticut River was perhaps the most important river route. The Connecticut originates far to the north in Quebec, Canada. It then creates the entire boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire until it passes through the middle of Massachusetts and Connecticut, before emptying into the Long Island Sound. What follows is a description of the four most prominent chamber sites and their associated prehistoric access routes.
The Sprawling Gungywamp Complex
Near the Thames River mouth in eastern Connecticut is a wide assortment of stone chambers, the most extensive being a complex called Gungywamp. This 100–acre site is located in the wooded hills outside the town of Groton, Connecticut, just off Gungywamp Road. A pair of enclosed structures and a dozen other stone features are scattered around the eastern half of an old YMCA camp. The complex is located high atop an imposing cliff, situated above a swamp feeding a stream that connects to the Thames River. Archaeological excavations at the site have confirmed the presence of humans at the site over the past 4,000 years. It is known there was a settlement by white farmers after 1780, and the site was also utilized from time to time by Native Americans.
The word "Gungywamp" was originally thought to be an Indian word, but has another translation in Gaelic meaning "Church of the People." Besides containing beehive chambers and a petroglyph image of a bird with outstretched wings, Gungywamp has a double row of stones, just north of two underground chambers. This double ring stone circle, no longer standing, consists of 12 rectangular stones in the outside circle measuring over 10 feet in diameter. The innermost ring is made up of eight stones lying in a tight curved pattern. The complex also boasts a number of megaliths, cairns, a row of standing stones and marked stones, suggesting a possible double use as an astronomical observatory.
The largest underground monument at Gungywamp is called the "calendar chamber" because it features an astronomical alignment. On the days around the spring and autumnal equinoxes an inner alcove is illuminated by an alignment through a hole in the west wall. On these auspicious days the sun shines upon a lighter stone on the opposite side, radiating an illumination within a smaller, interconnected beehive–shaped chamber.
Ceremonial Stone Circle at Gungywamp, near Groton, Connecticut.
The Fascinating Upton Chamber
In the hills surrounding Boston, Massachusetts are a number of mysterious manmade chambers. The most famous is the Upton Stone Chamber, one of the largest and most precisely built beehive chambers in New England. A long passage leads into a large underground chamber called "The Cave" by local kids. The Upton internal chamber is one of the largest intact. The very size belies an easy explanation. A 15–foot long entryway leads into an 11–foot diameter room over 10 feet tall in the central chamber. The precisely fitted rocks of a dry stone masonry have held up well over the years. Virtually no artifacts have been found inside Upton, or most of the other stone chambers for that matter.
The floor of Upton is currently rotted wood planking covering flagstones. An argument against colonial construction can be made that no artifacts have been found, or that the long narrow passageway would be impractical for carting in storage items.
Not only is Upton one of the finest examples of a beehive chamber, but this chamber is aligned to observe the setting solstice sun and stars of the Pleiades, as marked by large stone piles located on nearby Pratt Hill. The Upton Stone Chamber is on private land just outside the small village of Upton, in the backyard of a home on Elm Street, about 12 miles southeast of Worcester. Across the West River valley from the chamber is Pratt Hill where several cairns are located near the summit.
On a hilltop in New Hampshire near the Massachusetts border are a series of low stone walls and cobbled rock chambers called America's Stonehenge. The entire complex covers about 30 acres of hills and woodland, around which extends an apparently haphazard collection of walls interspersed with tall, triangular–shaped standing stones. The site's central feature is "Mystery Hill," situated on a single acre, which contains 22 stone chambers which can be characterized as dolmens, plus other megalithic features. Immediately surrounding the central site are upright stone monoliths aligned to predict prominent astronomical sightings.
In the central section of Mystery Hill are several engaging features of curiosity. The centerpiece is a T–shaped chamber with internal structures similar to a chimney and hearth, as well as a "couch" sculpted right into the living rock. From the couch, a pipe–like hole called a "speaking tube" ascends to the surface and runs directly below an enormous rock table weighing 4.5 tons. The tube may have been used for some kind of spooky oracle because it distorts voices when heard from below, and the table above may have served as a sacrificial altar because of the carved gutters on top to funnel blood.
Surrounding the "Oracle Chamber" are more than 20 stone chambers of various sizes, which may have been used as shelters for the presumed Bronze Age inhabitants, or were utilized collectively as some kind of religious ceremonial center. There is evidence that the entire complex is built over a natural cave system, but no entrances have yet been located. Instead, deep well shafts have been discovered, and the most intriguing pit leads not to a cave, but to a natural fault where a cluster of quartz crystals were recovered by archaeologists. The crystals may have been mined nearby, or came from afar with the inhabitants and were ritualistically placed into the well to indicate the site as a power point. It is known that crystals were worshipped or used for tools by ancient cultures.
The hilltop position of the megalithic beehive chambers suggests this location was used primarily as a village, but the site also appears to double as a celestial and astronomical observatory. The Summer Solstice Sunrise Monolith is situated where the sun rises over this upright slab of granite around the date of June 21st of each year. The top of the stone is uniquely shaped to match the landscape on the horizon where the sun rises. The place to make these sightings is in the middle of a stone circle, where other astronomical computations can also be made.
Nearby the stone circle there is a tall rock called the True North Stone, which was determined in 1975 to have lined up with the pole star Thuban around 1750 BCE, and is on the main central axis from which other alignments can be calculated. These alignments include the annual summer and winter solstices (June 21 and Dec. 21) and seasonal equinoxes (March 22 and Sept. 22), as well as specific solar and lunar events of the year. Several of the low stonewalls also indicate true north–south and east–west alignments.
It is interesting to note that all astronomical sightings at America's Stonehenge were in a position to accurately predict their events around 1500 BCE. However, due to the earth's changing tilt over several thousand years, called the procession of the equinoxes, they can no longer precisely predict astral movement events.
Located in North Salem, America's Stonehenge is only about an hour's drive from Boston, and 18 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Boat captains of antiquity would have reached the hilltop location by navigating up the Merrimack River to a tributary that runs just below the site. Today most visitors drive to America's Stonehenge and take Exit 3 off the I–93 to Route 111. Motorists should follow the signs from North Salem.
Mysteries in Western Massachusetts and Beyond
There are many other enigmatic stone structures to discover scattered across the New England landscape. In Massachusetts, The Wendell Beehive Cave is very similar in size and design to the nearby Pelam Chamber, being about four feet tall in the main chamber, constructed of mortar–free masonry in the shape of a beehive, and covered with earth. The Wendell "cave" is located on a hillock known as Mount Mineral, about 12 miles north of Pelham in Franklin County. Pelham Chamber is on private land, two miles west of Quabbin Reservoir on Route 202 in Hampshire County.
In Vermont, the vast South Woodstock complex is on private land surrounding the town of the same name. Nearby Elephant Valley in South Royalton, Vermont is home to the famous "Calendar I site." Another prominent ancient observatory site is located in South Woodstock, Vermont. The South Woodstock complex consists of stone chambers, standing stones, and cairns in a natural bowl surrounded by hills and ridges. Besides having close proximity to waterways connecting with the Connecticut River, the beehive structures would have been interconnected by an intricate network of footpaths.
Sometimes seeing is the only way to believe, at least that's how I felt before I had the opportunity to visit the locations outlined above.
Although some of the beehive chambers are on private land, there is a good chance the owners will grant access, or at least they won't obstruct those who respectively come to visit. Only America's Stonehenge is a regularly operated tourism attraction. Try to time your visit during the solstice or equinox dates. I think you will be pleasantly surprised and agree with me that these stone chambers of New England are indeed one of the great mysteries of North America!
Brad Olsen is the author of seven books and runs CCC Publishing, which has put out 11 travel titles. He also contributed to the Rough Guides World Party book and is a regular contributor to several magazines and media outlets. See more at www.bradolsen.com and www.stompers.com. Brad Olsen's 7th book: Sacred Places Europe: 108 Destinations is out now.
Some parts of this article were excerpted from Brad Olsen's latest book: Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations (2nd edition). Purchase it at the links to the top right or visit CCC Publishing to order by phone.
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