New England is known to be honeycombed with stone walls. Less well known are its hundreds of mysterious stone structures.
It was estimated in the 1930s that New England had 250,000 miles of stone walls. In the following decades came inventories of the region's stone structures, believed by some to be ancient.
Some of those ancient stone structures are oriented to the stars and planets and stand near megaliths, cairns or dolmens. A few have what seem to be stone beds or sacrificial altars.
Speculation runs rampant about the origins of the mysterious stone structures. Were they built by medieval Irish monks, American Indians or Vikings? Or were they just colonial root cellars?
Three northeast counties account for the majority of stone structures found 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. There are 105 such sites in Massachusetts, 62 in Connecticut, 51 in New Hampshire, 41 in Vermont, 12 in Rhode Island and four in Maine.
They suggest, perhaps, that ancient voyagers frequently traveled the Merrimack, the Thames and the Connecticut rivers, building their stone structures along those routes.
Here are sites thought to be homes to ancient stone structures (or maybe colonial root cellars), with at least one in each New England state.
Gungywamp, Groton, Conn.
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 bit of light to illuminate the interiors.
Early mercenaries to the Northeast wrote about ‘Indian stone castles’ they stumbled across. In 1654, John Winthrop the Younger received a letter from John Pynchon of Springfield, Mass., who 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 Gungywamp archaeological site in Groton, Conn., is the 100-acre home to such stone structures as beehive chambers, petroglyphs, a double circle of stones, cellars and walls that date back hundreds of years.
Some of the structures are thought to be Native American and perhaps had ceremonial functions. Others were built by colonial settlers with such clear utilitarian purposes as root cellars and birthing chambers. Some features of the site suggest they were originally built as fortifications.
There is no end to the speculation about the purpose of all the Gungywamp stone structures. Some theorize that certain stone features on the property were constructed by Irish monks in the eighth century. They argue ‘Gungywamp’ is a Gaelic word for “church of the people.’ Others say it is an Indian word.
The most famous chamber on the property is the so-called ‘calendar chamber.’ Archaeologists suspect it was originally used as storage for a nearby colonial tan bark mill. A vent at one end of the calendar chamber is aligned with the spring and fall equinoxes, allowing a shaft of sunlight to fall directly on a smaller chamber within the larger structure.
Gungywamp has been preserved, but many of the structures stand on private land. It can be toured virtually here. Visitors who would like to tour the Gungywamp may do so through the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, which hosts several tours throughout the year. More information is available here.
Belmont Stone Chamber
Maine has the fewest stone structures of any of the New England states, but it does have some: cairns in Bingham along the Kennebec River and in Whitefield, a stone tunnel in Northport.
The stone chamber in Belmont, Maine, is aligned so that its interior is illuminated during the summer solstice.
Upton Stone Chamber, Upton, Mass.
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 the chamber was used between 700-750 A.D. to study the Pleiades, and around 670 A.D. 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.
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 callar. A 2006 excavation found evidence it had been built to store food in the 18th or 19th century. Some argue Indians built it before the colonists arrived. Other say railroad workers lived in it during the 19th century.
The chamber has been restored. The Nashoba Brook Conservation Area is in North Acton on the easterly side of Main Street (Route 27), toward Westford and Carlisle.
American Stonehenge, Salem, N.H.
America’s Stonehenge is a 30-acre complex of standing stones, underground chambers and stone walls in North Salem, N.H. It’s the largest collection of stone structures in North America and includes dolmens, or horizontal stone slabs on vertical stone uprights; 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 many of the pagan structures were built 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 had 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.
Queen’s Fort, Exeter, R.I.
The Queen's Fort and Queen's Bed Chamber in Exeter, R.I., are some of the more colorful stone structures of New England. Legends suggest that in later years it was home to hermits and a hideout to bandits.
Archaeologists and historians associate the fort with a man named Stonewall John – a talented stone mason who may have been a Narragansett or an Englishman. It's been suggested that he constructed the stone fort as a defense for King Philip during King Philip's War (1675-78). The fort was site of one of the first colonist attacks during the war.
Within the fort is a chamber – six square feet with seven-foot ceiling and a sand floor – that some suggest was built for the Narragansett queen Quaiapen (also known as Matuntuck). She was said to hide out at the site during the war before moving somewhere else, where she died. Some have also suspected that Quaiapen and Stonewall John were lovers.
The site, which has been location of numerous archaeological digs, is owned by the Rhode Island Historical Society, which has placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. It can be accessed via a series of trails in Exeter that surround the property. More information is available here.
Calendar II, South Woodstock, Vt.
Eastern Vermont has some of the densest concentrations of ancient stone structures in North America. An inventory of Vermont's stone chambers compiled by the New England Antiquities Research Association found 52 stone chambers in 23 towns in five Vermont counties, particularly Orange and Windsor.
In 1975, a retired marine biologist from Harvard declared he had made a discovery: On Vermont’s stone structures were inscriptions in a dead Celtic language called Ogam. They dated from 1000 BC and were carved by Celts from the Iberian peninsula, he concluded. They all faced east and many were inscribed.
Some have symbolic markings, some have Celtic place names. Critics of his theory countered there was no other evidence of Celtic settlements in New England, as there should have been. Vermont farmers told stories of their great-grandfathers' plows uncovering stone huts.
In 1977, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation studied the stone chambers in the state, concluding they are different than stone burial vaults, charcoal and lime kilns, potash burners or iron furnaces.
One of the biggest and best known stone chambers is called Calendar II in South Woodstock, Vt. Calendar II measures 10 feet by 20 feet on the inside, the same geometrical ratio as the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid. The door is aligned with the solstice sunrise.
A Norwich University professor studied aerial photographs of Vermont and discovered an odd hexagonal pattern made of stone walls and ditches. Many were independent of current and traditional land use patterns.
Images: Gungywamp By Randal J. (en:User:RJFerret) - Own work (own photo), CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7714677; Nashoba Brook Stone Chamber, By John Phelan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20548479; Leverett Stone Chamber By BittyRed - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46106121; American Stonehenge, By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=123562; Queen’s Fort, By JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ, M.D. - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49496088; Stonehenge CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=195581.