Thursday, June 01, 2006

Whipple Hill Lexington, MA - part 1

The Whipple Hill Conservation Land in Lexington is interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is the huge rock pile there, which I managed to miss each time I was there previously. Another is the distribution of this sort of large pile - I have only seen ones like this in Lexington and Weston, along Hobbs Brook and the upper reaches of the Charles River. Yet another reason is that Whipple Hill is really surrounded by city or at least densely populated suburbia - making the rock piles here the ones closest to downtown Boston that I have found. So let's discuss some of these topics.

I usually enter the conservation land from the north, near the hilltop. It is a lovely place for a picnic with some bare rock and some views in all directons, except where blocked by a few trees. If you go up there, it is typical Massacusetts hilltop, with signs that everybody since whenever has been there and mucked around. Also there are a few faint traces of rock piles up there and if you head down the path you see a few more possible piles but nothing too exciting. As it turns out, there is much more conservation land downhill than I realized and there is a pond called "Little Pond". Tim Fohl was the first person to mention to me that there was a large rock pile by the pond. He also mentioned scooped out hollows in the pile as examples of deliberate prayer seats built into a pile. Here is a view of the top of the pile.
We have been disagreeing about that for quite a while. I believe it is more likely the hollows (which are very common in large rock piles) are from more recent people digging for buried treasure - it is vandalism not architecture. I don't know how to resolve this issue except, for now, to think that either is a possibility.

Anyway, this large pile is a spectacular large pile, perhaps 15 or more feet tall. It is composed of somewhat small rocks, mostly of the same general size, 6-8 inches across. Most are broken ledge rock and not glacial cobbles. The pile itself, sits next to a brook which feeds the pond about 30 yards away and it is on the eastern side of the pond - looking west over the water. The pond, if you examine it, is seen to be artificial. It is dammed at the southern end and water flows out of it to the north and also (a bit) to the south.

Now, I was walking with my father and asked: why here? He thought about it and concluded that the only plowable land nearby was adjacent to and behind this pile - so that is why it was there - the field was cleared to there. Usually I would argue that ledge rock and not glacial cobble precludes a pile from being a field clearing pile. But in this rocky area there is lots of broken up ledge rock mixed in with the dirt and my father could be right. Of course I don't think so, and my main reason is - look at the size of this thing. Thinking about the logistics of piling up more rocks on top, it would seem like a lot of unecessary work to build it so high. Luckily we do not have to make a decision about this. All piles are of interest and their particular nature is there to explore.

What had not been mentioned previously is that there are a number (I saw two) of other piles here with rocks tossed or placed on exposed outcrops.So these can be taken into further account in the discussion of why the piles are where they are and whether they are from field clearing or not.

The only other piles like this (relatively huge, made from small rocks, built up high) that I have seen, have been in the Lexington-Weston corridor, following Hobbs Brook which is a tributariey of the Charles River and which fills the "Cambridge Reservoir" system you see as you drive south on Rt 128/95, from about Rt 2. Bruce McAleer first showed me pile like this. It was overlooking one of the reservoirs in Weston:
The retaining wall you see in the second picture may be significant. I saw no retaining wall for the big pile at Whipple Hill. But nonetheless the piles are more similar than different and it is tempting to view them as a product of the same culture. By the way, this Weston pile is at the top of a ridge, not near any field. Its consituent cobbles are rounded and clearly come from Stoney Brook (another name for Hobbs Brook but further downstream), a bit of a walk down the ridge. So it strikes me as even less likely to be a field clearing pile. Anyway, I wonder about this watershed. The Charles is connected to the ocean in a way that the other watersheds I explore (the Assabet and the Nashua) are not. This opens up the possibility of a different culture, operating in a different travel corridor. To me, this is intriguing and makes me wish to explore other tributaries of the Charles and see if the pattern recurs in other place. We'll wait and see.

I had gone out out on Monday, Memorial Day, for a walk with my Dad which I expected to be a vacation from rock piles. But he wanted to go to Whipple Hill, so it was a great chance to follow up on what Tim Fohl had said and, as it turned out, there were other rock piles and even another site there.


pwax said...

I'll put this in a comment rather than the main text: you know what I am implying about the connection to the ocean? Well, go take a look at some of those Swedish and Danish rock piles. They are called "stone burial mounds". Those are the only pictures I have seen that look anything like the huge piles we are seeing here in Lexington and Weston. I hate to be a pain and sure do not take myself to seriously when I mention this but it has been claimed systematically that this watershed was once called "Norrumbega". There is a nice reference to this on the NEARA website. But if you think I am being a kook, never mind.

Anonymous said...

You already know I'm a kook too.
I did send you the scans of the big huge stone mound near me didn't I?
I didn't mention some holes mined into them that I too think were later excavations.
Or a big chuck of Pennsylvain Jasper sitting on the pile.

Are those big stones in the second pile more or less N,S,E,and especially West orientated?
Stones I think of as burial associated are placed toward the sunset in relation to the mound.


pwax said...

One more comment: people who have never seen a field clearing pile, or any other pile for that matter, are the ones most likely to ascribe field clearing origins to piles. The fact is that field clearing piles have very identifiable characteristics - mainly that they are messy and at a low point or edge of a field. It is all very logical for people who have the information, otherwise it is easy to get it wrong.

Anonymous said...

FYI, technically, Whipple Hill isn't part of the Charles River watershed at all. The water in this area of Lexington drains to the Mystic River via the Mystic lakes, not the Charles - so you really aren't exploring a Charles River culture when you're there.

If you want to know the boundaries, the Mystic River Watershed Association has a map.


Marc said...

Whipple Hill is one of my favorite hiking areas. I lead hikes with a local group and that is one of my places to lead, including doing snowshoe hikes in the winter. Definitely a hidden spot in the Boston area.

Anonymous said...

I've lived adjacent to the Whipple Hill forest for 35 years, and have always thought the rocks were piled up when the land was farmed. I suspect the hollows in the piles were created by kids building forts.

When I was young, my friends and I would toss rocks from one pile to another, trying to hit a dead branch between the two. Twenty years later, I finally hit a bullseye and snapped the branch.

Anonymous said...

Who empty's the trash can of dog do-do?

pwax said...

Not sure about dog do-do. It is the comment about farming and kids that I want to address:

One argument would be the argument of authority: How many sites have you looked at as an adult? When you have seen these mounds deep in the woods where there were no kids and no fields, and you start to actually learn something about the subject, then you will find your initial assumptions were incorrect .

Another argument would be through logic: since when does a field have rocks that are all the same size as in the rock pile? Why did these rocks get separated from the others? Where are the other rocks?

The true argument is this: believe what you want. In this community, we look at rock piles with an assumption that not everything is known about them and that they are worth studying.

Anonymous said...

Us kids roamed the woods back in the days when it covered Arlington,Lexington,Winchester and Woburn with no houses or people around. That was seventy or so years ago(WWII) when the wooded area was known as Reeds Woods. Whipple Hill was there but it had no name and yes so were the rock piles. In the area around Whipple Hill was one of the places to go blueberry picking. Us kids were the Crescent Hill Gang and would enter the woods from where the trail heads are now. To bad only 120 acres are left. Guess you call the progress.