Friday, October 05, 2018

Reflections - from Norman Muller

Twenty Years Studying Native American Stonework

Peter Waksman’s fascinating recent essay on his blog Rock Piles (October 1, 2018), reflecting on his decades-long experience studying Native American stonework near his home in Concord, MA, made me think of my own experiences on the same topic, and so I decided to write some of them down.

I came to this serious pastime from a background in classical archaeology and geology as an undergraduate at Boston University in the late 1950s-early 60s, and then in graduate school in the mid=1960s, focusing on the scientific examination of art, and art conservation, which became my life’s work for the next fifty years.

While employed at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts in the mid-1970s, I came to meet Malcolm Pearson, the photographer and former owner of the Upton Chamber and Mystery Hill in NH.  We lived near one another.  Malcolm was an active member of the Early Sites Research Society, and a close associate of Jim Whittall; he took me to the Morrill Point Mound in Newbury, MA, where Whittall was excavating, and also to the kiva-like underground chamber in Putney, VT, another of Whittall’s projects.  I also attended a couple of meetings of the ESRS, but never really embraced the organization, one reason being that I was skeptical of some of the so-called artifacts I was shown at the Putney site.

Moving to Princeton, NJ in 1981 and to a job at the Princeton University Art Museum, I left the ESRS and Native American stonework behind me for the next sixteen years. Then, around 1995, I was contacted by Steve Ells, a Thoreau scholar and resident of Lincoln, MA, who wanted me to show him a log structure I had seen in Estabrook Woods in Concord when I lived in MA for a year in 1969.  So, one spring day in 1995 I drove to Concord, met Steve, and the two of us hiked through Estabrook Woods to where I remembered the log structure having been located.  Now, twenty-five years later, it was pretty much dilapidated.  At one point after seeing the log structure, Steve asked me if I’d be interested in seeing an above-ground stone chamber.  Always intrigued by new discoveries of this sort, I enthusiastically agreed, and so the two of hiked to the base of Hubbard Hill, where, along a colonial stone wall, we came upon this fascinating stone structure.  Steve told me that Mark Strohmeyer had studied it and had written a report on it for Harvard University, which owned the property.  I obtained Mark’s phone number from Steve, and once I got back to Princeton, I called him.

I never met Mark, but we had some long and intense talks by phone on Indian stonework, about which I knew very little at the time; Mark did most of the talking.  At one point during our first telephone call, Mark told me to buy a copy of Manitou and read it.  And once I had read it, I should call him back, which I did.  During this second call, he told me to contact a high school friend of his in Pennsylvania, Fred Werkheiser.  Fred was a shoe store owner in Nazareth, and in 1996 he kindly showed me several interesting sites near the Delaware Water Gap. The following year, in November, he took me to the Oley Hills site in Berks County, a day after an early November ice storm had covered everything with about a half inch of ice.  The effect on the remarkable stonework was beautiful and spellbinding, and from that point on, I was determined to learn as much about the site as I could, and try to determine whether the stonework (which consisted of large platform cairns, a Terrace, and stone walls) was Colonial or Native American.  The former landowner claimed the stonework was Celtic, but Fred said it was Native American.  I sent photos of some of the cairns to the state archaeologist, who wrote back saying the features looked “Industrial.”. With that, I knew that trying to determine who built the stonework and when would prove a daunting task.  For the next several years I made many trips to the Oley Hills site, and to Reading and Harrisburg, studying deeds and collecting information.  All of this resulted in an article published in British Archaeological Reports (BAR) in 2008, which is available on the NEARA website.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Manitou was my main source to the mysteries of American Indian stone constructions, the information in it often supporting what I had seen on my own in the woods.  But as I became more familiar with the stonework scattered in the woods of the Northeast, I also became more critical of what Mavor and Dix had written.  For example, their emphasis on archaeoastronomy and alignments, particularly in reference to the Upton Chamber, which was one of the main focus points early in their book, I found unconvincing. While archaeoastronomy is certainly a valid field of study, particularly for those areas of the country that are more plains-like or arid than the Northeast, this discipline must be applied carefully, and the evidence checked repeatedly, before results can be accepted.  With regard to the Upton Chamber, I still have some basic questions about the chamber having been used as a sighting platform that have not been answered satisfactorily, in my estimation.  The first one is, what was the main or primary purpose of using the chamber as a sighting platform?  And why build a massive beehive-shaped chamber simply to view some stars setting over a hill a mile away?  Couldn’t an outdoor spot on the ground, perhaps marked by some stones, have sufficed?   The chamber as a viewing location doesn’t make practical sense.  So what if certain stars set over Pratt Hill in 710? What practical purpose did this have?   Is it possible, using only one’s eyes, to actually see the stone mounds on Pratt Hill from deep inside the chamber on a moonless dark night?  And does one have the visual acuity to perceive certain stars setting over Pratt Hill a mile away?  What about trees getting in the way, plus the problem of cloud cover in the Northeast, which amounts to about half the days of the year?  So, until someone can answer these simple questions, I will remain skeptical of the actual function of the Upton Chamber.

In Lucianne Lavin’s excellent book, Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples, New Haven & London, 2013, she discusses archaeoastronomy briefly on page 283, focusing in part on King Philip’s Cave and King Philips Rocks in Sharon, Massachusetts.  With regard to these sites, she writes the following: “Some have used astronomical theory, coupled with the use of global positioning and geographic information systems, in attempts to make the case that such rock clusters and caves form sight lines in the direction of important solar events, such as summer and winter solstices, usually around June 21 and December 21, marking the longest and shortest days of the year… In contrast Onkwe Tasi, a Native American and longtime resident of Dracut, Massachusetts, reported that ‘indigenous New Englanders did not construct stone structures to calculate celestial , solar or lunar change.’  Instead they relied upon the variety of predictive faunal, floral, and climatic cues, marking transitions between seasons.  Tasi claimed his ancestors had no need for elaborate stone calendars, and that he knew of no contemporary Native groups using sites with stone piles, stone walls, outcrops, or boulders for ceremonial purposes.  Trudie Lamb Richmond has echoed Tasi’s comments regarding local indigenous use of natural phenomena rather than stone calendars.  The Agawam calendar supports this claim, and many professional researchers agree.  Still, this does not negate the fact that some stone formations reflect the spirituality and ideology of local First Nations.  And there is always the possibility that in the distant (and now forgotten) past some indigenous peoples did use stone sight lines to mark important celestial events.  Patrician Rubertone refers to these cultural stone monuments as ‘memory keeping places,’ mnemonic devices that link tribal members to their ancestral history and to each other.”


pwax said...

I think the presence of alignments is real and can be demonstrated. It is just that I do not think it is the "be all/end all" of ceremonial stonework.

Norman said...

I think alignments are real, too. I just don't believe that Mavor and Dix made a good case for it with the Upton Chamber.

Curtiss Hoffman said...

Onkwe Tasi, who is a Mohawk (not local to New England) is not necessarily a reliable source on these matters. The Hammonassett Line, which follows a solstice alignment very precisely, is quite convincing!

But the overwhelming majority of stone structure sites in my inventory do not have discernible archaeoastronimical orientations.

pwax said...

Curt, I am not convinced of the Hammonassett Line. I know of no research where off-line locations were systematically eliminated.

Tim MacSweeney said...

Herman Bender had some interesting thoughts about some cultural landscape alignments that included stars and stones. Rather than a calendar, it was a way of being "centered in the universe." You don't have to be witnessing the events at the moment they happen to be "centered," natural features and placed stones letting you know where to stand or sit. In the "orchard" that I suspect to be the burial grounds there's a group of stones that includes a standing stone at about where summer solstice sunset lines up when viewed from another boulder while the equinox sunsets happen above yet another boulder that marks the triangulation. I'm going to guess that something like that in a burial ground may have something to do with ceremony related to death rather than when is a good time to plant corn.

One page 133 of the Kreisberg book just out, he shows a map of the supposed line emanating from "near Montauk" to Devil's Tombstone in the Catskills, a push pin at about the halfway point, presumably a standing stone on Bethlehem Rd. in Woodbury CT. If there was a significant standing stone, I'd know about it, and probably would have shown you three when you were here or shown you a photo after all these years. He may be referring to something else in my yard or the Line is extremely wide. He says the width varies, which sort of ruins the whole line concept for me. You are missing a whole lot of stonework if you are looking at that single line.

Chris Pittman said...

Great read. Thanks for this.

Curtiss Hoffman said...

I have proposed for quite some time an experiment in which people placed on the line walk off it perpendicularly in both directions and record all the stonework they find. That will give us a better idea of how real the line is. But from what I've seen, there are about 50 sites very directly on the line and rather few off it.

Norman said...

So, do you believe the Hammonasset Line is a Ley line that people just sense when they're on it? And if the line begins at Montauk, Long Island, how did the Native Americans plot it across Long Island Sound, without the aid a compass, etc.? We're so used now to maps, Google Earth, etc to plot alignments.. But the Native American inhabitants a thousand or so years ago, had only their eyes to plot a point in the far distance. I'd just like an explanation of how the Hammonasset Line supposedly works.

pwax said...

Norman: playing devil's advocate, you might line up the end of Long Island (Montauq Point) with something, if you are high enough up to see it. I think that might get a "line" started.