While America is not famous for its ancient past, it does have some interesting prehistoric stone structures as we saw in Part 1. This week we will travel a little further east and north to New England, which is the home of two puzzling megalithic sites: America’s Stonehenge and Gungywamp.
America’s Stonehenge is an archaeological site located in Salem, New Hampshire. In 1937, an insurance executive named William Goodwin purchased this site and called it Mystery Hill. In 1956, Robert Stone became the new owner of this property. He turned it into a tourist attraction and renamed it America’s Stonehenge in 1982.
Travel writer Brad Olsen provides a detailed description of this site in “The Mysterious Stone Chambers of New England”:
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.
Like America’s Stonehenge, Gungywamp is a private archaeological site. People who would like to see Gungywamp should contact the property owners before visiting it. Arrangements for a visit can also be made by contacting the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, which “give tours with the permission of Gungywamp property owners” according to a Gungywamp virtual tour website.
Here is what visitors will see at Gungywamp courtesy of Wikipedia:
Gungywamp is an archaeological site in Groton, Connecticut, United States, consisting of artifacts dating from 2000-770 BC, a stone circle, and the remains of both Native American and colonial structures. Among multiple structural remains, of note is a stone chamber featuring an astronomical alignment during the equinoxes. Besides containing beehive chambers and petroglyphs, the Gungywamp site has a double circle of stones near its center, just north of two stone chambers. Two concentric circles of large quarried stones – 21 large slabs laid end to end are at the center of the site.
Source: “Gungywamp” – Wikipedia
Unlike some historical places, America’s Stonehenge and Gungywamp did not remain untouched for thousands of years. Over time, various settlers moved in and out of these areas, and they used and modified these sites to suit their purposes. As a result, both sites contain a mishmash of artifacts and structures from varying time periods. For instance, Wikipedia notes that the charcoal pits of America’s Stonehenge date back to “2000 BC to 173 BC,” but the stones on the site are a lot younger:
Artifacts on the site lead archaeologists to the conclusion that the stones were actually assembled for a variety of reasons by local farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, a much-discussed ‘sacrificial stone’ which contains grooves that some say channeled blood closely resembles ‘lye-leaching stones’ found on many old farms that were used to extract lye from wood ashes, the first step in the manufacture of soap.”
Gungywamp also has a jumbled past. Consider the description provided by a travel website called Atlas Obscura:
The site, located in the Connecticut woods less than an hour away from New Haven, consists of multiple stone chambers, rings of stones, piles of rock, Native American artifacts, mysterious etchings, Lithic artifacts, Colonial artifacts, and hundreds or even thousands of years of various settlers adopting and rearranging the site, it is difficult to tell where one historical period ends and another begins.
Source: “Gungywamp” – Atlas Obscura
One origin myth common to both sites is the tale that they were built by Irish (Culdee) monks who came to America long before Christopher Columbus explored the New World. Based on the various articles I read, the reasons for these Irish monks settling in these areas vary from being shipwrecked to leaving Ireland in order to escape persecution from the Vikings. Brad Olsen even notes the Irish origins of the name Gungywamp: “The word ‘Gungywamp’ was originally thought to be an Indian word, but has another translation in Gaelic meaning ‘Church of the People.’”
To date, archaeologists have not found any physical evidence to support this story. In a Boston University Bridge article by Brian Fitzgerald, CAS Archaeology Professor Curtis Runnels states that “the theory that America’s Stonehenge was built by Celts in ancient times has absolutely no credibility.” His main reason for reaching this conclusion is that “‘no Bronze Age artifacts have been found there.’” He further adds that “‘in fact, no one has found a single artifact of European origin from that period anywhere in the New World.’”
The Atlas Obscura website notes that this is also the case for Gungywamp:
To add to this the site attracts what might be called archeological conspiracy theories. Among the most popular of these theories (one that crops up at multiple stone sites in the Northeast, see America’s Stonehenge) is that the site is a pre-Colombian settlement build by 6th-century Celtic Christian monks who escaped Ireland to avoid Norse aggression.
While it is easy to dismiss this theory, the confirmation of pre-columbian Norse contact in Newfoundland, and the increasing likelihood that Polynesians may have had contact in South America make it increasingly more difficult to dismiss it out of hand. Nonetheless no findings confirming the theory have ever been found by any credible linguists, epigraphers, or archaeologists, making it still a fringe theory at best.
Source: “Gungywamp” – Atlas Obscura
America’s Stonehenge Hoaxes
Two hoaxes have further obscured the origins of America’s Stonehenge. The first hoax involved William Goodwin. He was so convinced of the truth of the story that Irish monks built America’s Stonehenge that he decided to rearrange the stones on the site to prove the validity of the story:
The site’s history is muddled partly because of the activities of William Goodwin, who became convinced that the location was proof that Irishmonks (the Culdees) had lived there long before the time of Christopher Columbus, a concept he sought to publicize. The site has been altered by stone quarrying and by the efforts of Goodwin and others to move the stones to what they considered their original locations, with Goodwin perhaps responsible for much of what can now be seen. Many of the stones have post 1830s drill marks from the quarrying that took place on the site.
The second hoax involved Barry Fell. According to Wikipedia, the “late Barry Fell, a marine biologist from Harvard University and amateur epigrapher, claimed that inscriptions at the site represented markings in Ogham (an alphabet used to write the Early and Old Irish languages), Phoenician and Iberian scripts, which he also called Iberian-Punic.” Brian Fitzgerald notes that archaeologists questioned the authenticity of these scripts and other findings that Fell outlined in a book called America B.C. :
However, America B.C. was ridiculed by most archaeologists, many of whom noted the similarities between Fell’s so-called “epigraphs” and scrape marks made by plowshares and tree roots.
Other finds highlighted in Fell’s book, such as the Davenport calendar stone (supposedly containing Egyptian hieroglyphics) in Iowa, and the “Iberian” inscription in Grave Creek, W.V., are widely considered among archaeologists to be frauds.
Rearranged and reinvented over the years, America’s Stonehenge and Gungywamp remain surrounded by an air of mystery. Can these sites be considered significant archaeological discoveries despite their mixed up history (and the hoaxes in the case of America’s Stonehenge), or are they no better than theme parks with really old rocks?
While the historical significance of America’s Stonehenge and Gungywamp is subject to debate, these sites brought a troubling observation clearly into focus for me. After reflecting upon these sites, I see how easy it is for people to be indifferent to the past. For instance, an article called “Gungywamp, Groton” notes that the colonists used the chambers at Gungywamp as root cellars. This fact seems to indicate that most of the colonists were not really concerned about what the chambers were used for before they arrived there. From their perspective, the chambers were important as places that satisfied an immediate need for food storage.
The historical sites in Part 1 also gave me a similar impression of people being oblivious to the past. After learning that the top of Grave Creek Mound was once home to a dance platform, I am now haunted by an image of local West Virginians of the time literally dancing upon the graves of the ancient people buried in the mound. How many of them actually knew they were doing this?
While I can easily observe this mindset in past generations, I now realize that I am guilty of being oblivious to the past too. What remnants of the past lie beneath my house, the roads I drive on, or the building that I work at? I do not know, and I do not think about them when I am caught up in the everyday cares of my existence. Perhaps it is human nature to be more concerned about the present than the past. If this is the case, then I should not be surprised if more oblivious dancing over graves should occur a hundred or a thousand years from now.