Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mystery Stone Structures in Connecticut

Fieldstone cairns at the Werge Easement, Thompson, Ct. November 4, 2017

 Much of the landscape of Connecticut is pretty abundantly supplied with rocks. During the nineteenth century, after the primordial forests were for all intents and purposes completely cut, farmers clearing fields for crops or grazing would use the stones for walls and foundations. 150 year old stone walls are a ubiquitous feature of the Connecticut woods today. The eastern part of the state is also famous in certain circles for other, more puzzling fieldstone structures: cairns, piles, small towers, niches and even a few underground chambers, old but no one knows exactly how old, built by unknown people for dubious purposes. I recently got out for a tour of one of these "lithic sites," organized by The Last Green Valley and led by Joe Iamartino of the Thompson Historical Society, who tempted hikers with a quote from researcher J.P. Whittal: "There are more unexplained crude stone monuments in Thompson than anywhere in New England."
Hillside with about 10 cairns visible among the trees.
 After a slide show at the old Thompson town hall, a group of about 40 adjourned to the Werge Easement, a tract of private land set aside for conservation purposes and not normally accessible to the public. Anyone who has spent much time at all in the Connecticut woods has come across piles of loose rocks, in addition to the usual stone walls, in situations where it seems likely that a farmer was just disposing of stones picked from a field. The cairns in Thompson definitely looked more purposeful than that, more carefully put-together, and there were dozens of them dotting a ridge and an adjacent valley. I haven't run across anything remotely like it before.

Somewhat tumbledown stone pile with a niche at ground level.
 Several of the structures have niches in their bases, but nothing large enough for a person to get into. These seem like they might have been used to store something, but what isn't clear. Colonial records indicate that the native Americans built root cellars and underground sweat lodges, which could explain some of the larger stone chambers found elsewhere in New England, but not these dorm-fridge-sized cubbyholes. Cairns in the area have been excavated (often by looters and treasure hunters, unfortunately), but it seems that very little in the way of artifacts have ever been recovered.

A small stone tower
 There is one stone tower on the site, or perhaps a particularly tightly-constructed, skinny cairn. This was only about five feet tall, but another locality in the area has several towers of similar construction, but twice as high.

The "whale," an immobile boulder or bedrock outcrop with piled stones trailing behind it.
 A few of the structures, perhaps somewhat fancifully, might be said to represent animals, possibly turtles or whales. This struck me as a bit of a stretch.

Stone pile in poor condition, with trees growing out of it.
 A mature White Oak growing on top of a fallen-over cairn provides some indication of the age of the lithic site. I'd guess that the tree sprouted more than a century ago and could be 150 years old. The cairn, which looked like it was being overgrown by the tree's roots and not simply piled up against an existing trunk, should be older than that at a minimum. One New England stone chamber has reportedly been determined to be at least 800 years old, based on carbon dating of material found within, but in the absence of any surviving organic artifacts like bone, charcoal or wood, it would not be possible to carbon date the Werge Easement structures.

Stone pile arranged atop a large glacial erratic (the whale stone is in the background).
The majority of the crude stone monuments seemed to built on open ground, but a few were constructed on top of large boulders, the boulders being of such a size that they themselves probably were never moved. There were only two or three cairns built like this, out of the dozens that I saw on the walk.
The smaller boat-shaped stone structure at the Werge Easement.
The site has two examples of another type of mysterious stone structure: boat-shaped mounds, the size of mobile homes, with larger stones piled to make walls around the perimeter and the interior filled with a mix of smaller stones, creating a level, raised platform, three or four feet high. The two "stone boat" platforms, one large and one smaller, are fairly close to each other, but on a different part of the property than the majority of the cairn-type constructions. 

The "prow" of the larger boat-shaped platform.
As to what the Thompson lithic sites actually are, when they were built and by whom, that seems to be very much up in the air, without much indication that definite answers might be forthcoming. Our guides favored the theory that they are largely or entirely the work of Native Americans (the Nipmucs), and date to before European contact or the earliest colonial times. In this interpretation, the cairns are ritual objects or memorial markers, and may indicate the location of deaths in battle or other notable events. Some Native American tribes apparently had a tradition of marking the location of the death of an ancestor with a pile of stones, which subsequent generations would add to when they were in the area. The stone platforms could also be ritual sites, or they might be the foundations of raised wigwams. 
The view across the "deck" of the larger platform.
Another explanation that is maybe not as romantic, but at least as viable, is that the site is a sort of rustic art installation constructed by bored Yankee farmers, less than 200 years ago. Farming in New England is a difficult business and early efforts at cultivating fields or improving pastures involved a lot of moving rocks out of the way. In general, fieldstone was used to make walls, or sometimes thrown into heaps in out of the way spots or at property lines. But, there wouldn't be anything stopping a farmer with a more creative disposition from sequestering his extra rocks in neat little cairns and towers around his property.

 It is interesting to note that the Werge cairns and platforms occur in the neighborhood of perfectly ordinary stone walls from the 1800s, and sometimes the walls and the mysterious lithic structures are practically on top of each other, separated by just a few yards. So, if one contends that the lithic site is an ancient survival from pre-contact times, one also has to reckon with generations of nineteenth century Connecticut sheep farmers carefully working around the old monuments, and not deconstructing them for wall material or to get them out of the way. Which is entirely possible, but maybe not much more probable than imagining a farmer with a funny aesthetic sense building the stone monuments himself.

A Thompson, Ct lake in late autumn.
Lots of what might charitably be called exotic theories exist for Connecticut lithic sites, of course: they were built by wandering Celts on ley lines, or they were left by Vikings and the boat-shaped platforms are symbolic long-boat burials, or they're evidence of Phoenician sailors navigating the Quinebaug River. I'm not sure if anyone has claimed that they're the ruins of Sasquatch encampments, but that would probably be at about the same level of likelihood.

Ultimately, much of the interpretation of the Thompson stone monuments depends on their age, but there doesn't seem to be any obvious way of telling how old they are. I vaguely suspect that the structures are not ancient (multiple centuries or millennia old), or if they are ancient they received ongoing maintenance and reconstruction. The cairns look like they would be fairly fragile over the long term in a heavily wooded environment such as has existed for most of the past thousand years in southern New England; sooner or later they would have an oak grow up inside them and break them apart, or a three-foot diameter chestnut trunk would fall on them, or frost and ice would push the stones out of place. In the absence of human intervention, the structures would have a half-life, and if I had to guess I would put that half-life at much closer to 100 years than to 1,000 years. But for now at least, that is only a guess, and there seems to be a good amount of real mystery surrounding the lithic sites of Connecticut.