Now dubbed “America’s Stonehenge” in Salem, New Hampshire, the location once known as Mystery Hill continues to draw tourists to what is touted as being evidence of pre-Columbian contact. Evidence of who is still up for debate.
The site itself is about 30 acres of land just off route 111 in Salem. It’s a sprawling complex of stone structures, walls, natural caves, and some would say Megaliths that are no taller than tree saplings (Wright 1998). It’s a well-known tourist destination that is open to the public for a fee and hosts hiking trails, llama pins, and an interpretive museum.
The site itself is supposedly shrouded in mystery as to its origins and purpose. It has multiple claims to its origins, all of which appear to be pre-Columbian in nature. Few even acknowledge the possibility that prehistoric Native peoples lived in the area before White settlers came. All of them ignore the documented history of the site or the damage done to it by its prior inhabitants. So what is this mysterious hill all about?
The Known History of Mystery Hill.
We know the area was owned back in 1837 by Jonathan Pattee, and that he built most of the structures originally on the property (Gilbert 1907). We know at that time the area had a good number of natural boulders and rock outcroppings, and that there were several natural caves that Pattee used as storage (Gilbert 1907). We know this based on evidence including drill marks on the stone used to build the structures that match 19830’s quarrying practice (Starbuck 2006).
We also know that William Goodwin bought 20 acres of the land in 1937 and dubbed the area Mystery Hill (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). The overall layout of the area was drastically altered by Goodwin who was convinced the area was evidence of Culdees in America (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). Goodwin apparently believed these Irish monks came over to America in the 20th century and constructed the caves around the site as part of their monastery (Starbuck 2006). Due to this belief, Goodwin and his supporters apparently further quarried the area and moved stones and structures around to what they believed were the ‘original’ locations in order to further support their ideas (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d).
In 1957 the land was leased to Robert Stone, and ten years later the Stone family bought the land (Starbuck 2006). The land still belongs to the Stone family, and they have made a few improvements of their own (Crystalinks N.d.). Adding a museum and changing the name to “America’s Stonehenge” due to the parallels that Stone sees to the great megaliths of Stonehenge in England and other Celtic sites (Starbuck 2006). There is still no evidence of ancient Celts in the area.
Several archaeological digs have been done in the area. One of importance was led by Gary Vescelius in 1955 (Starbuck 2006). His team recovered over 7000 artifacts, all of which were Native American or 18th and 19th century in origin (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). These artifacts were noting out of the ordinary for the area and line up perfectly with what is expected from the archaeology in the area. There was no evidence of anything related to Irish monks or Celts.
The Stone family still owns the land and it has become a bit of a tourist location. The museum there acts as an interpretation center for the site and offers a variety of ideas for the visitor to chew over, and appears to display the artifacts discovered during the actual archaeological digs done on the site.
What’s so Mysterious about Mystery Hill aka America’s Stonehenge?
To answer that we’d have to look a the variety of claims made about the site. They run quite the gambit, and none of them go for the ordinary or the everyday.
We already know of Goodwin’s belief that Irish monks made their way to America and picked this area as the site for their monastery. But there is also the belief that the site is far older than that. An idea put forth by Barry Fell in his book America B.C. claims that the site was occupied by Iberian Celts due to scripts he saw around the area (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d). Fell claims to have found inscriptions that link the site to Baal worshipers as well (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006). These scripts are only seen as such by Mr. Fell and no authority on Ogham, Phoenician or Iberian scripts believes them to be authentic in any way.
The current popular idea about America’s Stonehenge is that the site is actually a giant astrological calendar set up by Bronze Age peoples of unknown origin (Feder 2010, Crystalinks N.d.) The date commonly pitched for the site is 4,000 years old and is claimed to have been gotten from retrograding the alinements of the sun with the standing stones (Wright 1998, Cryistalinks N.d.). The two major issues with this is the known relocation of most of the site by Goodwin and, presumably, the Stone family (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Feder 2010, Crystalinks N.d.). Because of this, no reliable information can be gleaned from the positions of any of the stones, standing or otherwise.
The second major issue with this is that there is no physical evidence of Bronze Age peoples on or around the site. When Ken Feder toured the site, he noticed a lack of bronze artifacts. When he asked about their absence he was told. “You don’t think those ancient people would have left all those valuable bronze tools just laying around, do you? (Feder 2010).” Actually yes, that’s exactly what we expect. Bronze artifacts are found all over Europe, Africa, and Asia. It’s the reason we know there was a bronze age.
Other fun stories about the site come from David Starbuck when he visited the site in 1970 his guide told him that the whole site, stone chambers, trails, walls, and all were actually a giant representation of an Indian or Asian face wearing a peaked hat. This image was an ancient mental concept that had crossed the Bering Straights ten thousand years ago and that this image had been repeated in ‘Indian’ art all across American for thousand of years (Starbuck 2006). Starbuck rightly points out that “Every time another absurd theory is added to the mix, it becomes harder to accept any of the elaborate tails told about the site. (2006)”
So Where is the Evidence for Mystery Hill?
There are two major pieces of evidence offered up regularly. The first is a large flat stone carved with grooves set above an empty chamber that is called the “Sacrificial Table”, The second is a series of Carbon-14 dates. Unfortunately, neither are terribly convincing.
The “sacrificial table” as it’s called, is clearly a cider press or rather large lye stone. Pretty much anyone familiar with 18th -19th century homesteading knows what these are as both were pretty indicative of everyday life. You can even Google either term and see lots of images of stones that are similar to identical to the “sacrificial table”. I can only assume here that the owners of the site still call it that to drum up drama. As for the “Oracle Chamber” underneath it, it’s merely a happy coincidence that the chamber produces echoes. Obviously, it was meant for liquid collection and probably storage as well.
The C-14 dates are a little more inserting. Normally C-14 dates would be good forms of evidence. Especially when taken with care and taken in context. Apparently, however, the samples taken from the Mystery Hill site don’t quite fulfill these criteria. C-14 dates are taken from charcoal samples at a site, preferably taken from the feature meant to be dated. According to Starbuck, the charcoal samples from Mystery Hill were taken randomly from the site with nothing of human origin in association with them. Meaning they were completely random samples of charcoal that had no known association with features. What this means in a greater context is that the dates are meaningless. I have seen pieces of the testing results report created by Geochron Laboratories, Inc as linked on the Mystery Hill site. Regardless of the date given, if the samples were taken willy-nilly from wherever on the site and nothing of context was associated with them, it really doesn’t mater.
Now, if we assume that the samples are good, and were taken with care and context, the dates provided still aren’t that shocking. with a date of 2995 BPE +/- 180 years. That still puts the site well within the expected habitation for prehistoric Native peoples. It’s also still not evidence of anything European or Celtic in nature. As all of the archaeology done on the site backs up the presences of Native peoples on the site (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Feder 2010, including at the quarry sites (Crystalinks N.d) there is no reason to think that these C-14 dates are indicative of anything out of the ordinary.
So What’s Left?
Not much really. Evidence shows that the Mystery Hill/American Stonehenge site is what it appears to be to the trained eye. A multicomponent site having both a prehistorical component and evidence of 18-19th-century habitation. Which should surprise no one. There is even documentation of Johnathan Pattee owing and building on his land. Natural caves were known to exist there, as were natural outcroppings of rock. As we move forward there is documentation and evidence of William Goodwin et all moving and changing the site, thereby destroying any context the site had. There is even some suggestion that the alteration of the site continues to modern-day, making it impossible to trust any interpretation of the site’s structures
There is no evidence of anything else.
Bob Goodby, then president of the New Hampshire Archaeological Society, put it best when interviewed by Karen Wright in 1998:
“Goodby assured me that no reputable archaeologist took the pre-Colombian lure seriously. The inscriptions were bogus, and there was no other evidence that an ancient, old-world culture had ever occupied Mystery Hill: no signs of the food preparation, garbage disposal, living areas, or burial grounds that are associated with other megalithic sites. Although there is an unusual amount of stonework on the hill, he said, it doesn’t differ in kind from other structures built by New Englanders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Wright 1998)”
Starbuck adds a few words of his own about the whole deal:
“The moment the first stone was moved to a new location by William Goodwin, the entire site lost any chance of being taken seriously by scholarly community. … Yet site integrity is everything to an archaeologist, and this site is severely compromised. (Starbuck 2006)”
“If an early site truly has merit, it doesn’t require bizarre interpretations. (Starbuck 2006)”
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N.d. Americas Stonehenge. http://www.crystalinks.com/AmericasStonehenge.html. Accessed 1/15/2016
2010 Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum. pg 10 – 12 https://books.google.com/books?id=xmDnhPNLwYwC&q=mystery+hill#v=snippet&q=mystery%20hill&f=false Accessed 1/15/16
1907 The History of Salem, N.H. Rumford Press. p. 418 https://ia601403.us.archive.org/17/items/historyofsalemnh00gilb/historyofsalemnh00gilb.pdf Accessed 1/15/2016
Starbuck, David R.
2006 The Archeology of New Hampshire: Exploring 10,000 Years in the Granite State. pgs 106-109. University of New Hampshire Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=DcKQoMp9Qv0C&pg=PR4&lpg=PR4&dq=Starbuck,+David+R.+(2006).+The+Archeology+of+New+Hampshire:+Exploring+10,000+Years+in+the+Granite+State.+University+of+New+Hampshire+Press.+ISBN+978-1-58465-562-6.&source=bl&ots=5VH1937Wgk&sig=C1NVrWpFv_d_fXEYMAOl13xO0vw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiBpLnRhMbKAhVGNj4KHT-kAUEQ6AEIHzAB#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed 1/15/2016
2009 “Lie Leaching”. JREF Swift Blog. James Randi Educational Foundation. July 24,2009. http://web.archive.org/web/20151005192537/http://archive.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/647-lie-leaching.html Accessed 1/15/2016
1998 Light Elements: Yankee Doodle Druid
What were people in New Hampshire doing 4,000 years ago with a sacrificial table? Discover. http://www.discovermagazine.com Sunday Feb 01, 1998
http://discovermagazine.com/1998/feb/lightelementsyan1410 Accessed 1/15/2016