The Day – The enduring elegance and mystery of stone walls: Who built them and why at the heart of an ongoing debate
Lace up your hiking boots, grab a trekking pole, and take a forest walk in east Connecticut or west Rhode Island. You will shortly come across a stone wall.
Sometimes it seems obvious that the wall was built by an 18th or 19th century farmer to clear a field, build a foundation, or keep domesticated animals in or wild animals out – but what about an isolated, coiled strand of stones piled high on a ledge or leading into a swamp, far from anywhere anyone would ever build a house, grow crops, or raise animals? Why bother dragging all these boulders up and downhill for no apparent purpose?
These questions are at the center of an ongoing, sometimes controversial, debate between archaeologists / academics rooted in the colonial peasant tale and amateur historians who believe that Indians built these walls and other stone structures much earlier for spiritual reasons.
I recently went hiking in the area with two ardent supporters of this latter view, Markham Starr of North Stonington and Carl Tjerandsen of Ledyard.
Starr said that for years he strolled through the woods near his home “and always assumed that all the walls I saw were built by farmers.” However, five years ago, after a walk under the guidance of Doug Schwartz of Groton, vice president of the New England Antiquities Research Association, who has been studying stone structure formation for nearly three decades, Starr noticed similar patterns that supported the notion of native spirituality as colonial Practicability.
“I would see piles of stones with a piece of quartz over them or arranged in a spiral pattern,” said Starr. Then there were “snake walls,” which resemble snakes and evoke visions of the mythical creatures that early natives believed to have traversed between the land of the living and the underworld.
Starr said if he’d seen just one or two of these distinctive designs he might have thought it was just a coincidence, but after observing “the same thing over and over” he realized that there had to be a better explanation.
Starr, documentary photographer and author of a dozen books on subjects ranging from dairy farming to commercial fishing to building a Greenland kayak, hiked nearly 900 miles every weekend for the next five years through the forests of southeast Connecticut and beyond . He photographed around 8,000 constructions and made extensive notes. In 2016 he published his latest book “Ceremonial Stonework: The Enduring Native American Presence on the Land”.
“While archaeological evidence shows that the earliest New England humans lived in the countryside for more than 12,000 years, newly landed colonists from Europe immediately rejected Native American spiritual practices as pagan rituals that were destroyed or silenced by Christianization . Although disease, wars, and other problems brought to the continent nearly wiped out the indigenous population, the physical manifestations of the indigenous beliefs set in stone have often been ignored. The stone objects they created still bear witness to the strength of their spiritual life and are scattered around the New England countryside, ”he writes.
While Starr and Tjerandsen were with me on trails in North Stonington, Preston, and Griswold, they pointed out a few examples that they identified as indigenous constructions. Among them were stone chambers that resemble semi-subterranean stone igloos and “snake walls” that seem to undulate between the trees, indicate water sources or cracks in the earth, and have characteristic snake-like heads.
“They weren’t built this way by accident,” Tjerandsen said, adding that it was important not only to recognize their importance and past origins, but also to preserve them.
“It’s going to be difficult there,” said Connecticut state archaeologist Brian D. Jones, later in a telephone interview.
For conservation, Jones says his office relies on recommendations from the state-mandated Native American Heritage Council, which includes representatives of the Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Pawcatuck Eastern Pequot, and other Connecticut tribes.
While the council has sought protective measures for burial sites and additional holy sites, it has yet to propose extending that protection to the walls and chambers that Starr, Tjerandsen, Schwartz and others have advocated, Jones said.
Jones, who helps staff at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and the Connecticut Archeology Center plan archaeological exhibits and programs, and curates the University of Connecticut’s anthropological collections, hasn’t ruled out the possibility that some of these structures may be indigenous .
But Jones said he’s reluctant to push for protection only at the suggestion of non-locals, adding, “I’m still a little skeptical; it is open to interpretation. “
Jones also said his office is already strongly in favor of preserving old walls, regardless of who built them.
“We say leave them there and try not to disturb them,” he said.
Schwartz, whose New England Antiquities Research Association promotes the Native Origin theory, scoffs at what he sees as the government’s intransigence to accept anything other than colonial-centered interpretation.
“Archaeologists are so parochial – all of their research is based on excavation,” he said.
Schwartz cited written records of the existence of native ceremonial walls, including a letter from Noah Webster to Rev. Ezra Stiles, then President of Yale College, in which Webster describes ancient burial mounds.
He said that Native Americans have a long history of ceremonial and spiritual stone carving and that these are particularly common in this region because of the abundance of building materials. Eons of tectonic activity along ductile and brittle faults, followed by extensive glaciation, created an infinite amount of rock, as anyone in southeast Connecticut who has ever dipped a shovel will recognize.
“There is more masonry in New London County than anywhere else in the east,” Schwartz said. The entire northeast has long been an epicenter of stone construction.
In 1939, a mining engineer named Oliver Bowles, using US Department of Agriculture statistics, estimated that there were more than a quarter of a million miles of stone walls in the northeast – mostly in New England.
For Starr, the North Stonington writer and photographer, this is another reason to believe that it wasn’t just farmers who built walls like this. Any colonial builder would have had to build four miles of walls a day over a period of 200 years to create such a large network, Starr said.
I am neither a geologist nor a historian with academic qualifications, but as one who has spent countless hours over the decades building my own stone walls, towers, steps, and paths, I respect the mission of both sides to bring these lithic remains preserve.
I do not include animals or attach any spiritual meaning to my work. I just like to use prybars, levers, pivot points, cribbing, and chains to move large stones and create various structures. I am comforted by the solid feeling of stone steps beneath my feet; A pile of stones framed by evergreen plants improves the view of the forest. Well-maintained, stone-lined paths are much more inviting than paths that have been trampled.
I may be intrigued by the origins of the stone walls, but more importantly, I see them as the path to immortality. You endure.