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Mystery Hill: America's Stonehenge

The ancient site's mysterious history is debated by archeologists and conspiracy theorists alike.

america's stonehenge
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  • Photo Credit: NikiSublime / Flickr (CC)

In the town of Salem, New Hampshire, stand an odd arrangement of rocks and boulders shrouded in mystery. Occupying about 30 acres of land, the history of this enigmatic place is debated by archeologists and conspiracy theorists alike. Some have offered more contemporary and logical explanations, while others are certain that Phoenicians, Vikings, or Celts are responsible for the site. It was once known as Mystery Hill. Nowadays, it is known as America's Stonehenge.

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In 1907, the location was briefly mentioned in a book titled History of Salem, N.H. It was attributed to a man named Jonathan Pattee, an eccentric farmer who supposedly built his home on the location and lived there through the mid-19th century. In 1939, Hugh O’Neill Hencken, a curator with Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, gave credence to the theory that Pattee once occupied the grounds–but only as a rebuke to the outlandish and commercially-motivated claims of an insurance executive named William Goodwin. Goodwin had purchased the site two years prior to Hencken's declaration, seemingly in hopes of making some money off it. He became convinced that Irish monks were the original inhabitants of the land (long before Columbus’s arrival), and that it had once been a Celtic monastery. To make his assertion seem confirmable, Goodwin shifted the boulders around, named it Mystery Hill, and advertised it to throngs of wide-eyed visitors.

america's stonehenge
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  • Photo Credit: NikiSublime / Flickr (CC)

For years, Mystery Hill remained a dark and shadowy place, with many curiosity seekers trekking through the landscape–and finding more questions than answers.

Then in 1982, David Stewart-Smith, Mystery Hill’s director of restoration, excavated a megalith in a stone quarry under the supervision of the New Hampshire state archaeologist. Stewart-Smith and his team found a wealth of chips and flakes from the stone, and eventually agreed with the state archaeologist that it was consistent with Native American lithic construction. This not only discredited Goodwin’s bizarre sideshow act, but also the Pattee explanation. These discoveries resulted in a name change; Mystery Hill became “America’s Stonehenge”, both as a nod to the original Stonehenge in England, and as a way of differentiating it from a basic roadside attraction.

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Stewart-Smith went on to write a booklet in 1989 titled Ancient and Modern Quarry Techniques, in which the Native American theory about the site’s origin is discussed. However, in 2006, a more comprehensive book, America's Stonehenge Deciphered, was written by researcher Mary Gage. Gage suggested that America’s Stonehenge was built by Native Americans over a 2,500 year period, and that it had been intended as a sacred ceremonial location. Using the remnants found during the archeological dig as evidence, Gage reiterates the idea that Native Americans would have had the necessary tools and knowledge to create such a place. Furthermore, Gage refers to the 1969 discovery of a Native American clay pit and pottery work area, found between the wetlands pool and a well.

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A multitude of stone tools were also found at the site, including hammer stones, scrapers, projectile points, and retouched blades. Further excavations unearthed charcoal, fire-burnt stone spalls (small flakes of stone created during the process of quarrying and shaping blocks of stone), and other small tools. The charcoal was carbon-dated to 1045 B.C., effectively linking Native Americans and their construction to the site approximately 3,000 years ago. This would archeologically place the site in the Late Archaic or the Early Woodland time periods.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But these findings have not stopped other theories from circulating. The official America’s Stonehenge website claims that the location was found to be an “accurate astronomical calendar” built by “people well-versed in astronomy and construction.” The website also dates the location at over 4,000 years old and points to the work done by Harvard University Professor Barry Fell on the different inscriptions found in the stones. The inscriptions are believed to be Ogham, Phoenician, and Iberian Punic Script. 

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Mystery Hill, as it was formerly known, has also been the subject of artistic interpretation. Famed horror author H.P. Lovecraft is thought to have visited between 1928 and the 1930s, subsequently using it as the inspiration for his short story, "The Dunwich Horror"

America’s Stonehenge welcomes visitors to discover the wonders for themselves: it is open to the public seven days a week.

Featured photo: NikiSublime / Flickr (CC)