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Week of 1 February 2002 · Vol. V, No. 21


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Stonehenge in America?
Archaeology professor debunks claims for ancient rock structures as pseudoscientific fallacy

By Brian Fitzgerald

Many a traveler has done a double take upon seeing a sign for America's Stonehenge on Interstate 93 in New Hampshire. An ancient circular group of standing stones in New England? Those who visit the site will hear claims that the monoliths were carved and placed there 4,000 years ago, possibly by the same people who built the famous astronomical observatory site of the same name in Great Britain.


CAS Archaeology Professor Curtis Runnels says that no Bronze Age artifacts have been found at America's Stonehenge. Photo by Vernon Doucette


The 30-acre tourist attraction in North Salem, N.H., consisting of standing stones, stone walls, and chambers, has long puzzled archaeologists, astronomers, and historians. But Curtis Runnels scoffs at the assertion that it is a monument built by settlers from Europe in pre-Columbian Bronze Age times. The CAS professor of archaeology was skeptical when curiosity prompted him to visit America's Stonehenge 15 years ago, and he was just as incredulous when interviewed for a History Channel program that aired on January 14.

Journalists from the show, Secrets of the Ancient World, wanted Runnels' opinion on claims that the site is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. He told them the theory that America's Stonehenge was built by Celts in ancient times has absolutely no credibility.

"No Bronze Age artifacts have been found there," he says. "In fact, no one has found a single artifact of European origin from that period anywhere in the New World."

Runnels discredits such questionable discoveries as America's Stonehenge, the lost continent of Atlantis, and evidence of Noah's Ark in his CAS undergraduate course Archaeological Mysteries: Pseudoscience and Fallacy in the Human Past.

  Some insist that old stone structures throughout New England, such as this one at America's Stonehenge, aren't colonial root cellars, but evidence of visits by Europeans 4,000 years ago. Photo by Brian Fitzgerald

America's Stonehenge is one of hundreds of areas of odd stone arrangements and underground chambers on this continent that some claim were built by Bronze Age European settlers for ceremonial meetings and astronomical events. Many of these sites are in New England, including the Upton Chamber in Upton, Mass., Gungywamp in Groton, Conn., a beehive-style stone chamber in Petersham, Mass., and stone-lined tunnels in Goshen, Mass. Some have been discovered near Boston: in Concord and in the town of Bridgewater. For years they were assumed to be colonial root cellars, but in the late 1800s, a few archaeologists began speculating that the megalithic structures, similar to some types found in Europe, were the work of European settlers between the second and first millennium b.c.

Other stones have been found with carved inscriptions, supposedly by pre-Columbian colonists, and supposedly proving visits from ancient seafaring peoples, such as the druids -- an order of priests in ancient Gaul and Britain -- and even the Phoenicians of southwest Asia. These petroglyphs are on such boulders as Bourne Rock on Cape Cod and Dighton Rock in Dighton, Mass.

Most American archaeologists, however, say that there have been no authentic Old World European inscriptions found in North America, and that none should be expected because there have been no proven foreign visitors except the Norse at Newfoundland, around a.d. 1000.


This stone chamber in North Salem, N.H., supposedly contains a sacrificial altar inside. "Baloney," says Runnels, who points out that the grooved slab "table" looks "a lot like a colonial apple press." Photo by Brian Fitzgerald


"The whole point of having a specialized science such as archaeology is that we've determined certain methods of figuring out how we know what we know," says Runnels. "If you've got a Bronze Age site in, say, Great Britain, near Stonehenge, you're going to find pottery, tools, evidence of burials, and hearths. You're going to find artifacts of bronze, tin, copper, gold, and silver, and they'll have distinctive forms that are easily recognized, like this one." Runnels places a weathered bronze knife -- found in England and traced to the Bronze Age -- on his desk. "They haven't found anything like this. I'm just an old-fashioned empirical archaeologist. I want to see evidence."

Ancient carvings or modern forgeries?
The idea of an ancient, forgotten era of colonization in America was first popularized in 1835 by a book entitled American Antiquities, by Josiah Priest, who Runnels calls a "crackpot." His claims, dismissed by archaeologists, include, among other things, the ruins of a Roman fort in Marietta, Ga., and evidence that American Indians are descended from the Israelites. Over the next century, rumors spread about many sites in the United States.

In 1936, America's Stonehenge, then known as Mystery Hill, was purchased by archaeologist William Goodwin, who believed that the site was built by Culdee Monks from Ireland. In 1956 the property was bought by Robert Stone, who began charging admission to see the monoliths, most of which were said to align with obvious astronomical points.
Then in 1976, archaeologist Barry Fell wrote America B.C., a book that pointed out parallels

between American and European archaeological sites. Fell was at Mystery Hill on July 9, 1975, when Stone found a tablet inside one of the chambers, brushed the dirt off, and found carving that Fell claimed was ogam, a Celtic alphabetic system of inscribed notches for vowels and lines for consonants. Soon after, dozens of supposed ogam inscriptions were found in central Vermont. 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. Fell also asserts that the language of the Native American Micmac tribe is derived from ancient Egyptian, and that the Algonquian tribe of North America is descended from European and Mediterranean people. Traditional archaeological theories hold that the peopling of the New World began when big game hunters from Asia crossed the Bering Land Bridge and traversed the ice-free corridor through what is now Canada 12,000 years ago.

Radiocarbon analyses point to a period of human occupation at America's Stonehenge extending back to the second millennium b.c., but a majority of archaeologists say this is evidence of a Native American presence there, not of Bronze Age Europeans. "American Indians had an interest in celestial alignments," says Runnels. "Even if an astronomically aligned calendar exists there -- which I would dispute -- why should we look any further than an American Indian society? Many of their monuments, such as the pyramids of Kahokia, near St. Louis, are aligned with the sun and the moon. Why do some people find it unbelievable that American Indians can build great civilizations and have sophisticated cultures without some kind of help from Europeans?"

To date, the structures at America's Stonehenge are still considered by most archaeologists to lack archaeological context. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," says Runnels. "What I want to see at America's Stonehenge is a bronze ax of demonstrable European origin, in a form that was used in Europe 3,000 years ago, found in a sealed archaeological layer. These things together, in a published work, would show me that it is a genuine European Bronze Age find. I guess I'm just a stick-in-the-mud. I want to see real evidence."


1 February 2002
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