Is "America’s Stonehenge" history or hooey?
They were using the astronomical chart on a table in the covered tower. Visitors aimed their gaze along worn arrows to huge, upright stones. The stones were hundreds of feet away. Beyond each slab of granite, clearings stretched the eye to the horizon. It was a dazzling day in late summer in Salem, New Hampshire.
The autumnal equinox was Sept. 23. People flocked to the woods near the Massachusetts state line. They watched the sun rise. Or watched it fall over the massive chunks of granite. And they decided for themselves whether they stood amid relics of ancient history. Or if the story was pure hooey.
This is "America's Stonehenge." It is a weird, one-acre grouping of rock configurations. They are named for the mysterious formation on England's Salisbury Plain. In New Hampshire, it has drawn believers. They say it is a thousand or more years old.
It also has skeptics. They say the evidence suggests it was the work of a 19th century shoemaker.
For $12, New Hampshire visitors come to take a look. They walk along well-trod footpaths. They pass through walls of stacked granite. Some are overtopped with slabs that weigh several tons. Some form cave-like enclosures. Two are the "Sundeck" chamber and "V-hut." The spooky centerpiece is the "Oracle" chamber. It is complete with what is billed as a secret bed. There is also a speaking tube. It is where words spoken from inside the chamber could be heard outside at the equally eerie "Sacrificial Table."
The site originally was called "Mystery Hill Caves." It opened in 1958. Today the owner is Dennis Stone. He firmly believes the site is as much as 4,000 years old. He thinks it is the work of Native Americans. I may also be the work of ancient Europeans who arrived long before Columbus.
"They actually did shaping to these. It is like shaping an arrowhead," Stone said in a rapid-fire voice. As he spoke, he pointed to the giant slabs. "Stone against stone. So the technology used to take them off the bedrock and shape these stones was a stone-age technology. It is not a metal age technology."
Stone said three carbon dating efforts show that the site was used about 4,000 years ago. One fire pit is 7,300 years old. Scientists say the research proves only that there was a fire. And it proves that none of those dates is linked to human activity.
"We think the design of the site looks more like a spiritual site," Stone said. "It has a huge amount of work that went into quarrying each building. But there is not a lot of room."
Researchers believe America's Stonehenge was more likely the home of shoemaker Jonathan Pattee. He settled in Salem in 1823.
David Starbuck is an archaeologist from Plymouth State University. He wrote a book called "The Archaeology of New Hampshire: Exploring 10,000 Years in the Granite State." He called America's Stonehenge "unquestionably provocative, puzzling and, above all, controversial."
Professor Starbuck notes the 19th century quarrying marks on many of the stones. He said the site has been altered many times over the decades. This is particularly by owner and researcher William Goodwin. He began in 1936. Starbuck believes that there will never be a way to settle the argument.
"There is probably no serious, trained archaeologist who believes that it was created thousands of years ago," Starbuck said.
"There is a huge burden of proof when you make controversial claims," he said. "They have always had that problem. That does not take away from the inherent interest in that site. It is a curious place. And it is worth visiting."
Invoking Stonehenge can automatically boost interest in a place. Witness the stir caused earlier in September. Researchers announced they had discovered evidence of standing stones believed to be remains of a major prehistoric monument. They were found two miles from Stonehenge.
And then there is Carhenge. It is the junk-car tribute to Stonehenge. It has been an attraction in the Nebraska panhandle since 1987.
Like Starbuck, Meghan Howey also thinks the site was a colonial dwelling. She is an anthropological archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire. She said there are everyday reasons for some of the more fantastic features.
For example, the "Sacrificial Table" bears the same sort of drainage channels that would be found on a rock slab used to make soap. Still, she understands the desire to impart meaning where none may exist.
"People in England have an attachment to Stonehenge because it was built by their ancestors," she said. "We do not feel a connection. So we are always looking for a connection."
Pausing during a recent visit, retirees Marie St. Onge and Carol Stevens said they believe America's Stonehenge means something. Even if they don't know exactly what it means.
"With the caves that are dug and the way things are laid out, I would go with it 99 percent that it is original," said St. Onge.
Stone doesn't know for sure the who, when, how or why of America's Stonehenge. But he says the evidence points to something greater than skeptics believe.
"They are kind of ignorant of all the facts of the site," he said of critics. "I am not saying they are stupid. Just that they do not know the facts."