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Picture Glossary of New England Lithic Constructions

Featuring Nashoba Valley Area Lithics

 

 

by Daniel V. Boudillion

 

 

Stone Structures in the New England Woods

   Introduction

This page is a glossary of stone structures that are often found in the woods of New England.  These structures can be of many eras and origins, and its not always easy to determine what is what.  There seem to be Native American structures, both pre-contact, historical, and modern, as well as Colonial and Neo-Pagan structures.  Further, some of the structures seem to indicate a pre-contact Native American activity not recognized or allowed by modern archeologists. 

 

The following Glossary is entirely my own.  I define things based on what I have seen and researched myself (with a tip of the hat to Mavor & Dix).   It is almost entirely illustrated with structures I have personally seen or found - mostly in Nashoba Valley - and my notes and comments are my own personal interpretations.  The Glossary is not meant to be definitive or conclusive - indeed, I am more interested in letting the pictures speak for themselves then in crafting long definitions.  It is my hope that the images will inspire others to investigate these things, or at least have a greater appreciation of the unusual stone structures found in the New England woodlands. 

   The Picture Glossary of New England Lithics: C to T

Cairns: A cairn is a carefully built structure of stones rather then a heaped pile of stones.  They are known to have been built for such diverse reasons as land parcel boundary markers, celestial alignment markers, as part of Colonial field clearing, and as markers of locations significant to Native Americans. 

 

  

Cairns in Littleton

Note: Both cairns were built within historical times.  The one on the left has Native associations and was the NW boundary cairn of the 1714 Indian Reservation in Littleton.  The one on the right was made (among others) by Flint Furbush around 1920 while clearing fields for his brother-in-law.  A local historian found charcoal on some of the cairns and deduced that these were Indian altars and every family in the tribe had one.  Unbeknownst to him, the charcoal came from fires my friends and I made on them as wayward youths. 

 

  

Cairns in Littleton & Indian Point (now destroyed)

Note: Cairn to the left is not only built into the stone wall, but has a "bench" built into it as well.  It was described to me by a previous land owner that this is where on the Summer Solstice sunrise the Medicine Man would plunge a dagger into the heart of an Indian maiden.  In all actuality, this rock cairn was built by Flint Furbush.  These particular cairns have since become known as "Furbush Formations."  Whether he scarified Indian maidens or not is unknown.

 

Chambers:  There are hundreds of underground manmade stone chambers in New England of unknown origin and conjectured purpose.  There is much debate and controversy over this.  Everything from Irish Culdee Monks to Colonial root cellars to Native American construction has been proposed.  From inside, some of these chambers view significant celestial events, and most are tall enough to stand up in.

 

     

Two Littleton Chambers

Note: The chamber on the right (which originally had a walk-in entrance like the one on the left)  was briefly used as a tomb by the Whitcomb family until around 1925 when some collage boys broke in and stole a bone.  It was also used by a Mr. Whitcomb of years gone by to play the trumpet in. 

 

  

Acton: Spring House on Flag Hill & Nashoba Brook Chamber

Note: The structure in the left picture is said to be a Colonial Spring House, and indeed, it does house a spring.  The Nashoba Brook chamber (on right) was recently reconstructed by the Acton Historical Chamber with assistance from NEARA.  It is just up the river from the old Thoreau Pencil Factory.

 

Corn Grinding Stone: Native Americans ground corn in stone and wood mortars.  The stone ones were often a boulder that had a shallow hollow worked into its top.  These worked hollows are to be occasionally seen on boulders in the woods.

 

  

Corn Grinding Stones in Nagog Woods & Petersham

Petersham picture courtesy of Bradley P. Dean

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Note: The Nagog Woods corn grinding stone may also be a "Stone Seat."  (See below section on stone seats.)  Interestingly, the Manitou Effigy Stone at Lake Nagog (see Manitou Stone section, below) was found close to it, and the two items may go together, as it is known that the mortars were left near the pestle stones.  (But it seems unlikely a stone mortar would be used with a stone pestle.)

 

  

Large oval bowl in stone slab in Littleton's Sarah Doublet Forest

Note: The Sarah Doublet Forest was an Indian Reservation from approximately 1714 to 1735, and previously was part of the Praying Indian Village of Nashoba from approximately 1651 to 1714. 

 

Devil's Den: These are typically small talus caves (jumbled boulders) and boulder piles.  There are dozens in New England that have been specifically known since Colonial times by the name Devil's Den.

 

  

Devil's Dens in Littleton & Williamsburg,

 

  

Devil's Dens in Westwood & Ashland

Note: The Devil's Den in Westwood is in an area known as Satan's Kingdom and is remembered as being an "Indian Cave."  The Ashland Devil's Den is on the Old Connecticut Path Indian trail, and is also said to have been used by Indians.  The Indian/cave association may be a clue to why the Puritan settlers named these places "Devil's Dens."  (See my forthcoming article The Tophet Swamp Mystery for more information.) 

 

Devil's Footprints: These are natural formations in boulders and bedrock that resemble the shape of a foot.  In New England they are almost universally known has Devil's Footprints, and most of them has some sort of legend and story of how they came to be.  Several such legends are recounted here: Devil's Footprints

 

     

Devil's Footprints in Ipswich, Norton, and Medfield

Norton & Medfield photos courtesy of Jim Moore

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Note: Natural formations or smoldering relics of the Devil?  I personally prefer a world that at least at some point allowed the Devil to caper madly about the countryside leaving his infernal tracks behind him. 

 

Ditches: According to Mavor & Dix in Manitou, the Native people often used ditches to regulate water flow in aquatic areas as flood control works.  Ditches of this sort usually have a corresponding berm or row running its length.

 

  

Ditch with berm and rows at the Boxborough Esker

 

Dolmen: A large boulder resting, typically, on three smaller stones.  These boulders can range from one ton to many ton monstrosities.  These constructions are manmade, but who or when is unclear.  A second style of dolman is glacier created, and is more correctly called a perched rock to differentiate it from a human construction.  Both, however, often have colored stones placed underneath them like an offering or donation.

 

   

Dolmen in Littleton, Dogtown, and Acadia

 

Donation Stone: These are a stone construction most often seen in stone rows, but occasionally on their own.  A large slab will be placed with smaller stones such that there is a cove beneath it.  In this cove will be found an old bottle or two.  Interestingly, it was post-contact Native tradition in New England to place bottles in such places as an offering or donation to the spirits.  For an analysis of a possible donation site, please see: Father John & the Rock Pile

 

  

Donation Stone: Harvard Shaker Village

Note old bottle in close-up view.  Mavor & Dix believe there was a subtle overlap between Native ritual sites and Shaker villages.  For more on the Harvard Shaker Village and their spiritual practices, see: The Ecstatic Spirits of Holy Hill.

 

Earthen Circles: A very rare but fascinating structure in New England is the Earthen Circle.  These are a raised circle of earth, about 14 feet across, and several inches high.  There is usually a shallow ditch around the circle.  These are conjectured to be of ritual significance to the pre-contact Native peoples.  Where these are found, there are typically a large assortment of other lithic features.

 

One of Four Earthen Circles at the Boxboro Esker

 

Note: Mavor & Dix in Manitou had this to say about the Boxborough Esker: "We believe that the shaman-preachers of Nashoba used the Praying [Indian] Villages to maintain the Indian communication links, the sacred landscape and the stone and earthen structures in the midst of encroaching white colonists.  We believe that central to their world was the Boxborough esker.For more information in the Boxborough Esker, see: Boxborough Esker 

 

Earthworks: New England has quite a few old earthworks of unknown origin.  Berms, ditches, trenches etc.

 

  

Earthworks in Littleton: Praying Indian Village Dam & Newtown Hill Crescent Stone Berm

 

Effigy: A large boulder with several smaller rocks arranged on it.  Often these rock arrangements seem to form a symbol or animal shape.  These are interpretative as to what they might be representing, but there is no doubt that they exist, and by the hundreds.  They appear to be rock-arrangement petroglyphs. For more information on Effigies (and rock piles in general) see Peter Waksman's Indian Rock Piles website.

 

     

Effigys in Boxborough, Littleton, and Lake Nagog

 

Embrasure: A u-shaped indentation into a stone row.  These may well be a variation on the Prayer Seat, or possibly used as hunting blinds.  (See Prayer Seat, below, for more details.)

 

  

Embrasures at Half Moon Meadow Brook in Boxborough

 

Ledge Shrine: There are natural stone ledges on rocky hillsides.  Some of the smaller ones will typically have a small white stone placed in the cove under the ledge.  This is conjectured to be a Native American offering of some sort.  I have seen some that appear to be quite old, while others are only a few years old.

 

  

Ledge Shrines in the Sarah Doublet Forest in Littleton

Note the small white quartz rock placed in center under ledge.  At this location these white stones have disappeared and reappeared from time to time suggesting contemporary activity of some sort at the site.

 

Manitou Stone: Manitou is a word used by the Algonquin speaking peoples of New England to mean "spirit", as in having spiritual power.  These stones are shaped similarly to an old fashioned Colonial headstone, and placed in places that were felt to have great spiritual power, and often in conjunction with other lithic features.  For example, in one of the Praying Indian Villages I found a stone row that ran up out of a river and up a hill to terminate in a beautiful Manitou stone.

 

  

Manitou Stone in Boxboro and Manitou Effigy Stone at Lake Nagog

Note: The Manitou Effigy stone on the right is located near the Nagog Woods corn grinding stone (or alternatively, stone seat).  Note how in the first picture the Manitou stone is part of a stone row.  Significantly, this stone row marks a section of the Southeast boundary of the old Praying Indian Village of Nashoba.  (See Nashoba Hill: The Hill that Roars for maps.)

 

Perched Rock: These are boulders that are perched on smaller boulders, similar to a dolman, or perched on top of another large boulder.  Many of these appear to be glacier-placed, while others are such that it is a wonder how they occurred.  In any event, it is known that the Natives were attracted to the spiritual power of large stones, especially oddly placed ones, and held their meeting in such places.

 

  

Perched Rocks in Littleton & Hopkinton

 

  

Perched Rock in Athol with White Quartz Donation Stone Underneath

Note for Forteans: Site overlooks Fay Cemetery

 

  

Perched Rock-on-Rock in Dogtown & Boxborough

Note: The Boxborough perched rock (since destroyed) was known as Eliot's Pulpit  because he is said to have preached to the "Praying Indians" of Nashoba there between 1651 and 1675.

 

Prayer Seat: This is a u-shaped enclosure of rocks large enough to sit in.  These often face the rising or setting of the sun on an equinox or solstice, or the arc of the big dipper.  These are considered to be of Native American origin, and are still being constructed today.  It is thought they are were originally for observing significant celestial turning points, and that the newer ones may possibly have been intended rather for contemplation and possibly vision quest.  For more on Prayer Seats and alignments see Edwin Ballard's For Want of a Nail: An Analysis of the Function of Some Horseshoe or "U"-Shaped Stone Structures.

 

  

Prayer Seats at Westford Esker and at Lake Nagog

 

  

Prayer Seat in Sergeant Road area of Boxboro, front and back views

 

Praying Indian Villages: In the 1650s John Eliot preached to the Massachusetts Indians, encouraging them to live in European-style villages and wear European-style clothes.  As part of this arrangement, the sites of these Indian-owned villages were chosen by the Indian Shamans, and they typically chose their last remaining sacred places as the sites for these villages.  More about the Nashoba Praying Indian Village may be found here: Nashoba Hill: The Hill that Roars.

 

"John Eliot preaches to the Indians of the Massachusetts Bay Colony"

by John Chester Buttre, 1856

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Note: Eliot, like most early itinerant preachers, actually preached from large boulders that have since become known as Eliot's Pulpits. For example:

 

     

Eliot's Pulpit Roxbury, Pulpit Rock Rowley, Eliot's Pulpit Boxborough

Roxbury & Rowley photos courtesy of Jim Moore

 

Rock Piles & Stacks: There are thousands and thousands of small rock piles in the Massachusetts woodlands.  Many of these are in rocky and swampy areas that would not have been worth the time and effort of a Colonial farmer to clear the stones into piles.  Often, these piles are on the east side of hills overlooking water.  It is considered by some that these piles have Native American significance.  Indeed, I have seen a good few that appear to be made to represent a turtle, a creature whose spirit was sacred to the Native Americas of New England.   The best resource on the native significance to rock piles is Peter Waksman's Indian Rock Piles website.

 

  

Rock Stacks & Piles at Newtown Hill and Fort Pond

 

  

Turtle shaped rock pile at Lake Nagog                   Modern rock stacking in Williamsburg

 

Harvard Shaker Rock Pile

Note: On 2 June 1783 Father James Whittaker was whipped by an anti-Shaker mob at this location.  It became the custom for any Shaker who passed to place a stone on the pile in remembrance of him and what he endured for his beliefs.

 

Rock Shelter: These are simply an area under an overhang of ledge or boulders that allows shelter for several people.  The locations of such natural shelters were well known to the Indians and were often improved by them with stone-work.  It is likely such natural shelters were used as camping locations on well-traveled trails. 

 

  

Rock Shelters in Snake Hill in Ayer and Black Pond in Littleton

Note: The rock shelter on the left has been partially enclosed with stonework to provide a better shelter from the elements.

 

Rocking Stones & Balance Rocks: This is a large stone, usually of at least a ton, that rocks when pushed with the hand.  Often these stones are larger than a car, and some are enormous.  Both glaciers and human activity are responsible for their placements.  These stones rock easily, and even a slight earth tremor sets them wobbling.  This seismic movement was considered by the Indians to be a sign of their god Hobomock, and much revered as such.  Not all rocking stones rock anymore, but an echo of that quality is found in them being now known as "balance rocks." 

 

One Ton Rocking Stone in Harvard Shaker Village

Note: This stone still rocks with the touch of a finger

 

     

Balance Rocks in Groton, Savoy, and Littleton

Note: These no longer rock

 

Scallops: Scallops are shallow scoops taken from hillsides.  They are approximately five feet wide and somewhat deeper.  These are often places where specific celestial events may be observed.  In this interpretation, they would function similar to Prayer Seats and Embrasures.  Often in significant Native sites, it is not unusual to see Scallops, Embrasures, and Prayer Seats all in one area.

 

Scallop in Boxborough Esker

I've never been impressed by any scallop not covered in drawn butter.

 

Standing Stones: These are tall stones set upright in the earth by human activity.  It is not completely understood why this was done, but the stones are definitely here and are occasionally to encountered in the woods.

 

  

Standing Stones on burnt Hill in Heath and Half Moon Meadow Brook in Boxboro

 

     

Standing Stones on Newtown Hill in Littleton & Shaker Village in Harvard

Note: The Newtown Hill stone is of Neo-Pagan origin, and the Shaker Village stone, due to drill holes, is very unlikely to predate historical times.

 

Stone Circles: This conjures up a European megalithic image like Stonehenge.  However, nothing so grand is to be found in New England.  Rather, there are occasionally small rings of stone to be found in the woods.  It is unclear as to the origin of these structures, but it may be noted that the more impressive ones I have seen have all been of recent neo-Pagan construction.

 

  

Stone Circles on Burnt Hill and on Druid Hill in Leblanc Park

Druid Hill photo courtesy of Edward Bochnak

Note: Druid Hill stone circle is thought to be a folly

 

Neo-pagan Circle in Littleton's Sarah Doublet Forest

Note: John Mitchell says this in Trespassing about the Sarah Doublet Forest, "Once I even found a small stone circle in the the area, a sort of miniature Stonehenge ... neo-pagans have set up a celestial tracking stage here, in the form of a circle of stones, wherein they worship the rising or setting of the sun, moon, and stars."

 

Stone Rows: New England has thousands of miles of stone rows.  Most of these were constructed by Colonials as part of field clearing and boundary making.  However, there is a significant number of rows that do not conform to known Colonial practices both in construction and purpose.  These rows meander through the woods, wandering right and left to connect large boulders with bedrock outcrops etc.  Others seem concerned with connecting hill tops with rivers, swamps, and ponds.  Some do a little of both.  Some of these rows mark the suns setting or rising on solstice and equinox days.  (See Solstice Alignments, below) It is conjectured that this style of row may be of pre-Colonial Native construction and reflect a concern with connecting the landscape in a sacred way.

 

     

Stone Rows: Fort Pond, Fort Pond, and Snake Hill

Note the odd style of row construction.  The rows on the right and left are built Native-style with "holes to the let the wind through", and the middle row is simply a long string of stones laid in a line through the woods.  Neither styles conform to typical Colonial wall construction. 

 

     

Summer Solstice sunrise over stone row at Black Pond in Littleton

Note: The stone row runs the length of the granite whaleback in the left picture.  The sunrise is viewed along the length of the row from the far right in the whaleback picture.  The section of row the sunrise is pictured over is seen in profile in the far right picture.  Note its Native-style "holes to let the wind through" construction.  Also note in sunrise picture the white stone marking the viewing position. 

 

  

Stone Rows at the Sarah Doublet Forest in Littleton

Note in the left picture how the stone row curves along the outer edge of the large granite ledge, and then bridges the gap to the far left to the next section of ledge.  Note in the picture to the right how the stone row makes a rounded curve rather then a good 90 degree Colonial corner.  Both pictures are of different sections of the same stone row.  This stone row also passes over the top of a small chamber. 

 

  

Stone row over top of boulder at Nagog Woods

Note: This stone row passes over the top of a flat faced boulder, incorporating it into the row.  Picture to the left shows the top of the boulder in the foreground with the row extending into the distance.  Note how the flat face of the boulder is exactly in line with the direction of the stone row - or - did the boulder face define the direction of the stone rows construction?  This formation is only a stones throw from a neo-Pagan stone altar. 

 

Stone Tables & Neo-Pagan Altars: These table-like structures are encountered in the woods with surprising regularity.  Some seem to have Native significance and others appear to be part of campsites.  Further, there is a whole class of these structures that are apparently neo-Pagan altars, and are directionally aligned in keeping with modern neo-Pagan ritual practices.  For an examination of some of these structures in the Nashoba area, see: The Six Altars Of Nashoba

 

  

Stone Tables at Flag Hill in Acton & Fort Pond in Littleton

Note: Fort Pond was so-named after the Indian Fort of the 1651-1714 Praying Indian Village era.  The Fort Pond "table" is located on one of the islands where the Nashoba were said to have made burials, and as late as 1921 were said to still visit their ancestors there.

 

  

Neo-Pagan Altars at Lake Nagog and on Oak Hill in Littleton

Note: The altar on the left does not seem to have had any recent activity, but the Oak Hill altar was apparently used in neo-Pagan rites until at least the mid 1990's. 

 

Stone Seats: These are naturally occurring depressions in boulders and bedrock that make a convenient seat, and have usually been improved upon to some degree.  Most notable of the named stone seats are the dozens of King Philip's Thrones/Seats/Chairs scattered across Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

 

  

Stone Seats at Nagog Woods in Acton

Note: Stone seat to the right and below may actually be a corn grinding stone.

 

  

Stone Seat at Nagog Woods in Acton

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Note: The stone has been carefully propped and positioned.  Because it can be used as a seat and faces East, and is arrowhead shaped, consideration was given to any possible celestial alignments, as follows:

 

  

Note how stone is v-shaped and carefully propped in place and is on top of a small knoll.  When you sit in it you face Easterly over the large boulder.  Here is what you see at the Winter Solstice Sunrise:

 

  

Winter Solstice sunrise as seen from seat looking over boulder

click pictures to better see pinprick of light from rising sun

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Note: Although the Winter Solstice sun does rise over it, the boulder is to close to be a significant marker of the event in my opinion.  A more convincing marker would be a boulder on the horizon of the small hill in the distance.  Such a marker has not as of this writing been found.  For Solstices alignments that are more convincing, see the following section:

 

Solstice Alignments: Perhaps surprisingly, there are a number of lithic Solstice sunrise and sunset alignments in New England.  And again surprisingly, many of these seem to involve stone rows.  Most of the ones I've seen involve the Winter Solstice sunrise, and conversely, I've never personally encountered an Equinox alignment - although that's not to say they don't exist.

 

     

A. Summer Solstice sunrise over stone row at Black Pond in Littleton

B. Winter Solstice sunrise over stone row at Tophet Swamp in Littleton

C. Winter Solstice sunset over Esker in Littleton as seen from Prayer Seat

 

  

Winter Solstice sunrise in notch in rock at Half Moon Meadow Brook in Boxborough

Note: Half Moon Meadow Brook was part of the Nashoba Praying Indian Village.

 

Turtle Rocks & Effigies: Simply put, these are rock formations of many sort that resemble a turtle in some way.  It is known that the Native Americans found the turtle significant, and there are several well-known (but hard to find) Turtle Rocks in the Nashoba Valley area where Native Americans still gather for reasons of their own.  Where you find Turtle imagery is where you can assume a particularly strong Native American significance to the area.  For more Turtle Effigy information I would suggest visiting Tim MacSweeney's Waking Up On Turtle Island blog.

 

     

Turtle Shell, Turtle Rock Pile, Turtle Rock

Lake Nagog & Sarah Doublet Forest

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Note: All three of these Turtle images are found in vicinity to Lake Nagog and the Sarah Doublet Forest.  This would indicate the area had a strong and special Native American significance.  This would be borne out by the area having been a place of vision-quest, as argued here: Nashoba Hill: The Hill that Roars


 

 

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Copyright 2009 by Daniel V. Boudillion

 

 

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