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Stone-Works, Corn & Calendars
"In Wopanaak (the Wampanoag language), the stars
are animate. They are considered alive. The language touches
on understanding the religion....In English, you can say about
someone, He's a father or He's a friend, but you can't say that in
in Wopanaak because no person in the circle stands by themselves....
Every kinship term depends on someone else in the
circle....Land, for example, was considered by the Wampanoags
as a part of the people.
- A Wampanoag quoted in Burrell
Not much more than a century ago, American historians (for example, Moses Coit Tyler) portrayed Native Americans as “fierce dull bipeds standing in our way,” as “anthropoid animals” living in “mental childhood” (see his foundational 1880 History of American Literature 1: 156, 178).
But the modern science of archaeology keeps on disproving such prejudice and replacing it with genuine knowledge. Thanks to Connecticut archaeologists David Ostrowski and David Wagner, this page presents more recent finds from east-central and northeastern Connecticut: examples of what The Earth must hold elsewhere, as well, from Chile to Canada.
Most of these objects came from below small stone piles or “cairns,” dozens of which were laid out in spiral-formations across acres of land, and each “cairn” was topped with a sizeable, usually hemispheric piece of white quartz.
Dating-tests suggest long periods of activity and achievement when and where these artifacts were used and buried, from 3200 to 930 years ago. The precise locations of their discoveries must remain unspecified for the time being. One of the most striking aspects of these finds was that, while they undoubtedly date from several distinct time-periods, they were found mixed together in “caches” or hoards—suggesting that, by the time of their final burial, they may have been considered “ancestral heirlooms” by the people who laid them together in The Earth for safekeeping, covered in red ochre.
The serpent above is etched into a gorget. It hung about the neck of some very learned Native New England person(s) and, like gorgets in general, spoke in its symbols of that person’s relationships with the land, natural forces and people(s) of the time. Dozens of tobacco-pipes of the same workmanship you see below have come from these places—tiny frogs, sea-bass, other turtles with 13 plates across their backs, foxes, fish. The “whale’s tail” spear-throwing weights below could scarcely be manufactured today by machine. Contrary to the Bering Strait Theory’s concepts, however, North America’s oldest atlatls come from the East: a device that increased your spear’s throwing-force many times over. And not least, let’s begin to wonder what “cultural influences” created the ceramic statue of the female just below. What other American cultures do you see in the styling of her head and features? What world cultures do you see in this very choice of subject?
David Ostrowski explains:
"Many of these ancient artifacts were collected by archaeologists from The Institute for American Indian Studies (Washington, CT) and from the University of Connecticut/Storrs. The indigenous peoples of the Northeast were not only hunters and gatherers, as most archaeologists believe, but people with strong and highly-evolved spiritual ties to their natural surroundings. All of these artifacts were made of stone, but we can imagine other tools and art made of materials that could not stand the rigors of time—including metal, bone, wood, bark, cloth, grass, and earth embellished with color-pigmented images.
We theorize that the cultures here in New England may have been like those of the Northwestern coastal states. Refined art such as ritual masks, musical instruments, homes incorporating important cultural symbols, meeting-places that include natural features functioning as vital spiritual tools, as well as human art, fast ocean-sailing vessels, and perhaps even totem poles and domesticated work animals, would be just a few signifiers of their relationship to other living things, and to the Universe itself."
"These owl-effigy pipes show strong connections to nature, the impressive owl's stealth as a hunter and its tantalizing sounds of communication. It stirred these individuals to the point where they learned to avail themselves of an owl's wisdom as a guide. The things they learned were not superstitions but made practical and qualitative differences in their real lives.”
University of Texas laboratories confirm that the earrings and rolled beads below are “Native copper,” whose source was probably a trader from as far away as the Midwest. When these experts publish more finds, you will see a stone pipe 18 inches long (unheard of even in South America) whose stem is two twined serpents and whose bowl is a Native man’s head, flanked by the serpents’ heads. Incised gorgets, ceremonial “talking stones,” more effigy-pipes like a plump sea-bass, birds, frogs, foxes. Hundreds of copper discs with three concentric circles, perforated at center as if made for musical instruments or to hang from a priceless garment. As Thomas Malstedt, former Director of Archaeology for the Metropolitan District Commission observes, New England is “chock-a-block” with Native American sites.
What is the purpose of these beautifully-carved and polished “boatstones,” above? What explains their strange shapes and the holes almost always found drilled into them? Further, below, does this incised throwing-weight somehow relate to the history of corn-agriculture in the Northeast? According to Native traditions (see for example William S. Simmons’ Spirit of the New England Tribes), corn first arrived in the region from the Southwest, “in the ear of a crow.” Is that an ear of corn being pecked by the bird at right? Is it, instead, a leaf of tobacco, which was often used as a thank-offering to ancestral spirits? Crows, of course, have been known to guide hunters to their game-animals, which may be represented by the creature seen at left.
Native New Englanders spoke (and speak) of Kytan or Cautantowwit as “the Greatest Manitou,” or Great Spirit dwelling to the southwest: the source of benign powers, of the ancestors and of culture, and the haven of spirits in the afterlife. (Many burials faced that way in the “foetal crouch.”)
To the northeast is Chepi or Abbomacho (in Pilgrim texts, Hobomak) who sent winter’s cold blasts and darkness, and the malignant powers of wandering souls. But also from Chepi, usually a great Serpent, come the deep mysteries born of things under The Earth, visions and shamanic healing powers. Chepi as Serpent is the guardian-spirit of the “bridge” that people cross to join their Ancestors—the living stars, that flow across the Milky Way and the universe, as the rivers and the peoples here on Earth fulfill their places.
Native New Englanders also still tell centuries-old stories of Maushop or Glooskap, a giant hunter, creator and magician who, along with Granny Squant, loves to smoke his pipe and thereby creates the dense fogs that enwrap the islands of Cape Cod. Glooskap is often a great help to people and, as often, gets himself into amusing trouble, by his own mistakes or by the mischievous (rather than “evil”) interference of his twin brother, called Lox, Malsum, Malsumsis and other names.
You can read about them in Leland’s Algonquin Legends—which relates of Lox, in the form of the American/Canadian Lynx, that there is “none more obstinate,” that he is the “hardest-hearted, toughest and most unconquerable, being ever the first to fight and the last to give in, which even then he did not, never having done it and never intending to; whence…he was greatly admired and made much of by all the blackguardly beasts” (170, 214). Neither one can achieve full victory over the other.
In one story, Glooskap (who loves whale-steaks) wants to build himself a kind of stepping-stone bridge out into the ocean so that he can grab passing whales by their tails, drag them to shore and feast. Glooskap gathers up huge boulders in his “apron” or carrying-cloth and wades out into the waters to start work. But Lox, disguised as a crab, bites Glooskap’s toe with all his might. Glooskap jumps in his pain and lets all the boulders fall from his grasp—and they became the Elizabeth Islands, which extend southward from the “elbow” of Cape Cod. Native New Englanders also tell old stories of walking to Capawac (or, Nantucket) to visit their relatives—and this fits well with the early history of the land.
and Rabbit (a magician) from C.G. Leland’s Algonquin Legends
"Lonely" by Ron Perry
Over hundreds of generations and thousands of years, Native Northeasterners communed with their spiritual world and memorialized their observations in larger “fixed” stone-works—from the “singing walls” of Martha’s Vineyard to the region’s many sites with carved glacial boulders and formations of standing-stones that appear to have astronomical contexts and/or calendric functions. One of the best recent surveys of these is Mavor and Dix’s Manitou: see also the works of NEARA, the New England Antiquities Research Association.
Native Northeast stone-works were either dismissed or destroyed by later colonists as “the Devil’s works”; and then came increasingly secular phases of American history that did the same by other ideological means. By the time 19th-century historians (most schooled in New England) began to notice the huge earth-mounds and major Native sites of the Midwest, their commitment to “Manifest Destiny” drove them to claim that they’d been built by almost anybody but American “savages.” They sooner suggested “The Lost Tribes of Israel,” or (as William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Prairie” put it) that the imposing remains providentially signaled Native America’s “inevitable fate” as The United States conquered its way westward.
The profoundly rich sites we find today owe their survival to more than just contemptuous ignorance. Native people themselves, approached at times by relatively sympathetic “maverick” historians, brought a sly caution to their services as guides. Records say that these Native guides, leading investigators to a site of some significance, would take them there by routes that conspicuously avoided other areas. Why? “Local-savage superstition,” the historian would write—never suspecting that his guide endured this in order to protect the most significant places from intrusion. Plenty of evidence today points to quietly-ongoing relationships between Native New Englanders and these “new” major sites. You might notice offerings in small carved-animal forms hanging high in slender trees nearby. Or, at harvest time, a garden’s first fruits lie scattered with careful gratitude in “secret” and special places.
Concentric circles of natural and human experience—cycles within cycles—inform the Native New England view of existence, from The Earth to The Ancestors to the Living and Those To Come.
A Native New England baking-pit, built on fire-heated rocks:
“They lived very comfortably, happily, and did not destroy The Earth,” points out Wampanoag historian Linda Coombs (a professional of Plimoth Plantation, Mass., qtd. in the Dempsey documentary NANI). These symbols and places together are multi-dimensional living and teaching-tools. They bond together groups and generations with the practical and deep value of their “answers” to perpetual human questions; and center them in a “Multiverse” that is alive, full of wisdom, and speaks.
A patient person discovers that this is not utopian, unscientific, or lost.
Many sites marked by stone-works are known as “dancing places,” like Dancing Field at Indian Hill (Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard), Dancing Hill in Pembroke, and Tispaquin’s Hill in Middleboro (these and more in Gardner’s “Anthropomorphic”). Dance would be one part of large intertribal events recorded in the earliest writings. Many a “major stone” also bears the image of one or more of the animals most important to Native New Englanders: the White Tail Deer and the Black Bear. Along with The Great Serpent, this is what we find at this site today in the Plainfield/Sterling region of eastern Connecticut.
(NOTE: What you see below has been cross-analyzed by experts from Native historians to the U.S. Geological Survey; but, much as we encourage direct experience of these things, for obvious reasons we cannot widely reveal more exact site-locations.)
This is the largest of three boulders that rest (whether naturally or arranged) on the gentle western slope of the highest hill in their region. The boulders are granite, a hard stone that has to be pecked (rather than carved, as with softer sandstones). They present a small symphony of signs and images. And they stand close to plentiful fresh water, namely the “Great Cold Spring” that feeds dairy-cattle today. Once this water-source was so powerful that its waters pouring from the ground may have approached the level of a geyser—a wonder to people then as well as now.
The creature at right above—whose teeth are made up of milky or smoky quartz—best compares in appearance with the local ecology’s black bear. At left there appears to be a creature with long bull-like horns: it could be a big-antlered moose “face-on” to us, or perhaps a tribal shaman in a horned headdress. Above it, we see the neck and head of a female deer, or perhaps a moose-cow with its ears back. And near the center are an oval and a circle-dot figure (the oval is also found on the other two stones of this site), and notably below these seems to be some kind of scrotal or phallic image.
For archaeologists as seasoned as Dean R. Snow, for historians like Great Moose too, one of “the most striking characteristics” of these stone-works and petroglyphs is their “heavy sexual content” (Snow “Solon”; Gardner “Anthropomorphic”). New England’s many small “effigy pestles” are anatomically-perfect stone penises (one from Nantucket is over 6,000 years old). Once they were written off as “grinding tools,” for a time when Native people did not grow crops. Today, many suggest symbolic functions for them; not least that (according to Gardner) they were “symbolic of female ascendancy” as the center of the community and household. A woman in their language is okasu: “the living producer, giver of life on earth,” born of the Kehchissquaog, the female elders. Men were known to “wield” these objects but did so against tradition, as Great Moose relates from this region’s great elder historian Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
What was this place “about”? With dating-tests so far we have a somewhat unwieldy range on when it was in use: from 3200 to 900 (and, we know, beyond that). Putting the simplest elements together, we surmise that these pecked-in images, stained in their outlines with ochre, relate to rituals documented among “hunter-gatherer” peoples worldwide: rites of communion with and gratitude for these life-sustaining creatures and powers.
These known periods of use for the site also cross the ages when agriculture and corn farming developed in the Northeast. The site’s structure—whether original or modified—reflects what may have been new significances for the Native Americans who used it down the generations. The positions of these boulders reveal the landscape itself as a teacher.
Native people(s) originally using this site became aware that certain alignments among the boulders, local hills, and the annual course of the sun could mark and bring them knowledge both useful and profound. (Note that because some of these readings are about 2 degrees off center over the sighting-boulders, the site may be very old; for the sun itself drifts slightly toward the south each year and this variance grows more notable with each thousand year-period.)
How does this place work? Its obvious uses don’t necessarily relate to agriculture, for “hunter/gatherers” too mark astronomical events and natural rhythms that govern their surroundings. So did New England Native people as they looked south from Boulder A over Boulder C at the Winter Solstice, or from Boulder B over C at the Spring Equinox. Sighting along these lines in the opposite direction, they used a nearby hill as an intervening or “false horizon” (rather than the actual one in view), and the boulders gave them a perfect planting calendar for this region.
The word solstice means “stationary sun.” If you observe the sun’s position against this “false horizon” hill each day at sunrise, you see that for several days at a time it appears to rise at the same point (hence “stationary”), and that at other times its rising-point “moves” or changes. For example, by sighting the sun from Boulder C over Boulder P (the “planting stone”), you know the time (April 30-May 1) best for planting corn-crops in New England. Then, as the sun moves day by day toward alignment with Boulders C and A, you mark the Summer Solstice (June 11-July 1); and within about 6 weeks (via Boulders C and P again), the sun’s alignments mark the “Green Corn” time when the first ears should be ripe (August 12-13). By the time sunrise aligns with Boulders C and B, Harvest-time has arrived (September 5-6), a date that avoids both early- and late-autumn frosts that can harm crops. This is a total of 120 days—precisely the “window” of time for growing corn in New England.
So, while indications are that this site was in use before the arrival of corn agriculture, the facts also suggest an evolving and expanding body of knowledge that Native Americans built into it over time. Few if any New England sites so clearly and efficiently bring together the worlds and rhythms of animals, plants and people into harmoniously life-sustaining relation. Were these “solar stations” of Winter and Summer discovered locally, or taught to New Englanders by perhaps the same peoples who brought corn agriculture to the region? Were the boulder-alignments noticed or created? Whatever the answer, only years and generations of careful observation made it possible. The result was (and is) a “way” that centers people within the living rhythms of the world.
Below is one more such site under study, close to the city of Boston and not far inland from the seacoast. Weymouth Historical Society President Phil Smith and others—first guided by “amateurs”—are examining its structure and characteristics.
To reach this place you walk more than a mile through today’s dense woods along scarcely-visible paths. As you approach it, crossing dry stream-beds and climbing gently toward higher ground, you notice more and more lengths of stone “walls” no more than three feet high and made up of boulders of fairly uniform size (from 2 to 4 feet around): these formations run for hundreds of feet into the surrounding woods in almost every direction relative to the “main” site, and leave no doubt that building them was hard labor.
Straight as these “walls” mostly are, in fact they have almost no familiar-looking symmetries at all, but may belong instead to the documented stone-work traditions detailed in Mavor/Dix’s Manitou, in which such “walls” serve no purpose we yet understand. Some formations on Capawac/Martha’s Vineyard are called “singing walls” for the sounds made by winds whistling through them: perhaps these in Weymouth comprise a “sacred topographical architecture,” lines that signify the special character of the main site nearby.
This hilltop-site is also surrounded by smaller ones that feature the “face” seen just above along one of the trail-approaches, as well as larger flat, triangular and other boulders whose arrangements suggest human arrangements and/or use.
This hilltop suddenly presents us with a circle (about 50 feet wide) of standing stones—30 of them, a number of almost-certain calendric significance. Close inspection of these stones, however, reveals the marks of modern stone-tools. These and other signs suggest that persons-unknown “reconstructed” this circle relatively recently (perhaps during the last 100 years). At the same time, further evidence shows that this was, originally, a place of Native American significance. If that was so, then it was a place where ceremonial, social and teaching purposes came together.
Down below one side of this hill where it meets a dry stream bed, we find a whole collection of large stones of unmistakably uniform shape (and not one mark of a tool on any of them), haphazardly dumped off the hill and half-buried. These remarkable and unique triangular stones would stand 4-5 feet tall, and may well be the site’s original main features—pushed entirely off the hill in less tolerant colonial times, and the site (for all we know) ignored until more recently. Not least in import is the stone at right in the first picture, at bottom in the second: what can only be described as a turtle-shell, for along its rectangular 4-foot back, its surface is sharply “crowned” like the distinctive carapace of a snapping turtle, and it even includes the familiar recess or “slot” at one end where a real turtle’s head emerges. The snapping turtle spends most of its life in watery depths, and makes a fierce response to any who disturb it.
Was this “turtle,” a Native symbol known across the Americas, the central icon of a site we begin to grasp through the great labor needed to build it? We don’t know, and as usual, answers wait on funded and formal archaeology.
Clearly, this place belongs to a family of important sites. We realize how much we have to rescue and learn right under the nose of today’s landscape. And how little our colonial ancestors bothered to understand about peoples and places they readily demonized, dubbed “savage children,” and tried to destroy for their own purposes.
Above, this “glacial erratic” or boulder left behind by a glacier stands close by the Weymouth hilltop site. It’s “Weymouth Granite”—so-called for its reddish iron-oxide coloring, most evident at the “eye, ear and nose” of what looks like a serpent’s head. Another example, below, stands in Dogtown Commons, Gloucester MA.
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