If you’re driving through the rocky ridges of southeastern New Hampshire and see a sign for “America’s Stonehenge,” don’t expect a peek into North America’s hitherto-unknown megalithic past.
America’s Stonehenge is more a modern nickname for an intriguing New England sightseeing attraction than the doppelgänger of England’s iconic and prehistoric Stonehenge monuments. No one visiting either historical site will confuse it for the other.
The distinctive Stonehenge of southern England was built 2,000 to 3,000 years ago in several stages over 1,500 years. It features about 100 massive upright quarried stones, with the largest weighing 35 tons and standing nearly 30 feet tall. The monstrous standing stones form a large semicircle, and the monument aligns with sunrise on the summer solstice and sunset on the winter solstice.
America’s Stonehenge is far more modest. In fact, it was called “Mystery Hill” until 1982 when its owners overreached in renaming it. “Mystery Hill” still seems more fitting for this rocky ridge near Salem, New Hampshire. The site features stone huts, rooms, chambers, passageways, a 4.5-ton “sacrificial” stone table, a speaking tube into a chamber below, and small standing stones on the perimeter that align with an observation platform to form an astronomical calendar.
The America’s Stonehenge website concedes the site’s origins aren’t known with certainty, but claims its structures are over 4,000 years old and “most likely the oldest manmade construction in the United States.” When visitors arrive, they’re “invited” to imagine a history that might have been.
And many do just that. TV shows starring Leonard Nimoy, Rod Serling, William Shatner, and several others have featured the site on episodes of “In Search Of,” “Weird or What?,” and “History’s Mysteries.”
Some “pseudoarchaeologists,” amateur researchers, and regional groups believe Old World travelers or explorers built America’s Stonehenge around 2,000 B.C. In his 1976 book “America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World,” Harvard professor Barry Fell—a marine biologist—said the site’s “root cellars” resembled the work of megalithic people and “resembled corresponding structures in Europe dating from the Bronze Age.”
Fell also claimed to identify “Iberian Punic inscriptions” at the site, and said they “appeared to be the work of casual voyagers visiting America” about 800 to 600 B.C. He thought the inscriptions were dedicated to the Phoenician god Baal, and/or the Celtic sun god Bel.
After investigating a similar site in central Vermont, Fell wrote: “It became clear that ancient (Goidelic) Celts built the New England megalithic chambers, and that Phoenician mariners were welcome visitors, permitted to worship at the Celtic sanctuaries and allowed to make dedications in their own language.”
Formally trained archaeologists think such claims are fantasy, and that inscriptions at America’s Stonehenge are more likely modern forgeries, the work of Native Americans, graffiti made since Colonial times, or simply random scratches made by plows, tools, or natural forces. Regarding the site’s stone structures, the furthest back archaeologists stretch is roughly 400 years to early Colonial settlers or Native Americans.
A man named Jonathan Pattee lived there from 1825 to 1849, and likely built the original underground stone structures as root cellars for food storage. William Goodwin, a retired insurance executive, bought the property in 1937, and believed Irish Culdee monks built the structures in the 10th century A.D. to create a Celtic monastery. He believed that so strongly he rebuilt the site to what he considered its original specs, and moved stones to what he believed were their original locations. Unfortunately, Goodwin did little or nothing to document his alterations.
About the nicest thing New England’s archaeologists say about the 30-acre America’s Stonehenge is that its structures resemble other stone walls, huts, sheds, and foundations built across the region during the 1700s and 1800s. Professor Curtis Runnels at Boston University thinks Goodwin’s work so jumbled the site’s historical record that it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions about its more ancient past.
In other words, naming the site “America’s Stonehenge” doesn’t make it so. In fact, if you don’t pay attention, you might think the United States has three such sites.
A place named “Kinstone” near Fountain City, Wisconsin, has been dubbed “Wisconsin’s very own Stonehenge,” but makes no archaeological claim to ancient Europe. It was built from 2011 to 2018 on the owner’s four-generation family farm and features a “modern megalithic garden” of three stone circles, a dolmen, labyrinth, standing stones, natural buildings, and restored prairies. Guests can rent Kinstone for weddings and other events or stroll its grounds to connect with nature and “the cosmic dance between the Earth and sun.”
The South also had an “America’s Stonehenge” until recently. The “Georgia Guidestones” were built anonymously in 1980 by someone called R.C. Christian. The four-pillar monument stood until this summer, serving as a sundial, astronomical calendar, and 10 Commandments-like message center for 20,000 visitors annually. Vandals blew up one of the uprights at 4 a.m. on July 6, forcing the monument’s demolition for safety reasons later that day.
The site’s four 16-foot tall granite columns and huge capstone inspired the “America’s Stonehenge” moniker. Its stone-inscribed messages, however, triggered controversy that likely sparked the vandalism. Etched into the uprights were 10 edicts written in 12 languages. Critics said the messages promoted satanism, paganism, and globalism by suggesting things like a world court and new “living language” that unites humanity.
In fact, “Infowars” host Alex Jones in 2020 called the Georgia Guidestones “the birthplace of the modern depopulation movement” because one inscription called for maintaining “humanity under 500,000 in perpetual balance with nature,” and another urged people to “guide reproduction wisely—improving fitness and diversity.”
The Guidestones also drew heat from politicians like gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor, who earlier this year told voters, “Elect me governor of Georgia, and I will bring the satanic regime to its knees and demolish the Georgia Guidestones.” Taylor finished third in the Republican primary May 24 with 3% of the vote. She won’t concede defeat in the election, but posted a Facebook video on July 6 warning “the media” not to associate her with anything illegal.
The original “America’s Stonehenge” in New Hampshire also suffered recent vandalism because of conspiracy theories. Someone entered the site at night in late September 2019, hung an 18-inch wooden cross between two trees, and used a power tool to inscribe “WWG1WGA” and his first name (IAMMARK) into the site’s so-called sacrificial table, which measures 8 feet long, 6 feet 3 inches wide, and 10 inches thick.
WWG1WGA is a hashtag that stands for the QAnon motto “Where We Go 1, We Go All.” QAnon is a right-wing political/conspiracy movement that originated in 2017 and believes a Satanic cabal of cannibalistic sexual abusers targets children for a global sex-trafficking ring.
Investigators soon focused on Mark L. Russo of Swedesboro, New Jersey. Russo incriminated himself with a Facebook post about the vandalism, which caused over $1,500 in damage to the 9,000-pound stone slab. The post read: “Oh made a few improvements at American Stonehenge. Sorry … my bad.”
Russo was arrested in March 2021 and indicted a month later for felony mischief.
It's not surprising the vandal targeted the site’s large stone tablet, which is set on short stone pillars inside other stonework. A sign nearby directs visitors “To the Sacrificial Table.”
Archaeology professor Kenneth L. Feder at Central Connecticut State University discussed the stone table in his 2020 book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. Feder thinks visitors easily imagine a virgin tied flat atop the stone, her throat slit to appease “some vengeful pagan god.” As that story goes, her blood flows into a channel chiseled into the tablet’s perimeter and collects in a pot below “for some terrible ceremony that sickens us even to consider.”
But as with many allusions and insinuations at America’s Stonehenge, Feder finds no proof that blood—human or otherwise—was ever spilled there in sacrifice. He said the only “proof” is that the stone slab looks like what people “expect a sacrificial table to look like.” That’s especially true if it involves ancients who brought spooky rituals from the Old World. Feder notes, however, that archaeologists haven’t found “sacrificial tables dated to antiquity in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or England.”
In reality, colonial farms across New England used similar stone slabs for making lye soap and pressing apple cider. In fact, some stones remain in use today, and Feder’s book includes photographs of cider-press bedstones. He wrote: “Workers applied pressure to the apple mash using a screw press, squeezing out the liquid, whereupon it accumulated in the channels along the bed stone’s margins.”
Despite dispelling popular myths about Mystery Hill/America’s Stonehenge, Feder enjoys visiting the site, and recommends it as an idiosyncratic 19th century farmstead.
Runnels, the Boston University archaeologist, shares that view, telling Discover in February 2021, “It would certainly qualify as an archaeological site. In fact, there are two archaeological sites at Mystery Hill: Native American and Colonial American.”
Runnels also sees no links to ancient travelers, whether they’re Celtic priests from ancient Wales, Phoenicians from ancient Lebanon, astronauts from far-off galaxies, Irish monks from 1,200 years ago, or any other hypotheses shared through books and magazines, network TV, the History Channel, or online programming.
Runnels told MeatEater his visits to the site, and subsequent research, make him think Native Americans and their ancestors used the site periodically, perhaps seasonally, as a summer hunting and gathering camp. Still, he said it’s difficult to verify their ancient existence there, even by carbon-dating the site’s ancient “charcoal pits,” a term he calls ambiguous.
“Lightning strikes can set fires and anyone can make a fire,” Runnels said. “Both actions would produce charcoal. Given the date range (to 2,000 BC), Native Americans would be the ones responsible for the charcoal if it was produced by humans rather than natural causes.”
When Europeans settled New England after 1620, they lived and worked around the site. “It was probably the site of a granite quarry and a farm,” Runnels wrote in an email. He doubts Europeans lived there earlier than the 17th century. After all, no Bronze Age artifacts (3300 to 1200 BC) of European origin have been found in the New World, let alone at America’s Stonehenge.
In contrast, England’s Stonehenge offers ample proof of specific ancient origins. “Stonehenge was built and used from approximately 3000 to 1500 BC, and European museums are filled with artifacts from that period (late Neolithic and Bronze Age),” Runnels told MeatEater. “Stonehenge artifacts have distinctive forms and shapes, and the raw materials used to make them can be traced to local sources by chemical means. Artifacts of that time period would be recognizable if found in the Western Hemisphere and could be traced to their European source(s). I do not know of any.”
Feder voices the same skepticism. In Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, Feder recalls visiting the America’s Stonehenge museum years ago, and seeing a large glass case filled with stone artifacts made by Native Americans. Another glass case displays pottery, brick, and iron nails made by 19th century inhabitants of European ancestry.
Feder asked why the museum didn’t have a glass case “filled with the European bronze tools of the supposed ‘Bronze Age’ European settlers.” The guide said ancient people wouldn’t have left such valuable tools lying around. Feder replied: “They most certainly left all those valuable bronze tools lying around in Europe. That’s how we know it was the Bronze Age. Archaeologists find such objects.”
In his book, Feder also notes an archaeology graduate from Yale University, Gary Vescelius, found 7,000 artifacts during an excavation at Mystery Hill in the 1950s. “They all were clearly of prehistoric Indian manufacture or 19th century European manufacture — ceramics, nails, plaster chunks, and brick fragments. … The archaeological evidence clearly pointed to a 19th century construction date for the site.”
Artifacts, of course, are no small matter to archaeologists. “No ancient Celtic stuff was found (by Vescelius) at the excavation,” Feder said. He used the word “stuff” for a reason, noting that the late comedian George Carlin knew something universally true about humans: We take our “stuff” everywhere we go, and build bags, suitcases, and houses to carry or store our “stuff.” Feder says the stuff humans leave behind proves not only their presence, but also the context for the time they lived there.
Therefore, to prove an Old World link, stuff found at America’s Stonehenge must be significant. That’s why Runnels quotes astronomer Carl Sagan, who said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
“An ancient artifact from a controlled archaeological excavation is the usual standard of evidence,” Runnels told MeatEater. “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.”
Runnels considers it pointless to look for links to the Old World, given the number of New World monuments built by the ancestors of Native Americans. He said some ancient cultures were experts in astronomy and stone construction, and deserve their own worldwide attention. After all, Native Americans in Mexico, and Central and South America have amassed 5,000 years of advanced civilizations.
“Their achievements stagger the imagination and require no reference to Old World, especially Bronze Age European inspiration or models, to be fascinating and important,” Runnels told MeatEater.
He said ancient Native Americans north of the Rio Grande deserve similar recognition. “Examples (include) the Woodhenge monument at Cahokia in Illinois, the celestial alignments at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, the so-called Medicine Wheels in the mountain West (e.g., Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming), Poverty Point in Louisiana (North America’s earliest site with monumental architecture), and the great mounds and pyramids of the Hopewell-Adena and Mississippian cultures in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys (including Georgia’s Etowah Indian Mounds).”
Is it possible future archaeological work around New England will one day unlock an Old World link to America’s Stonehenge? Feder doubts it. In Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, he notes that archaeologists dig test pits every year across the U.S. whenever the federal government funds new highways, hydroelectric projects, wastewater treatment plants, or any other large public construction. Such work can’t begin until scientists determine a project’s impacts on natural and historical resources.
“In the hundreds of thousands of test pits excavated in federally funded archaeological surveys, researchers have not found even one site, one individual feature, or even a single artifact that indicated the pre-Columbian presence here of Europeans, Africans, or non-American Indian Asians,” Feder wrote.
Still, Feder doesn’t expect people to quit believing ancient European travelers settled the New World before Columbus’ arrival in 1492.
“Unfortunately, it seems in the modern world, the assertion that experts actually know more than the average person does—about physics, astronomy, biology, climate, or archaeology—is increasingly dismissed.”
Feature image via America's Stonehenge.