My wife, Nancy, and I have a 75-acre horse farm in Ledyard, Connecticut, that we built four years ago and named Standing Stones after a 12-foot-high boulder, a glacial erratic left after the retreat of the ice sheet 20,000 years ago. The stone bordered an old logging trail, which was the only way on to the land when we first visited it in 2005. But we didn’t really know anything about the stones until one spring morning when a man called Bill Saums came to see me.
Saums had emailed me a few weeks earlier to say that he knew the land on which our farm was built and that he would like to talk to me about some interesting Native American structures that he had found on our property. He was in his 40s, with a wise, open face, curly black hair, and a purposeful demeanor. No sooner had we shaken hands than he was off, walking out of the barn with me in tow. “I have some things to show you. I think you will be surprised.” I learned that Bill has walked the countryside, often with members of the New England Antiquities Research Association, seeking evidence of earlier cultures. In this way, and through extensive reading, he has acquired an impressive knowledge and insight into not only the early colonial settlers but also Native American cultures.
Bill explained that our farm is home to a unique geological formation, in which several different types of rock are swirled around a point. “When you look at a geological map, it’s like looking down on a hurricane, with the eye centered on the high spot of the farm,” he explained. Bill believed that Native Americans had recognized this unique geological phenomenon and built a number of sacred monuments on the site. “I don’t know how they saw it, but I am sure they knew that it was unusual. Indeed, I showed it to a geologist I know, and he thinks it is unique.” I, too, had subconsciously recognized it because I had encircled this place with a trail so that we could ride our horses around it. I cannot say why I built the trail where I did; it just seemed right.
As we walked up to the high spot, Bill told me that he was sure he had found a Native American grave. “This is really exciting. I nearly missed it, and it is hard to see.” He told me that Native Americans buried their leaders and shamans vertically, often between two boulders set into a hillside. He stopped and looked around, seeking his bearings. “Over there — look.” We walked off the trail and clambered down to a ledge. There was a cleft between two massive rocks that protruded from the hillside, and carefully chinked, fist-sized stones formed a wall across the front of the crevice. A flat stone sealed the top, and moss covered the rock. The stones were covered with lichen, and all the nooks and crannies were filled with leaf mold and twigs. Bill said, “I am sure it is a grave.” I imagined a skeleton, in a fetal position, inside this tomb. Without Bill’s trained eye, I would never have noticed it. My skin tightened as I stood in the woods, looking at the grave. Mourning doves called dolefully, and red-tailed hawks seemed to scour the treetops, emitting their high-pitched shrieks.
We walked on and came to one of the many stone walls that crisscross the farm and are now buried in the woods that have grown up since the colonial farmers first built them — at least, that was what I had assumed. Bill pointed out a stone wall that had transformed itself from tightly packed field stones to trapezoidal slabs jutting against one another and creating a sharp-sided polygonal lattice. “You know, most people assume that colonial farmers built all these walls as they cleared the fields of stones,” he said. “But, look at that wall there.
Who would build such a thing with all those holes and the stones laid in so irregularly?” At first glance, it looked like a wall that had moved over the centuries, with frost heaves and earth tremors, but Bill assured me it was a Native American spirit wall. Such walls were built over a large split rock or a hole in the ground, and their gaps were intended to catch earth spirits as they moved in and out of the fissures, like a dream catcher. The colonial sheep farmers extended the walls and thus created hybrid structures that most would never notice.
Next, Bill showed me a 10-foot-long rock with a crack through its center; five stones balanced above the crack. Inside the fissure were small pieces of quartz, three to four inches long. The stones over the crack were not contiguous with any wall. Bill said, “Native Americans thought quartz was sacred stone and by using it to plug the crevice, they were trying to bottle up the spirits.” Close by was a long cliff of stone, some six feet high.
Where it met the forest floor, there were crevices that ran horizontally back into the stone. We looked in and found nothing but acorns and some dry forest humus. Just as we were about to move on, we looked in one final crevice and there, about one foot into the crack, I saw three large scallop shells. I felt as if people were looking over my shoulder as I pulled them out. They were unmarked and felt as fragile as the bone of a bird. I replaced them.
Bill and I walked along the horse trails. We came to an eight-foot-high equilateral pyramid that I had built, using some of the thousands of fist-sized stones that lay about at the site. I had thought they were stones that early colonial farmers had taken from the fields and dumped at the edges, but Bill explained that the hill of stones was a cairn. There are many different types of Native American cairns, made either by individuals or by groups. Some are associated with ceremonies and are often found near cracks in the earth or near vernal streams; others were markers on the way to spiritual sites. I recognized that Bill was an amateur and that his interest was not professional history or anthropology but a form of personal resonance with the land, much like my own.
As we wound our way back to the barn, we passed a five-foot hemispherical boulder, on which several small flat stones were balanced on end. When I made this particular trail, I noticed them and added one of two of my own, fancying that they looked like the spinal plates of a stegosaurus. I assumed children had placed these stones at some time in the past. Of course, now I realized this was unlikely. The stone was in the midst of woods with no path by it — at least not until I made one. Bill told me it was a representation of a fish and that it pointed to a small vernal pool about 50 yards away. The piscine figure leaped into my mind’s eye and immediately, I could see it no other way. Bill assured me this was a common motif and often pointed to water. He felt it was more a representation of a water spirit than signaling the presence of water to early travelers. Analogous to those of the Australian aborigines, perhaps all these artifacts speak to the presence of Native American “song lines” or “stone lines” — routes leading to the hill that were followed for centuries, as evidenced by the thousands of stones deposited in the cairns.
It was strange how Bill appeared out of nowhere with such intimate knowledge of our farm and then, when I said good-bye to him, he seemed to vanish. I sat on a tack box in the barn, reflecting on what he had shown me. A year after building the farm, a friend of mine, John Moore, and I built a Neolithic stone circle on the farm. It is 165 feet in diameter and consists of 27 stones, some weighing over 40 tons, and standing 15 feet high. In addition to the cardinal points, we placed stones on the bearings of places important in my life: Portsmouth, where I was born; Oxford, where I was married; Cape Town, where my friends live; and Nairobi, where a severe case of pneumonia gave me a brush with death. In the dry stone wall that borders the east side of the circle, I made a gap, in which I placed an eight-foot-high rectangular dressed stone. It is two feet wide and six inches thick and has three blazes of pink quartz slanting through its body. By following the southerly movement of the sun’s rise in mid-December, I was able to place the stone so that the winter solstice sun rises over its top. It is about a quarter of a mile from the Native American grave. Just before Bill’s visit, I sank a small granite chamber in the center of the circle to house my ashes.
Why Build a Stone Circle?
When asked, I am hard-pressed to say why I built this circle. It may be because there was one, called the Rollright Stones, near the village where I grew up in England. Perhaps I built my circle to ground myself in our new farm, putting down my Neolithic roots. While I cannot say why I decided to build the circle, once the idea took hold, there was no turning back. I had to do it. I built the circle before I knew of the Native American stonework on the farm, and Bill’s visit that morning made me wonder whether perhaps I had been influenced in some way by what had gone before on our land.
Colin Richards, of Manchester University’s School of Art History and Archaeology in Britain, thinks that the main reason for building stone circles may not have been the finished circles but the act of building itself. He argues that the time and energy taken to build these circles, especially the larger ones, would have involved hundreds of people over many years, an endeavor similar to the construction of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. This process could have provided a purpose for these people, something outside themselves that lent energy and meaning to their lives. Furthermore, societies would have been formed and strengthened by one group’s bringing a stone of particular beauty or significance from their territory to the site of the circle. It is easy to imagine the development of a series of social behaviors that began with the construction of the circles. Stories would be told about feats of ancestors in the finding, dressing, and moving of the stones. The decision to add a stone to memorialize a leader or point to a newly honored star pattern would be a major event and woven into the fabric of the community by its integration into the megalithic circle. I am modern proof of Richards’ idea. I know well the joy that Neolithic builders must have felt when a big stone slid into its slot. It takes me days to maneuver stones of a few hundred pounds with a crowbar. I am always surprised by their inertia and always happy when I manage to cajole them into place.
A popular theory as to the purpose of stone circles is that they were astronomical calendars, used by early farmers to mark the seasons or to remind them to light beseeching fires to ensure the sun’s return. Pictures of the summer solstice sun sparkling over the Heel Stone at Stonehenge or piercing into the center of the Grange in Ireland are beautiful, common, and celebrated. However, three stones in a line will suffice to determine when the sun is at its solstice; you do not need a megalithic circle.
Single menhirs are often found close to the circles. These standing stones usually predate the circles and can be visible from one another. This suggests that they were marker posts. Many circles are associated with stone axe trading routes. This raises a chicken-or-egg issue. Were the circles built on menhir-guided trade routes to serve as marts with built-in calendars, or was this use thrust upon them once they were built? It makes sense that the circles would be erected on early trade routes, allowing people to get to the circle at given times, but it provides no help in determining which came first: the shop or the temple?
It is impossible to impart desires and thoughts to people we know only through their material culture. Still, I imagine a small group of people proposing the building of a circle, and through either their social standing in the tribe or some vested authority, being able to organize or even compel others to spend the time and energy necessary to fulfill their vision. They may have assumed this authority through traditional warring and force, coupled with political savoir-faire, or they may have possessed intuitive or sensing powers that gave them the ability to communicate (or pretend to) with a spirit world. The stones may have provided a signpost to a spiritual plane, a means of providing comfort and inspiration, a benevolent, non-judgmental presence of weight.