It’s afternoon, and the sun throws long shadows on the hillside at America’s Stonehenge.
A resident alpaca chews what looks like hay in its pen and turns to look at the latest passers-by.
An Amesbury mother and son, Mary and James Gage, walk a wood-chip path bound for the main attraction, stone structures that are a lightning rod for controversy.
The Gages have been investigating stone structures on the New England landscape for decades. They study the placement, shapes and markings of the stones, looking for signs of their origins and uses.
Here on this 335-foot hill in Salem, New Hampshire, wedged between North Main Street and Haverhill Road, the big looming questions are who constructed the structures and why were they built?
Mary maintains in her new book, “The Architecture of America’s Stonehenge,” that the construction of these stone structures was started some 3,000 years ago by Native Americans.
The Gages are stone people. They investigate cairns, caves, cellars, chambers, stone walls and rock quarries. They publish their findings on their website, Stone Structures of Northeastern United States, stonestructures.org.
Several years ago, they were invited by an Andover conservation group to investigate a rock structure in that town called Turtle Mound.
Some people had claimed it was built by Irish monks. Or that it was built by Native Americans.
The Gages determined, based on drill holes and research, that it was a Victorian-era rockery, a whimsical setting designed to draw customers to a florist’s nursery between 1860 and 1880. It was interesting in its own right, but not ancient, they say .
The Stonehenge site is a different story.
Mary estimates that she has come here more than 100 times over the past 20 years. She’s not alone. In a good year, 30,000 paying customers visit America’s Stonehenge, according to its owner, Dennis Stone.
The attraction, previously called Mystery Hill, has been the subject of articles, books and television shows, especially those that place it in a mysterious light.
Mary’s book also includes an element of mystery, proposing the site was understood by native people to be sacred after rainwater cascading down sloped bedrock revealed to them a crystal geode.
But much of the book is detail-oriented with photographs and illustrations and references to previous studies of the structures on the site’s 30 acres. She and her son de ella have researched land deeds and wills, read articles and books about the site, and talked to people who share their interest.
A subject of debate
Many mainstream archaeologists maintain the structures at America’s Stonehenge were built in recent centuries by local residents and say they are not convinced of the site’s ancient origins.
Some people have proposed the structures were constructed by Irish monks who crossed the Atlantic before Columbus sailed the blue ocean in 1492.
Some archaeologists think the site has been so altered over the years that no determination can be made as to its origins.
Mary thinks the structures were built by generations of native people who revered the spiritual presence here and performed ceremonies to honor it.
She presents her ideas in her 2021 book’s 335 pages of text, photos, deeds, drawings and genealogy. In it, she also presents, and counters, other theories on the site origins.
Mary says her findings build upon the work of the late David Stewart-Smith, who had a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies, wrote extensively about Native Americans in New England and was a professor of history at Norwich University in Vermont.
He was also a stonemason who studied the Stonehenge site, overseen by former New Hampshire state archaeologist Gary Hume, and determined that the stone in the original structures was quarried on the hill by hand with stone tools.
Mary says she acted as a sleuth, piecing together information from Stewart-Smith and others and gathering clues left behind by the ancient builders.
The evidence includes grooves, rounded edges and markings from stone tools, the result of shaping techniques associated with Native American stone work.
She also says architectural motifs such as long walls with chambers at the bottom and the use of drains and basins speak to the site’s Native American origins.
Stonemason Peter Wiggin has worked with stone for more than 30 years, including work at America’s Stonehenge for some 15 years.
He worked on numerous projects there and elsewhere with Stewart-Smith.
Wiggin has read Mary’s book and talked with her and visited sites with her. He says he’s not qualified to comment on the Salem’s site architecture but does think that Mary’s interpretation of stone construction there appears to be supported by site studies.
In particular, he points to flaking, a stone-work technique that shaped the scalloped edges of roof slabs and standing stones, and the pecking and abrading that formed channel grooves, drains and basins.
These labor-intensive techniques and the multitude of structures indicate work done over a long period of time, he says.
Wiggin, who has a bachelor’s degree in environmental design from the University of Colorado Boulder and owns Design 1 Landscaping in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, says — setting aside the origin debate — that Mary’s book catalogs the site in a big way.
“It is the first and foremost the most comprehensive accounting of the multitude of known stone structures and features on the site,” he says.
Sherry Gould, the tribal genealogist for the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, says that she thinks the site’s stone construction originated with Native Americans. She has visited the site and is familiar with Stewart-Smith’s work. She knew him, as well, and says he had Native American ancestry.
Gould thinks the site originated with Native Americans and was added to and altered by early white settlers and subsequent generations.
Ryan Wheeler, director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archeology at Phillips Academy in Andover, says that America’s Stonehenge and other stone structures in New England “have created a lot of divisions among professional archaeologists, avocational archaeologists and Indigenous people, with very diverse opinions.”
Massachusetts has taken a strong stance on stone walls, piles and chambers on the landscape, stating they are not ancient.
“When historians and archaeologists have researched stone walls, piles and chambers, they have invariably demonstrated that these features are associated with the activities of European settlers and have no Native American (or other) origin,” the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation has stated .
Wheeler also says that two well-respected professional archaeologists, the late Gary Vescelius, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and Ken Feder, a professor of archeology at Central Connecticut State University, have studied and written about the Stonehenge site and concluded that it was built in recent times. Vescelius believed that the site was built in the first half of the 19th century, Wheeler says.
For his part, Wheeler, who has not visited the site, remains skeptical but open to considering possibilities based on strong evidence.
“I’ve personally tried to remain open-minded about the possibility that some of the stone structures were made by ancient Indigenous people, but it seems difficult to tell since there have been modifications over the years,” Wheeler says.
For her part, Mary Gage likens the stone structures’ changes over time to the changing building styles of homes in subsequent architectural periods.
Mary, originally from Lexington, has been captivated by history and Native American culture since childhood.
Her interest in New England stone structures began taking shape in the 1970s on walks with James when he was a small child.
Her interest grew upon discovering stone piles at the Martin H. Burns Wildlife Management Area in Newbury.
James, 48, an Amesbury High and University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate majoring in history, has worked for 25 years in the library at the New England School of Law.
He contributed a chapter to his mother’s Stonehenge book on Jonathan Pattee that includes detailed genealogy.
Pattee owned and lived on the land in the 19th century. James references a section about him in a 1907 history of Salem:
Jonathan Pattee’s Cave. He had a house in these woods 70 years ago; he took town paupers before the town farm was bought. This is a wild but beautiful spot, among rough boulders and soft pines, about which the most weird and fantastic tale might be woven. There are several caves still intact, which the owner used for storage purposes.”
The site was later owned by William Goodwin, of Hartford, Connecticut, who was convinced that the site was made by Irish monks.
Mary says that Goodwin made only modest changes and repairs to the structures, respecting and retaining their original placement.
Photographs of the site that predate his modifications back up her contention, she says.
more to explore
On this afternoon, Mary Gage leads a tour over the mazelike pathways among the structures.
The route winds like a Pac-Man course.
Nearby, Stone tosses branches, leaves and pine needles in a trailer.
He says he’s sprucing up the grounds for a visitor expected the next day.
He doesn’t say who it is but leaves the impression it might be someone interested in a production related to the site.
The owner speaks fast and with excitement about the site.
Television and movie personalities, including Rod Serling, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, have hosted features about the site on shows such as “In Search of…” and “History’s Mysteries” and “Weird or What?”
The site has also drawn at least one unwanted visitor.
In March, Salem police charged a New Jersey man with a felony criminal mischief for defacing a stone tablet on the site by carving an acronym for a QAnon slogan into it.
The story made national news.
The site and its astrological alignments draw crowds around the summer and winter solstices and spring and autumn equinoxes.
Mary leans over a well opening that descends 12 feet.
In the early 1960s, the owner excavated a cluster of crystals at the bottom, she says.
This is the location, she holds, where 3,000 years ago rainwater cascading from a sloped ledge uncovered a crystal geode in the ground.
Mary believes that a harmonious meeting of two opposing spiritual forces, from the upper world and underworld, revealed the site as sacred to the native people and inspired them to build the stone structures that stand today at America’s Stonehenge.