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Sacred Sites: America's Stonehenge

by Peter Baltensperger

Visiting America's Stonehenge in southern New Hampshire is like stepping into a very ancient, mythical time far back in the history of the human race. Nestled into thirty acres of wooded hillside outside the town of Salem, the expansive arrangement of stone structures, caves, tunnels, monoliths, and massive stone slabs originally known as Mystery Hill Caves exudes an aura of sacred mysticism, awesome cosmic energies, and peaceful spiritual tranquility.

When my wife and I first visited the site, we weren't quite sure what to expect. What we found was a formidable construct of ancient stones among ancient trees, suffused with an air of mystery and wonder. We felt drawn into its spell as soon as we stepped into the compound through the main gate and began to follow the path up the hill.

At first, the main impression is one of huge rocks scattered seemingly at random across the hillside, many of them cracked and broken, some half-buried under convolutions of tree roots, others covered with lichen and moss, barely visible anymore under centuries-old growth. But then the chaos changes into meticulous order, and the over-all design gradually begins to emerge as the path leads into the main construct.

The path assumes a distinct purpose, wending its way into a labyrinth of human-made caverns and passages lined with massive, carefully hewn stone blocks and topped with huge plates, each weighing several tons. It boggles the mind to try and imagine how anyone could have possibly cut all these giant stones, hauled them into place, and fitted them together into such complex structures.

Emerging from one of the dark passageways leading further up the hill, we came upon the centre of the construct: the Sacrificial Table. This altar, a rectangular stone slab estimated at a weight of nearly five tons, tilts into the hill on several blocks of stone, each likely close to a ton in size.A continuous gutter cut into its periphery presumably drained blood and other liquids into the ground in front of it, or, perhaps, into sacred vessels during special ceremonies.

Behind the altar and situated directly below it, the Oracle Chamber is one of the most impressive features of the entire arrangement. Carved into the bedrock itself, the chamber contains a niche large enough for a person to crawl into it. There is a stone-lined channel, referred to as the Speaking Tube, leading from the niche to just underneath the altar. A person hiding in the niche and speaking into the tube could have easily produced what must have seem incredibly like an invisible entity speaking in a booming voice from below the Sacrificial Table.

Above the altar, a platform added to the original construct in the 1970s provides a spectacular view of the whole arrangement below. It also reveals some of the many standing stones arranged in a wide circle around the main area and aligned with the sunrises and sunsets of the Solstices and Equinoxes, as well as of other significant days in the Wheel of the Year. Trees have been cleared over lengthy periods of time to create viewing paths for a number of the standing stones.

Unfortunately, many of the standing stones have been toppled or destroyed and much of the original construct in the main compound damaged or entirely removed by indiscriminate quarrying and careless private ownership during the 19th and early 20th century. It has only been over the past 70 years or so that the site has been seriously investigated and increasing attempts at preservation and exploration have been made. Open to the public since 1958, it is now owned by America's Stonehenge Inc., a private corporation dedicated to its continued survival and interpretation.

Recent research and carbon-dating have indicated that at least parts of the site are most likely as old as 4,000 years. Calculations on the standing stone aligned with the Summer Solstice sunrise have shown that the Sun would have risen at the top of the notch in the stone on the day of the Solstice around 1500 BCE, or 3,500 years ago. Yet there were no people capable of or interested in stone structures and arrangements of this kind in the area that long ago. Native Americans were not known to work in or with stone, and their mythology revolved around animal spirits and pantheistic concerns rather than cosmic phenomena.

Nobody will ever likely be able to determine the exact origin of America's Stonehenge anymore than that of its famous counterpart on the Plains of Salisbury, or the identity of its creators and the kind of rituals and ceremonies they performed in the dim reaches of our past. But in many ways, that only adds to the mystery and intrigue of the massive stone monument that came so close to being ignored, and most likely completely destroyed, had it not been for a few dedicated individuals concerned with the preservation of the past.

And so, what is probably the oldest stone construction and the oldest ceremonial site in existence in the New World has survived not only the onslaught of time, but human ignorance and carelessness as well. We certainly would have missed a greatly enjoyable and highly interesting, as well as enlightening experience, had it not been there any more.

We visited the site on the day after the Summer Solstice. (We had spent the Solstice itself in the better-known Salem in Massachusetts to participate in an Open Circle Celebration conducted by a local coven in a public park.) As we strolled around the ancient stone constructions, we happened upon the remnants of a make-shift altar in front of the menhir aligned with the Solstice sunrise. We found a circle of ashes with various symbols scratched into the dirt around it and a number of used candles, incense sticks, and other objects in the middle. Obviously someone, most likely a small group, had celebrated the Solstice right there, much the same as we had done a couple of hundred miles away.

We slowly retraced our steps down the hill, taking in all the details and the wonders of this mystical place once more as we headed back down to the gate, feeling enthralled and uplifted by what we had seen. One of these years, we promised ourselves, we'd go back on the day of the Summer Solstice and watch the Sun rise over the top of the standing stone far out among the ancient trees. We'd celebrate the momentous event, and marvel yet again at the ingenuity and the dedication of whoever it was who so carefully planned and meticulously constructed this incredible monument to the human spirit and humanity's search for meaning in the universe.

Peter is a solitary, eclectic Pagan of Helvetian (Swiss/Celtic) origin. He has written six collections of poetry, a volume of popular historical nonfiction, and a spiritual science-fiction novel, "Guardians of Time" (Three Tree Press, 1984). His essays, short stories, and poems have been featured in periodicals across Canada and in many other countries over the past 45 years. He was born and raised in Switzerland, but now lives in Canada with his wife Vicki and their six cats, a turtle, and several tanks of fish.