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The Mysterious Stone Chambers of New England

Donate Some believe these stone structures in New England to be evidence of ancient cultures.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #643
October 2, 2018
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Throughout the states of New England can be found hundreds of stone structures, igloos of dry stacked local rocks. Some are big, some are small, most have crumbled, many have not. But what are they? Who built them, when, and for what purpose? An active community of believers assigns the stone chambers a mystical origin: either a religious or astronomical one, or even that they were built by a long-lost civilization that traveled here from Europe centuries before Columbus and then disappeared. Today we're going to look at what the legends say about New England's mysterious stone chambers, then see how that compares to the traditional historical explanation.

YouTube is as good a place as any to learn what amateur alternative historians have to say on the stone chambers. One video titled Secrets of the Stones is presented by self-described poet and psychic Barbara DeLong with her husband Patrick Cooke, best known for his appearances on History Channel's Ancient Aliens:

The most recent residents of these areas accept them as always having been there, and credit ancestors, indigenous peoples, early explorers, ancient cultures, or even glaciers as the creators... They are silent, ancient tracings of times long past, a testimony of a fragment of our history not yet recorded or acknowledged.

The YouTube channel What on Earth said in this video called The Mystery of Vermont's Stone Chambers:

Past 500 years ago, we have whole chapters that have not been written yet, and all we have are these clues, these remains from ancient cultures [that] were here. This wasn't the New World, this was actually the Old World that pretty much got obliterated in a cataclysm 12,800 years ago. People from all over Europe and the Mideast, the Phoenicians I believe, other people, set foot in the United States and they wanted to keep it a secret.

Most of the alternative histories of the stone chambers follow this same basic narrative of ancient cultures that were here and whose existence is "denied by mainstream historians because it doesn't fit into their dogma" — a pattern of belief familiar to Skeptoid listeners. Nearly universally, these claimants discuss what they believe are astronomical (or astrological) alignments and positioning of the chambers, noting that they often have their doors pointing east. Here's from one web article promoting this interpretation of the chambers:

Nearby the stone circle there is a tall rock called the True North Stone, which was determined in 1975 to have lined up with the pole star Thuban around 1750 BCE, and is on the main central axis from which other alignments can be calculated... Several of the low stonewalls also indicate true north–south and east–west alignments.

This type of claim is one of the first red flags we encounter. When you look at pictures of these structures, with their naturally contoured stones very roughly stacked with not a straight line in sight, discussion of precise astronomical positioning — often to the tenth of a degree — begins to sound a little silly. And it turns out there's a good reason for that.

The mystery of the stone chambers — not the chambers themselves, but rather the mystery surrounding them — has a dubious origin. They were unremarkable until the year 1975, when all of this New Age attention was being showered upon the chambers. They drew the attention of Professor Barry Fell, a marine zoologist who used his tenure at Harvard to pursue his hobby of alternative history. Fell has become infamous among North American archaeologists for his views that Celts, Basques, Phoenicians, and Egyptians all regularly visited North America centuries before Columbus, and in a series of mass market books, he identified all sorts of things as evidence of his belief. He was best known for misidentifying natural cracks and scratches as ancient runic writings. In his book America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World, he claimed to have translated some of these cracks and scratches and learned the following:

It became clear that ancient Celts had 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.

How well received was this by actual archaeologists? Well, a 1984 survey of archaeologists published in American Antiquity found that 95.7% of archaeologists had a negative impression of Fell's work. He is arguably best described as North America's version of Erich von Däniken, author of Chariots of the Gods, as far as inventing great volumes of provably false pseudohistory for the continent. A Harvard professor, yes; but in marine zoology, not in archaeology, history, or epigraphy.

We've mentioned Barry Fell before on Skeptoid. He also translated a set of petroglyphs in West Virginia which he identified as having been written in the old Irish script Ogam, and from them he confirmed the old legend that St. Brendan the Navigator came there from Ireland in the 6th century. Archaeologists have interpreted these petroglyphs simply as tool sharpening markings left by native Americans.

But many members of the general public don't necessarily know any better, so ever since Fell's book came out, a vocal minority of non-archaeologists has insisted that the stone chambers are of Celtic origin, or of some other ancient race.

But what do the archaeologists themselves say? Turns out there is an accepted explanation for the stone chambers, and always has been, since long before Barry Fell found Phoenician inscriptions in the scratches on the rocks. The stone chambers were built not by the Celts, but by the colonial Americans beginning in the 1700s, and they continued to be built into the 20th century until refrigeration became available. For the stone chambers, according to conventional history and all existing evidence, are nothing more or less than root cellars.

Root cellars were used by farmers to store various crops — including turnips, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, and potatoes — through the winter. These included food for the colonists themselves, but more importantly for their livestock. The earliest root cellars were built of dry stacked stone, and these are the "mysterious stone chambers" we know today. Later root cellars were laid with mortar. Cement floors were introduced. Later cellars were made of brick or even reinforced concrete. Many were overlaid with soil for maximum insulation against the cold. There are books written about New England's many historic root cellars and there are whole communities of root cellar enthusiasts and preservation societies, much like there are for lighthouses and other historic structures.

As colonial root cellars made of stone are an established historical fact, the possibility of similar structures being of Celtic or pre-Columbian indigenous origin would require us to have both side-by-side. Think of the UFOlogist who reports a mysterious light in the sky in the same direction as Venus. If a UFO was there, his report would have to say that two lights were seen, because we know Venus is there too. But we don't have two duplicate sets of stone chambers in New England. If a set of chambers exists that is distinct from those built by the colonial farmers, then it has not made itself known.

For those who are aware of root cellars and their important role in the history of early colonial settlers, there is not a single fact about New England's mysterious stone chambers that is unknown or can reasonably be described as mysterious.

In 1977, the state of Vermont took the lead in fighting back against the pseudohistory. The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation launched a survey and study of the existing structures that were within Vermont. Its findings were published in the Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society by state archaeologist Giovanna Neudorfer, and also as a standalone book titled Vermont's Stone Chambers: An Inquiry into Their Past.

However, as experienced Skeptoid listeners know all too well, there is always a segment of the alternative history enthusiast society who never let facts get in the way of a good story. The root cellar explanation has been dismissed by them, or at least for those made of dry stacked stone and that have an especially ancient look to them. For years, the pages of the Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society concussed with rebuttals to the archaeological findings. Amateur chamber enthusiasts reacted passionately, repeating their claims about astronomical alignments, and pointing out anomalies wherever they could be found, including a focus on some ancient charcoal that they say has been carbon dated to prove the chambers were being used by people thousands of years ago.

The academic literature actually includes only a single reference to any charcoal being found and radiocarbon dated. This was published in 1979 in the journal Early Sites Research Society Bulletin by an archaeologist who participated in Vermont's 1977 study. The single sample came from a soil mound covering a stone chamber designated "#3", and indicated a date of 545 BCE ±190 years. From the context of its position within the fill of the structure, the most reasonable conclusion was that the charcoal was preexisting when the structure was covered with soil during its construction. In all probability, the researchers concluded, it was from an old forest fire, and could not reasonably be offered up as proof that humans were building fires inside the structures so long ago. It's easy to dig a bit and find ancient charcoal from old forest fires in every forest in the world.

A simpler way of dating the stone structures is simply to date the trees growing within them. If these structures were indeed thousands of years old, then at least a few would have trees thousands of years old growing through them. However the 1977 study found no tree older than 126 years, as determined by coring them and counting the rings. This tells us that of the surviving stone structures — at least those within Vermont included in this survey — none had been abandoned by their users any earlier than 1851. In other words, all existing dating evidence is perfectly consistent with their use by colonial settlers, and no evidence has yet surfaced supporting any earlier date.

Regarding the supposed astronomical alignment, it is true that many of the stone chambers have their doors facing east. This is to most efficiently admit the morning sunlight so it's easier to go in and find what you need. No evidence suggests any deeper purpose.

It's often mentioned that the colonial literature makes no mention of farmers building stone root cellars, which does seem to be the case. However this is very poor evidence. A commonplace minor farm structure would hardly be remarkable enough to be included in print, and this is the reason why we don't see the descriptions of barns or outhouses in the colonial literature either. It can also be argued that ancient stone chambers found on the farms would be more remarkable to the colonists, and more likely to be written about. In any case, a lack of written record does not prove minor structures weren't used, any more than the lack of documentation of what the farmers wore each day forces us to conclude that they farmed in the nude.

Archaeologists make no claim that they know everything there is to know about the stone chambers. There are certainly a small percentage of them that are not configured to be root cellars, and a few have been identified as wells, as storage for other things, and even a few for which they're not sure. But the range of uncertainty is small, and it does not extend to the possibility that all known history of the Americas is wrong. When you hear any alternative history supported only by a small fringe of non-experts, you should always be skeptical.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Mysterious Stone Chambers of New England." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 2 Oct 2018. Web. 19 Oct 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4643>

 

References & Further Reading

Feder, K. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014. 137-142.

Fell, B. America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World. New York: Quadrangle, 1976.

Kilgannon, C. "Putnam's Mysterious Chambers of Stone." The New York Times. 22 Apr. 2001, Newspaper.

Lord, B. "Lost Histories: The Story of New England’s Stone Chambers." Northern Woodlands. 22 Dec. 2013, Winter 2013.

Neudorfer, G. Vermont's Stone Chambers: An Inquiry into Their Past. Montpelier: Vermont Historical Society, 1980.

Whittall, J. "Archaeological Survey, Dry Stone Chamber, WD-16, Windham County, Vermont, Preliminary Report." Early Sites Research Society Bulletin. 1 Jan. 1979, Volume 7, Number 1: 2-11.

 

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