Region's rocky landscape offers rich lode of history

Canterbury - So many people showed up for a talk about stone landscapes at the Prudence Crandall Museum Sunday that several guests were left standing in the hallway to listen, even after the staff packed extra chairs into room where State Historic Preservation Officer Daniel Forrest was giving the presentation.

The talk discussed the stone features found throughout southeastern Connecticut - walls, piles, chambers and more - and the people and possible motivations behind their creation.

"Archaeology is not the study of stuff," said Forrest, "it's the study of people."

Glaciers left many rocks in this region's soil, said Forrest, including an especially large number in Stonington, which is a glacial marine. There's a "really wicked stony landscape down there," said Forrest, of Stonington.

The stones remained close to the surface in Connecticut's thin soil and usually get in the way when a farmer tries to turn the soil, said Forrest. The common belief for many people is that Connecticut's stone features were created by early farmers who needed to get the rocks out of the way.

That is almost certainly the case with some of the features, but Forrest reminded the audience that Native Americans were active in this area starting at least 5,000 years ago, possibly more, and many of the features were created by that community.

There is a tendency to take a look at the features that seem to have a rational purpose and ascribe them to European settlers, leaving the rest to Native Americans, said Forrest, which he said "is almost certainly incorrect."

That tendency is "one of the hidden dangers in the way these discussions develop at times," said Forrest.

The State Historic Preservation Office is responsible for designating sacred sites, which it then takes action to protect. Determining whether a site is sacred to another culture is a very "delicate" thing, according to Forrest, who said there is significant disagreement within and outside of tribes about which features are considered sacred.

Forrest discussed possible explanations of several structures seen around southeastern Connecticut, cautioning audience members to refrain from being too outlandish when considering the possible origin of the stone features.

"There is a natural tendency … for people to be drawn to fantastic interpretations about things they don't understand on the landscape," explained Forrest, who said he has gotten his share of emails about features supposedly created by space aliens.

To illustrate the point, he discussed two circles of stone found at Gungywamp in Groton that look like an altar, complete with grooves in the bedrock that appear to be for liquid. Some people, said Forrest, call it a "blood altar" or think it is an American Stonehenge.

In all likelihood, according to Forrest, the explanation of the site is simpler and more mundane. It contains features reminiscent of a bark mill, a type of mill common in the tanneries in southeastern Connecticut communities that were once used to make leather. Although the circular feature appears to be missing a socket where a stick would be inserted to grind the bark, Forrest said the socket may have been carved into a stone that was later moved.

Although Forrest is dismissive of space aliens and blood altars, he also reminded the audience not to be overly rational when consider the stone features' origins. Sometimes non-efficient systems persist for years, he reminded them. And sometimes people just do weird things.

Some unusual features "might have been (created by) just one kind of oddball individual," he said, like the neighbor who places strange sculptures in his backyard.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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