The enduring elegance and mystery of stone walls: Who built them and why at the heart of an ongoing debate
Lace up your hiking boots, grab a trekking pole and set out on a woodland stroll anywhere in eastern Connecticut or western Rhode Island, and before long you will encounter a stone wall.
Sometimes, it may seem obvious that the wall had been built by an 18th- or 19th-century farmer to clear a field, construct a foundation, or to keep domesticated animals in or wild animals out — but what about an isolated, winding strand of rocks stacked high on a ledge, or leading into a swamp, far from any place anyone would ever build a house, grow crops or raise animals? Why bother lugging all those boulders up and down hills for no apparent purpose?
These questions are at the heart of an ongoing, sometimes contentious debate between those archaeologists/academics who are rooted in the colonial-farmer narrative, and amateur historians who believe Native Americans built these walls and other stone structures much earlier for spiritual reasons.
Recently, I went on hikes in the region with two passionate advocates of this latter viewpoint, Markham Starr of North Stonington and Carl Tjerandsen of Ledyard.
Starr said that, for years, he strolled the woods near his home “and always assumed all the walls I saw were built by farmers.” But five years ago, after joining a walk led by Doug Schwartz of Groton, vice president of the New England Antiquities Research Association who for nearly three decades has studied stone structure origins, Starr began to notice similar patterns that supported the notion of native spirituality over colonial practicality.
“I’d see cairns with a piece of quartz on top, or laid up in spiral patterns,” Starr said. Then there were “serpent walls,” which resemble snakes and evoke visions of the mythic creatures early natives believe traversed between the land of the living and the netherworld.
Starr said if he saw only one or two of these distinctive designs, he might have thought it merely a coincidence, but after observing “the same thing over and over and over again,” he realized there had to be a better explanation.
Starr, a documentary photographer and author of a dozen books on topics ranging from dairy farms to commercial fishing to building a Greenland kayak, spent the next five years hiking every weekend through the woods of southeastern Connecticut and beyond, covering nearly 900 miles. He photographed some 8,000 constructions and kept voluminous notes, and in 2016, he published his most recent book, “Ceremonial Stonework: The Enduring Native American Presence on the Land.”
“While archaeological evidence shows the first people in New England inhabited the landscape for more than 12,000 years, newly landed colonists from Europe immediately dismissed Native American spiritual practices as pagan rituals to be destroyed or silenced through Christianization. Although disease, war, and other troubles brought to the continent nearly annihilated the indigenous population, the physical manifestations of Native beliefs, wrought in stone, were often ignored. Still standing witness to the strength of their spiritual lives, the stone objects they created remain scattered across the New England landscape,” he writes.
While traipsing with me on trails in North Stonington, Preston and Griswold, Starr and Tjerandsen pointed out several examples of what they identified as native constructions. Among them were stone chambers that resemble semi-subterranean, stone igloos, and “serpent walls” that appear to undulate among the trees, point to water sources or cracks in the earth, and feature distinctive snake-like heads.
“They weren’t built this way by accident,” Tjerandsen said, adding that it’s important not only to acknowledge their significance and earlier origins, but also to preserve them.
“That’s where it gets tricky,” Brian D. Jones, the Connecticut state archaeologist, later said in a telephone interview.
When it comes to preservation, Jones said his office relies on recommendations by the state-mandated Native American Heritage Advisory Council, which includes representatives of the Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Pawcatuck Eastern Pequot and other Connecticut tribes.
While the council has sought preservation measures for burial grounds and additional sacred sites, it has yet to suggest such protection be extended to the walls and chambers that Starr, Tjerandsen, Schwartz and others have advocated, Jones said.
Jones, who assists the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and Connecticut Archaeology Center staff in planning archaeological exhibits and programs and curate the University of Connecticut’s anthropological collections, did not dismiss the possibility some of these structures may have native provenance.
But Jones said he’s reluctant to push for protections solely at the suggestion of non-natives, adding, “I’m still a little skeptical; it’s open to interpretation.”
Jones also said his office already firmly advocates preserving old walls, regardless of who built them.
“We say, leave them there and try not to disturb them,” he said.
Schwartz, whose New England Antiquities Research Association promotes the Native origin theory, scoffs at what he sees as state intransigence to accept anything other than colonial-centric interpretation.
“Archaeologists are so parochial — all their research is based on excavation,” he said.
Schwartz cited written records establishing the existence of native ceremonial walls, including a Jan. 20, 1788, letter from Noah Webster to Rev. Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale College, in which Webster describes old burial mounds.
He said Native Americans have a long history of ceremonial and spiritual stonework, noting that it’s particularly prevalent in this region due to the abundance of building material. Eons of tectonic activity along ductile and brittle faults, followed by extensive glaciation, created an unlimited supply of rocks, as anyone in southeastern Connecticut who has ever stuck a shovel in the ground realizes.
“There’s more stonework in New London County than just about anywhere else in the East,” Schwartz said. The entire Northeast, he noted, has long been an epicenter of stone construction.
In 1939 a mining engineer named Oliver Bowles, using U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, estimated there were more than a quarter-million miles of stone walls in the Northeast — mostly in New England.
For Starr, the North Stonington author-photographer, that’s one more reason to believe farmers weren’t the only ones to build such walls. Each colonial farmer would have had to construct four miles of walls a day over a period of 200 years to produce such a vast network, Starr said.
I’m neither a geologist nor a historian with academic credentials, but as one who has devoted countless hours over the decades building my own stone walls, towers, steps and trails, I respect both sides’ mission to preserve these lithic vestiges.
I don’t enclose animals or attach spiritual significance to my labors; I simply enjoy using prybars, levers, fulcrums, cribbing and chains to move big rocks and create various structures. I’m comforted by the solid feel of stone steps underfoot; a stone cairn framed by evergreens enhances the view of the forest; well-maintained, stone-lined trails are much more inviting than trampled paths.
I may be intrigued by the provenance of stone walls, but more important, I see them as a path toward immortality. They endure.