Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Monday, January 28, 2013


Yesterday we watched a documentary on what is now being called "America's Stonehenge," in Salem, New Hamphire.  When I was a kid living a few towns down, it was called "Mystery Hill"; before my time it was called "Pattee's Cave," after the farmer who owned the property in the 19th century.  It's an interesting site whose importance and history have apparenly been conflated for years.

Mystery Hill, the name I grew up with and with which I am most familiar, contains a number  of large stones in various formations.  Well, the stones are not that large when compared to England's Stonehenge, but a number of them weigh a few tons.  The stones leading down to the main site are placed vertically -- which we are told is something common with ancient Celtic sites.  Some of the stones are arranged to mark the soltices and other astrological events.  There is also a large flat rock with runnels that has been claimed to be a sacrificial site, the runnels to catch the blood an deliver it to a bowl that ciould be placed at the bottom of the rock.  A nearby room made of stone has a six-foot deep opening leading to the sacrificial altar and which could be used as a speaking tube, allowing the voice of a priest (or a god?) to echo through the ceremony.  Heady stuff for the younger me.  Heady stuff, also, we have been told, for H. P. Lovecraft, who, we have also been told, visited the site several times and was greatly affected by it.

Yeah.  Well...

From Pattee's time the site was known for its boulders.  Pattee used to take in paupers (presumably being paid to do so by the town) and he used a number of spots around his farm for storage.  In the 1930s, a man named William Goodwin became obsessed with the idea of the stones were proof that pre-Columbian Irish monks had settled the area.   Goodwin bought the site in 1937, changed the name to Mystery Hill and began promoting the site to match his beliefs.  (Evidently, he also moved a number of the stones to better match his theories.   The family of the current owners bought the site in the mid-Fifties an have been promoting the hell out of it ever since.  The term America's Stonehenge first was used in a newspaper article in the Sixties and the family co-opted the name for the site officially in 1982.  Never mind that there was no connection with the British Stonehenge, thhis was a catchy name for the tourist attraction.  (But wait!  Where's there's a PR opportunity, there's a way.  In a little bit, I'll get to the newly "discovered" connection with Stonehenge.)

Just about everything at Mystery Hill can be explained by normal farm usage in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as by the over-eager actions by a select few to move a few stones around to fit preconceived theories.  But what, you ask, about that terrible sacrificial altar?  Most likely this was a lye-leaching stone, used to drain lye from wood ashes as one of the first steps to make soap -- a common practice in Colonial New England.  This saddens me because the sacrificial altar story had gotten my adolescent imagination a-spinning.  Another myth exploded.  **sigh**

And Lovecraft?  I believe I did read in one of his letters about his visiting Mystery Hill.  Lovecraft died in March of the same year that Goodwin bought the site and named it Mystery Hill.  So the Mystery Hill name may have preceded Goodwin's purchase.  Whatever the name of the site, its presumed reputation would have interested Lovecraft, although I do not think that there is any evidence that Mystery Hill was a great influence on Lovecraft's writing -- except, that is, in publicity originating from the owners of Mystery Hill themselves.  (Come to think of it, at one time I purchased a small booklet there that purported to trace Mystery Hill's influence on Lovecraft;  the booklet was vague and unconvincing as I remember.  I can't find any mention of the booklet on Worldcat or any other sources I just checked.)

The television show we watched featured something called a forensic geologist, a hoo-rah cheerleader for archeoastronomy who was more than eager to accept anything that was told him.  The owner's son told him about a experiment he did with Google Earth, tracing the summer solstice line originating at Mystery Hill (excuse me, America's Stonehenge) eastward.  Damned if that line didn't go straight through Stonehenge in England!  Damned-er even, when following that selfsame line further eastward it landed smack-dab in Beruit!  Yes, Beruit.  Where the Phoenicians came from (we are told).  Yep, them self-same Phoenicians who gave us the alphabet.  I have no idea what this all means, but the forensic geologist (or whatever he was) thought this was the bee's knees and something of monumental importance.  A straight line that goes directly from Southern New Hamshire to Beiruit with a side stop in the center of Stonehenge, and following the path of the summer soltice, well...that is pretty monumental.

Maybe a future show will focus on Mystery Hill's neighbor to the south, the Westford Knight in Westford, Massachusetts, another pseudoarcheological site, this one offering "proof" the the Knights Templar visited our shores in pre-Columbian times.

O, for the days when television documentaries were actual documentaries!

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