the Concord MagazineOctober '98

Sacred Landscapes: Prehistoric or Not?, #2

By Peter Waksman, a Concord resident with a passion for prehistory, tramping through the woods, and wondering who used them before recorded history. Part 2 of 3. See Part 1 here.

(click on the photos for an enlarged view)

Walk in the places described below -- or in almost any woodland in New England -- and with a little sensitivity and curiosity you will find locations that suggest a sacred use of the landscape in the past, and sometimes also in the present.

This time, we will take a visit to a sacred woodland on Pine Hill in Concord, Stone Embrasures at Great Brook Farm in Carlisle, and the Potato Cave in Acton. (See at right for a list of sites still to come in the November issue.)

A Sacred Woodland on Pine Hill, Concord
On the back side of Pine Hill, there was a small community. There are remnants of old roads and house foundations. The foundations are rectangular pits in the ground (left) with occasional stonework.

Walking into the woodland, the first thing you notice is a large glacial erratic boulder (top right). On closer inspection, there is a bit of stone wall jutting out to the right of the boulder. In the foreground (underneath a branch) is an Indian corn grinding bowl. So here in this woodland is a Native American presence, mixed with more traditional colonial features.

Continuing our walk inward, we see typical signs of quarrying (second from top, right). If you look closely you can still see the steel drill holes along the top edge of the rock face.

And then, across the old road from another foundation pit, we see a small pile of rocks on top of a larger rock. Looking down at this stone (left) pile, it is hard to escape the impression that this represents a seated woman: with head, breasts, and torso above crossed legs. You have to turn your head to see it.

We notice a few other things before leaving, including manitou stones shaped like early gravestones in the stone wall (right). To find out more about "manitou stones" see Manitou - The Sacred Landscape of New England's Native Civilization by James Mavor and Byron Dix.

Stone Embrasures at Great Brook Farm, Carlisle
This is a complex site at this state forest, which is open to the public. As you enter the farm driveway and park, get out and walk all the way to the end of the field behind the farm. Go to the northeastern corner of this field and head into the woods and uphill. You will see bedrock ridges and gullies in between.

Walk eastward up a few of these gullies and you will soon come across beautifully constructed stone embrasures, made from the local schist bedrock which splits in flat plates. We met a woman earlier who, as a long time explorer of the woods around Great Brook Farm, had researched these and other structures in the libraries of Carlisle and Concord. It was she who directed me to the location of the embrasures, saying that the only reference she and her husband could find was to Bronson Alcott's "Farm in Lowell" which was part of the "Underground Railway". This part of Carlisle was part of Lowell at the time. She described underground chambers that I did not find, and the embrasures I did find would mostly be appropriate for a person seated but not prone. So I question that this explains these stone structures.

From the top of one ridge down into a gully, there is a sequence of embrasures. Some overlook the gully at the top, some seemed to define "stations" between the top and the bottom. Note the little cairn of rocks against the skyline in the photo at top right.

Notice how the picture at left shows an un-enclosed space defined by three propped-up plates of rock, seats perhaps.

In the second picture at right, notice how the stonework blends so naturally in with the bedrock ridge.

One embrasure -- shown in the third photo at right from the entrance -- from the middle and from the exit, seems entirely defined by a large shaped rock at its center. One notices the entrance and that, walking into it, one is led around the central rock. I imagine making an offering on the way past.

If you find this embrasure, notice the strategic placement of small bits of quartz or light feldspar shining against the gray schist background (forth photo from top). One fragment locates the exit (in the foreground of the picture), one is at the center stone built into the embrasure. Another is a fedlspar cobble lying loose in the dead leaves (lower left of picture). Take time to look at the shape of the central rock.

I have never found, but have been told about many other features at Great Brook Farm which suggest the sacred. The most famous is a stone turtle, but there are also stone seats and (apparently) underground chambers. You might discover these yourself.

The Potato Cave, Acton
This is an underground chamber in Acton, named this way because of the assumption that this was a colonial root cellar. It is a dry stone structure built without mortar in a post-and-lintel style: vertical support walls and large flat cap stones bridging straight across between the walls. On the outside, all you see is a fern-covered mound and a dark hole (top photo, right). The stone over the door is falling down and this chamber is not in good shape.

The Potato Cave is part of the town of Acton's "Nashoba Brook Conservation Land". To get to it, go east on Rt. 27 from Rt. 2A, right on Northbriar, take the next right and go to the end of the street. Park and walk over the hill and down along the property boundary, at the bottom go right 20 yards and look to the right. If you visit it, please respect it's fragility.

As you go in, you see damage along the left wall (second photo, right). You proceed inward for 10 feet and then turn right into a side area. The plan is of an up-side-down "L" with the entrance at the bottom of the main stem. It is a good idea to have a candle or a flashbulb on your camera, because it is very dark with your back to the entrance.

Archeologist Mark Strohmeyer of Arlington first publicized the Potato Cave because of his belief that it is pre-colonial or at least not colonial. The architecture is similar to some Neolithic chambers in Britain, and when he sat inside the chamber at sunrise on the winter solstice (December 21), he saw what he was hoping to see: The first rays of light entered the chamber through a small triangular opening to the side of the entrance (bottom photo). When the first ray of light enters, it falls against the back wall where it tracks along the edge of a lighter diamond shaped rock, and then vanishes. You can see the triangular opening in the picture. There is a similar feature next to the entrance at Newgrange in Ireland.

Whatever the origin of the unenclosed structure, it is a unique location in Acton. There is supposed to be another underground chamber in Concord, in Estabrook Woods. There are probably thousands of such structures in New England and eastern New York state but they are being destroyed at a rapid pace by development. To dismiss them as "just colonial root cellars" is at best an injustice to the colonial farmers (since the construction is beautiful); at worst it may be ignoring an extraordinary prehistoric resource. These chambers need protection from an uninterested and unaware community.

To find out more about sacred sites in New England, visit, or read Manitou - The Sacred Landscape of New England's Native Civilization by James Mavor and Byron Dix. The sites shown were found by exploring a very small fraction of the woods within a radius of perhaps 10 miles, so there must be a great deal more waiting to be found.

(part 2 of 3....see part 1)
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The details are important in the photos below; click on each for an enlarged view.
Pine Hill photos:

Great Brook Farm photos:

Potato Cave photos:

One More Visit to Come

In the next issue of this magazine, we will visit:

  • A scared spring in Littleton
  • A petroglyph near Hanscom Air Force Base
  • A stone turtle in Acton See the first installment of this series here.

  • Text and photos: ©1998 Peter Waksman.
    Other Images: Hee Yun's Little Home.

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