Real Life Adventures: America’s Stonehenge
There is a hill in Salem, NH which has sparked a great deal of conversation for more than a century. Stone chambers, standing menhirs purportedly aligned with astronomical events, and a table some believe was used in sacrificial rituals are built atop and into the side of this hill. For many years it was called “Mystery Hill,” but in recent decades it is known as “America’s Stonehenge.”
On a rainy day in September, I found myself returning to America’s Stonehenge. I last climbed that hill four decades ago when I visited it as a child on a family vacation. Now, many years older and hopefully wiser, but still possessing a deep affection for both the weird and for anything crafted from stone (see my Real Life Adventures piece on Opus 40) as evidence of Mike’s endless enjoyment whenever somebody stacks rocks together), I had returned to Mystery Hill to see if my memory aligned with the reality.
Gamers of a certain age may remember Mystery Hill from their childhood. It was one of the many “historical curiosities” that turned up on 1970s-era paranormal TV shows, most famously in an episode of In Search of… hosted by Leonard Nimoy. Who built the stone chambers and erected the standing stones has been the focus of the discussion around America’s Stonehenge since nearly the birth of the 20th century. Everyone from the Phoenicians to Celtic monks to Native American tribes have been suggested as the originators of the site. A less fanciful and, in this author’s opinion, more probable explanation lies in the 18th and 19th century farmers who lived in the area. To the operators of American’s Stonehenge’s credit, they have ceased attributing the site to any specific culture or time period these days, instead leaning more into the “mystery” of Mystery Hill. America’s Stonehenge is a roadside attraction, with all the good and bad such places have to offer—entrance to and exit from America’s Stonehenge is via the gift shop if that gives you any idea—but like other tourist traps, it can make for a fun hour or two if you turn off the adult part of your brain and let childhood wonder take control.
Regardless of who constructed the site, it bears visiting, especially if you’re share the same fascination I do for old, odd stonework in the American Northeast. America’s Stonehenge consists of more than a dozen stone chambers. Some, such as the ones attributed to the Pattee family who owned the land, are clearly the remnants of a farmhouse’s cellar, but others looks like they could easily be ancient English or European barrows.
The most impressive of these chambers is the so-called “Oracle’s Chamber,” a narrow, T-shaped chamber roughly ten feet deep. Niches are set in the walls of the chamber, one of which is just under a stone-lined tube leading to platform above the Chamber. It is this tube that gives the chamber its name. Some people speculate the tube served in religious rites, with a priest speaking through it to make the voice of some unknown deity resound from the beneath another curious artifact present on the site: the “Sacrificial Table.”
The Sacrificial Table is probably the feature of America’s Stonehenge that has caused the greatest discussion. The first time you see it, you have no trouble believing that this was used in some form of gruesome sacrifice. It is a large stone slab standing about waist-high. A gutter is carved into the tabletop, leading to a drain on one side, just what you need to funnel that pesky blood for easy collection and so it doesn’t stain one’s priestly vestments. The speaking tube from the Oracle’s Chamber terminates in this area and there’s no wonder the two are intricately entwined in the site’s mythology. Unfortunately for those breathlessly imagining human sacrifices under a full moon long ago, the sacrificial table’s design resembles lye-leaching stones used to extract lye from ashes and cider press tables used for crushing apples by early farmers. The site’s operators have stepped back from the proclaiming the table’s role in blood sacrifices, renaming it the “Grooved Table” in the official tour material, but the signage on the site still directs visitors to the Sacrificial Table. Perhaps a little too well, in fact, because in 2019, a QAnon member defaced the stone and was later arrested. The table has since been restored.
After viewing the chambers and table, visitors can climb up to a low observation tower to see the ring of standing stones surrounding the site. Several of these stones are said to align with sunrise and sunset on various dates, such as the winter solstice or fall and spring equinoxes. I’ll let more educated minds weigh in on whether these do in fact possess any astronomical significance, but more than a few of the stones look exactly like every other stone in the area, leading one to speculate whether design or happenstance is responsible.
Archeological work on the site has been extremely limited, but what has been done hasn’t revealed any evidence of pre-Columbian occupation and use. The area was a stone quarry at one point and the stones on the hill were “repaired” by William Goodwin, who purchased the land in 1937. All of this gives more credence to the possibility that there is no true mystery at Mystery Hill, just good marketing. However, it is a fun place to unleash your imagination for a bit and you can easily see the site in an hour…maybe a little longer if you visit the alpaca farm.
Be sure to experience our other adventures in reality in our Real Life Adventures series!