Native Insight: Seeking the Mystery Stone’s unclear origins

  • The four sides of the “Mystery Stone of Winnipesaukee” depict elaborate carvings that experts claim could not have been created by Native Americans. Contributed photo/New Hampshire Historical Society

  • The four sides of the “Mystery Stone of Winnipesaukee” depict elaborate carvings that experts claim could not have been created by Native Americans. Contributed photo/New Hampshire Historical Society

  • The four sides of the “Mystery Stone of Winnipesaukee” depict elaborate carvings that experts claim could not have been created by Native Americans. Contributed photo/New Hampshire Historical Society

  • The four sides of the “Mystery Stone of Winnipesaukee” depict elaborate carvings that experts claim could not have been created by Native Americans. Contributed photo/New Hampshire Historical Society

  • SANDERSON

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/23/2018 4:52:47 PM

Back to that Winnipesaukee Mystery Stone with additional, interesting tidbits that have piled willy-nilly upon my desk and occupied my thoughts following telephone conversations with folks who know much more than I do about the subject of Native American artifacts and stone carving.

First, the goose-egg-sized, polished stone is a type of quartzite that’s harder than granite and not native to New Hampshire, where it was unearthed from a depth of six feet by an 1872 worker digging a fence post hole in Meredith, N.H. Not only is the stone harder than granite, it’s harder than steel, thus making it difficult to carve. Experts have studied it and concluded that such execution and relief has never before been found on a Native American artifact, which would seem to rule out that origin, even if a clever Native artisan had access to metal tools.

“I’m not going to say it’s impossible an Indian carved it,” said paleontologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly after viewing a series of six detailed photos furnished by the New Hampshire Historical Society Museum in Concord, N.H., “but I’ve never seen anything close to the sophistication of that carving in a Native context.”

Another veteran archaeologist, Dr. Peter A. Thomas, agreed. Although he, like everyone who’s studied it, found the artifact interesting indeed, even intriguing, the execution baffled him and led him to conclude a Native American could not have carved it.

Enter retired gemologist, neighbor and friend Richard Shortell, a student of stones and stone carving, not to mention an occasional yet quite sophisticated Native American artifact collector. After zooming in on photos and reading the accompanying narratives, he said he wasn’t buying a Native American origin. “I say those images were carved by a 19th-century Italian stone-carver from Barre, Vt.,” he joked. “It’s not that old, and not Native American.”

The Shortell assessment is particularly interesting. In December, he had a totally different reaction when shown a portable petroglyph depicting two human faces with triangular torsos carved into a steatite potsherd. This 3,000-year-old artifact was a steatite potsherd reworked into a three-holed pendant. He held the artifact, looked at both sides and dug out a jeweler’s glass to inspect the magnified tooling. Visibly impressed, if not amazed, he said, “Wow! I have never seen anything like this It’s very old and has a very powerful aura when held. This is the real deal.” That from a man who viewed many interesting items from around the world while operating his successful San Francisco jewelry business.

Unfamiliar with Shortell’s opinion, Gramly, in a later telephone conversation, reiterated his reluctance to totally rule out a Native American origin for the Mystery Stone, jesting, “If it was executed by an Indian carver, then he or she must have been of mixed blood and probably of the 19th century.”

This observation was fueled by what he called wild 19th-century reports about giants and little people, and many mysterious and questionable discoveries that got a lot of play in the news of the day.

Both of my sources, Gramly and Thomas, were fascinated by Joe Graveline’s identification of the Mystery Stone as a reworked birthing stone from a Native American medicine woman or midwife’s medicine bag. Part Abenaki, Graveline — a Northfield Historical Commission member and student of local Native American history and prehistory — was introduced to the egg-shaped birthing stones by a scholarly Wampanoag woman who lives on Cape Cod. She told him of these egg-shaped internal birthing stones, leading him to the conclusion that there’s an example on display today right at Northfield’s Dickinson Memorial Library.

Heated, lubricated and placed internally to help remedy difficult births with muscle-relaxing heat, Graveline believes that was the original function of the Mystery Stone, thus the drilled hole from top to bottom for a cord. He also believes it helped deliver an important man or woman who died in a Lake Winnipesaukee village post-European contact period. After the death, this smooth, egg-shaped contraption would have been reworked into a fancy grave offering that told a story.

Neither Gramly nor Thomas had ever heard of a birthing stone, which does not mean they did not exist. Such medicinal practices may not have been shared with Old World settlers who viewed Native American spirituality and medicine as Satanic Paganism.

I’ll reserve judgment for now and continue researching the topic. I thought maybe a local blogger would help, but she did not respond to my query. I may have to seek out Graveline’s source for additional insight, if she’d part with it.

One other discussion before we go: that of written statements indicating that the images carved into the Mystery Stone are not familiar to any others associated with Native New Hampshire and New England iconography. I myself read this statement and immediately questioned its veracity, believing I had seen similar crescent moons, teepees, effigy faces, circles and circular swirls in the New England and Winnipesaukee region’s archaeological assemblage.

Sure enough, a quick trip to my bookcase produced Mary A. Proctor’s 1930 book, “The Indians of the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset Valleys.” There, right on the cover and inside on Plate XII, titled “Some of the Charms and Inscribed Stones Found (by her father and brothers) on Odell Park (in Franklin, N.H.),” were stone pendants and charms with strikingly similar crescent moons and teepees, plus faces, though much more like those on the previously mentioned pendant in my possession than the detailed, two-dimensional face on the Winnipesaukee Mystery Stone.

I must take a gander at Graveline’s Northfield birthing stone and broaden the discussion with others. It’s pure speculation at this point, but Graveline could be onto something. Then again, even if he isn’t, I’d like to at least substantiate the presence of birthing stones in an ancient Native American medicine woman’s bag of childbirth tricks. This ancient remedy for difficult births doesn’t appear to be common knowledge among experts.

Plus, investigation of important Native Americans who could have been in the lineage of whoever that stone was buried with (if indeed that’s why it was found where it was) led me to an interesting character from earliest English New England. His name was Passaconaway, called by some historians the greatest of all New England chiefs. What little I’ve read about him is fascinating indeed. I can’t resist delving deeper and sharing the most interesting information to be gleaned.

Take it to the bank: Passaconaway was no stranger to the Connecticut Valley, especially to the Sokoki (of Northfield), and likely to the Pocumtuck as well. His son was chief of a village bordering Mount Wachusett, just a hop, skip and a jump east in Nipmuck country.

Stay tuned.


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