HOPKINTON — Eric Kingman and Joyce Devine’s proposed minor subdivision of a 14-acre lot on Lawton Foster Road North would not normally attract much attention, but this Planning Board meeting drew a number of people, most of them concerned about an enigmatic feature on the land: a large field of about 100 rock cairns.
Surveyor Mark Boyer, of Boyer Associates in West Warwick, outlined the subdivision proposal at the board’s April meeting.
“The applicants are proposing to create two lots from that 14-acre parcel. Parcel A would have 11.7 acres. Parcel B would have 2.67 acres,” he said.
The property has been subdivided before. In 2003, two lots were created in the southeast corner. In 2010, another 2-acre lot was subdivided. At the time, abutters expressed concerns that the stone piles might be of spiritual or at least historic significance. Now the issue of the cairns has surfaced again.
In an effort to assess the cairns’ significance, in October 2013, Kingman and Devine contacted the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission and invited state archaeologist Timothy Ives to walk the property and examine them. Ives, along with Doug Harris, preservationist for ceremonial landscapes and deputy tribal historic preservation officer for the Narragansett Tribe, and former state archaeologist Paul Robinson visited the property on Dec. 6, 2013.
In a Dec. 12 written assessment Ives prepared at the request of the land owners, he stated that he believed the cairns were evidence of old land-clearing practices.
“This parcel contains numerous stone pile features, consisting of stones that have been stacked or piled by hand,” Ives wrote. “Constructed on varied surfaces, including the forest floor, ledge outcrops and freestanding boulders, these features vary substantially in form and size, as well as in the range of stone sizes they contain. While I cannot directly date their construction, they appear to be clearance cairns associated with past farming practices.”
But Doug Harris disagreed. Appearing at the Planning Board meeting, he referred to the cairns as “ceremonial stones” that had been “left by the ancients” on the property. He thanked Kingman and Devine for not having disturbed them, and proceeded to explain their spiritual significance.
“I have a lot of respect for my colleague in historic preservation, Timothy Ives, but he is not a specialist in tribal historic preservation or tribal culture or tribal ceremony, Narragansett or any other tribe,” Harris told the board.
The room fell silent as Harris described the spiritual meaning of the cairns to the Narragansett people.
“Stone is a vehicle for receiving and transmitting prayer. So every one of those stones, as we do in our tradition, was placed by someone, some man, some woman, in prayer. A prayer was spoken into it and placed on the earth and that was to be received by our Mother the Earth and we as her children were to be balanced and harmonized by virtue of that relationship,” he said.
“In a very different sense, it is our church. We have that kind of an intimate relationship with the landscape … Now I can’t tell you what you should do with regard to what’s on your property. I don’t have that right,” he told the landowners. “I do have a responsibility to ask of you to look for a moment through our eyes and open your spirit to what most people feel when they are in the presence of those stones.”
Tom Helmer, Hopkinton Historical Association web master and the author of a book on the area’s colonial and indigenous archaeology, told the board that he agreed with Harris that the cairn field was of spiritual significance. Helmer has taken many photographs of the cairns, which, he said, he came upon without realizing he was trespassing on private property. Those photographs were given to planning board members.
“A portion of the land in question contains a remarkable cairn field. In an area roughly 75 yards square there may be more than 100 cairns, hand placed piles of rock that carry great spiritual importance in the living culture of the indigenous peoples,” he said. “It is vital to be aware that the places shown on this page be viewed with the same respect we show for our culture’s spiritual places.”
A visibly frustrated Devine interjected several times during the hearing. She said she had done everything she could to find out more about the cairns and protect them, and did not want to be portrayed as the villain of the story.
“Whatever else it is, it has been undisturbed,” she said. “We haven’t lifted one frigging rock, and believe me, the thought has crossed our minds.”
Board Chairman Alfred DiOrio thanked Devine for leaving the cairns untouched, but he cautioned that the board had to consider their protection in the future, long after the properties are sold.
“We appreciate your stewardship, but you know as well as I the concern is not necessarily for the current property owner. You put lots up for sale, the town planning board suddenly has no say in what the next owner does. I appreciate that you haven’t done anything, but you know very well that our concern transcends your reach,” he told her.
After well over an hour of discussion, the board and the land owners agreed that it would probably be possible to build on the subdivided lots without disturbing the cairns. They also agreed that board members should walk the site to see the cairns for themselves.
“What’s the timing on this, in terms of when we need to render a decision and how much time do we have to do that in relation to when we have a site walk?” board member Howard Walker asked.
“The planning board has to vote on this by June 9, unless an extension is granted by mutual agreement with the applicant,” Town Planner James Lamphere said.
Members decided to do the site walk on April 23, before the leaves were out, so they could see the cairns more easily.
The walk will be open to the public and will begin 159 Lawton Foster Road North at 4 p.m.
The planning board will continue its review of the proposal at its May 7 meeting.