December 23, 2016 11:20AM
By CYNTHIA DRUMMOND
Sun Staff Writer
HOPKINTON — Researchers from the New England Antiquities Research Association are describing a Hopkinton Land Trust property that includes hundreds of rock croppings as one of the most significant sites they’ve ever found.
The field of of stone structures on a wooded property on Lawton Foster Road in Hopkinton first gained notoriety in 2013, when the owners of the land proposed subdividing it into house lots.
Neighbors, historians, the Hopkinton Conservation Commission and the Narragansett Indian Tribe objected on the grounds that the stones were of possible spiritual significance or, at the very least, of historic value. A deal was reached, and in December 2014, the land trust bought 14 acres of the property, protecting the stones forever. The structures are now being documented.
Harvey Buford, chairman of the Hopkinton Conservation Commission, said he was pleased that the town had recognized that the site was worth preserving, even though no one could determine exactly what the structures were constructed for.
“The Planning Board, the land trust, everybody recognized that this was in some way a very significant property. It’s nebulous. It’s old stuff, and we don’t know the story,” he said.
Lorén Spears, a member of the Narragansett Tribe and director of the Tomaquag Museum, said it was possible that the land had served as a meeting place for Native Americans, including the Niantic, Narragansett and Pequot tribes.
“There were different places in which you had these meeting sites,” she said. “Some rock croppings that I’ve been to, we know through our oral tradition were meeting sites for council people, leaders from different communities, different villages within the same nation, and also leaders from other tribal nations.”
Spears added: “Hopkinton is a rural town, and as a rural town it has had less displacement of historic sites. In big places like cities, they’re buried underneath the City of Providence and underneath the City of Warwick.”
Steve DiMarzo and Todd Carden of the New England Antiquities Research Association have been documenting the structures since 2012. So far they have found about 700.
“This site is significant,” Di Marzo said. “We believe it’s ceremonial and sacred and part of a place where the Narragansett Tribe has come for many generations.”
“I didn’t expect what we’ve found,” Carden said. “We’ve never found a more densely packed, small area as far as cairns (rock croppings) go … the artistry of how the stones are placed, it seems like there’s meaning in where they’re placed. Some people say that stones tell stories, and it’s true.”
DiMarzo sends photographs and GPS coordinates of every structure to Massachusetts-based historians John and Mary Gage, who have been researching stone structures throughout the Northeastern since 1992. The Gages are preparing a report for the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission’s archaeology program.
DiMarzo said it was important to document the structures.
“Once this stuff is destroyed, all the history is gone, so we feel it’s imperative to document as many structures as we can, send them to the right people to analyze and to figure out what they are. We’re honored to be able to work with the Town of Hopkinton in any way possible to help preserve and protect the stone structures,” he said.
Many of the structures, which researchers have marked with small red flags, are carefully stacked stone piles, or cairns. John Gage described some of the many designs found on the site.
“Fifteen distinct designs were found: mound, vertical walled, open-end/closed-end, on top trails to ground, one on top of boulder, two on top of boulder, three on top of boulder, four on top of boulder, five on top of boulder, multi-stone non-mound, split wedge, split stone, rock stack, attached to boulder, and single layer on top of boulder,” he wrote in an email. Gage noted that the structures did not appear to have been created by farmers removing stones from fields.
“The analysis goes deeper by looking for features such as triangular stones intentionally used, and at this site, tunnels under the cairn,” he wrote. “Another feature is a tiny stone placed in between large stones. Each of the features was repeatedly found. That shows intentionality on the part of the builders. No farmer is going to be creative in piling up discarded stones. The features prove these stone piles are Native American ceremonial cairns.”
Buford said the Conservation Commission would be opening hiking trails in less sensitive sections of the property, and would post information asking visitors to respect the stone structures.
“From a Conservation Commission perspective, we’re interested in preserving these properties, but we’re also interested in opening up trails,” he said. “That brings us to the question of what do you do when people see these things? How do you inform people? We’ve drafted an archaeological and sacred-sites etiquette guide which we are hoping to put up on our trail head kiosk.”