The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 19, 2004


Historical Society looks back, way back
Turtle effigies and rocking stones: Indian rock formations in Carlisle

All around you — as you drive to the library, stop at the post office, ride the bus to school there are the remnants of ancient peoples. Centuries before the first English footstep, there was a thriving culture here, a culture entirely unlike our own.

This rock formation, known as Turtle Rock, is in Great Brook Farm State Park. The head is protruding to the right and the indentation that forms the eye is dark with the snow around it. (Courtesy photo)
In the deep quiet of Carlisle's swamps, on its fertile flood plains and sloping hillsides they hunted, worked and worshipped. They were not unlike any of our ancestors, living so long ago that they were witnesses to the effects of the retreating glaciers. They felt the earthquakes that resulted from an earth freed of its burden of ice and saw the sudden torrents of meltwater released from thawing glaciers. They trod paths over the landscape, hunted game to stay alive, and tried to gain a sense of mastery over a chaotic world. Because they worked in stone — a substance not of centuries, but of millennia some of their handiwork remains.

Some theorize that they were a spiritual people, a superstitious people. Assaulted by disease, cold, accidents, animals, and famine, with few defenses but their wits, the work of their hands, and the precious knowledge accumulated and passed down through generations, they sought harmony and balance in their environment and their lives. What was predictable in their world? The rising of the sun, the arc of the moon, sunrises and sunsets, the variations of the seasons. Their world was elemental, made up of soil, sunlight, rock, wood, flesh. The heavens above them loomed large with importance, because nothing was more predictable than the movements of the planets and stars. They lived outdoors, so the arrangement of the stars was an integral part of their nights. Did they find assurance in their foretold movements? Did they give respect and thanks to the spirits ruling over these things?

If they found assurance in the heavens, in rocks and stones they found the stability of earth and a connection with the spirit world. A boulder, for instance, projects into the earthly world, but is rooted in the soil, perhaps an underworld. These early inhabitants believed every rock, plant, animal, or element was imbued with a spirit. The post-glacial world in which they lived was dominated by rocks and stones, from the till that makes up our soil, to the serpentine mounds called eskers, to misplaced erratics, random boulders picked up in one location and set down in another. In their use of rocks we can read their historical record — a puzzling one to contemporary minds.

A "perched" rock on a Carlisle hilltop. Sited on an outcropping of ledge (now covered with pine needles), the larger stone is propped up on the smaller quarried block. The large stone is aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. (Photo by Marjorie Johnson)

If you are near the Town Hall or walking the trails at Great Brook Farm State Park, you are in the vicinity of some of these sites. They can be found in the wetlands, on the sides of hills, and often in conjunction with the many springs in town. Here can be found rock formations in the shape of animals or bowls; others are thought to be directional, acting as guideposts for travelers at a time when roads and landmarks were non-existent. Still others form alignments anchored from one formation to another; others toward astronomical sites, such as the point where the sun rises on the morning of the winter solstice.

Carlisle's rural nature, difficult agricultural climate, and controlled development have allowed these formations to remain undisturbed. Many others throughout New England have been destroyed as a result of building or were perhaps dismantled by farmers. Sometimes they are barely recognizable and appear to be just a random collection of rocks; in that case it can require a practiced eye to identify them. Others are clearly of man-made construction, what archaeologist Curtis Hoffman identifies as "rocks placed with intention."

Some formations were constructed on sacred sites, places where these early Indians believed spirits dwelt. Hillsides with running springs, glacial swamps, and areas scorched by frequent lightning strikes all seemed to have special significance. Here you might find the suggestion of a human or animal form constructed of rocks, or perhaps a turtle with shell, legs, and a beaked head. Through these formations, found in the same places where they were laid thousands of years ago, well before the arrival of the first Europeans, we can reach back and make contact with those who preceded us on this land. Through interpretation we can attempt to understand their lives, beliefs, and appreciation for the place we now call Carlisle.

For More information

If you are interested in learning more about these formations and current scholarship in the field, go to, the website of the New England Antiquities Research Association. The Carlisle Historical Society is beginning to address this period in Carlies's history and will be looking for interested volunteers to help unravel the ongoing mystereries in this new and exciting field.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito