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.
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.
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.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito