Monday, April 18, 2011

Balancing history at Pulpit Rock

Balancing Rock, Canton, Massachusetts
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
By now you have no doubt created a short list of sites to visit in Canton that demonstrate some of the local curiosities of history and geology.  Many people have followed my recent columns and report trips to the Stone Bridge or the Indian Cave. This week we plan another “trespass” to our neighbors up on York Street.
A visit to Balancing Rock, also known as Pulpit Rock.
Photo by Eliot C. French, 1912.
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
By many names, the site is the same — Pulpit Rock, Balancing Rock, or Indian Council Rock. The subject of Indian lore, local history and today controversy, this site is among our most famous geological wonders. Located on a trail within 50 yards of the cul-de-sac at the end of Village Gate Road, the rock sits on a 60-acre parcel slated for development. Actually, not just sitting; balancing. The local developer plans to preserve the site with a small park and hopes that in doing so he will encourage the support of local opposition groups to the subsequent development of the remaining parcel. Rather than wade into the controversy, let’s focus on the rock.
Not to be taken for granite, um granted, Pulpit Rock is quite large, and was placed by the retreating glaciers atop bedrock that sits as a stone promontory 100 feet above hilly land and glacial till. The exact coordinates on the GPS place us at 71d26m W, 42d10m N. The land was part of the Colonial era site known as the “Great Sheep Pasture Lot.” But, in terms of time, the significance extends back to 14,000 years ago when the Neponset River Valley was formed by the waters of glacial melt. It may be hard to imagine today, but the Neponset River was more than a mile wide and swelled to a lake wider than five miles in the Neponset Basin.
Enormous significance is given to our area by professional and amateur archaeologists. Paleoamerican artifacts that date to 10,000-12,000 BP (years before the present) have been discovered in Canton, and in one site more than 2,600 tools and projectile points have been unearthed. Canton was rich in the tools and food needed by early man to survive in a hostile and harsh New England environment. There is little doubt that prehistoric man in New England called Canton home.
Pulpit Rock serves as a superb reminder of the people that inhabited this area thousands of years before the “contact period,” that time of European contact with native populations. There is, however, no person with greater curiosity in the history of this site than the owner and developer, Patrick Considine. Many stories abound as to the importance of Pulpit Rock, and recently new and exciting theories of use and significance have emerged.
To understand the new theories about Pulpit Rock you have to understand its owner, Pat Considine. Growing up on the family farm in North Clare, Ireland, Mr. Considine was familiar with ancient stone ring forts, dolmens and megaliths. As a boy he learned that “stone formations are an important part of the history of man.” And so when he began purchasing the land off York Street that contained Pulpit Rock, he was constantly trying to square off between folklore and history. Sometimes both are so intertwined it is impossible to separate the two.
Over the past five years as Mr. Considine amassed the 60-acre parcel, he was on a continuous path to learn more about Pulpit Rock. There is little written about this site. Some theories suggest that the Puritan missionary John Eliot used Pulpit Rock as his “pulpit” to preach his cross-cultural mission of converting the native population to Christianity. The area now known as Canton was once part of Eliot’s second so-called Praying Towns — a place where the Native Americans could live apart from the English and rule themselves as a Christian society. Eliot writes “though our poore Indians are much molested in most places in their meetings in way of civilities, yet the Lord hath put it into your hearts to suffer us to meet quietly at Ponkipog for which I thank God, and am thankful to yourself and all the good people of Dorchester.”
Katherine Sullivan, then president of the
Canton Historical Society,and Edward Bolster
 lead a visit to Balancing Rock in 1972.
 (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
The Indians that settled on the 6,000 acres of the Ponkapoag Plantation certainly would have been familiar with Pulpit Rock. It is a commanding site across the land and a promontory from which folklore claims smoke signals could be seen in Sharon. But folklore was not enough for Mr. Considine, who felt the site had more significance than what had been handed down through local stories. He asked himself how he would “approach an investigation” that linked the site to pre-historic times — something that seemed elusive. On a beautiful autumn day Mr. Considine traveled to Exeter, New Hampshire and visited the New Hampshire Technical Institute and began researching standing stone sites in New England.
The seminal work on standing stones is titledManitou and tells the story of ancient Native American ritual sites across New England. The book was written by two established scientists who researched archaeoastronomy. This was the first book to examine a class of data that was ordinarily overlooked by prehistorians and is widely described as “a new research paradigm.” In Europe, especially Ireland and Britain, stone circles and megalith sites have been studied extensively for almost 50 years. In the United States, the SunWatch site near Dayton, Ohio, may date to the 1100s.
In December, Mr. Considine invited several individuals from the New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) to learn more about the prehistoric nature of Pulpit Rock. NEARA was founded in 1964 and has had plenty of experience supporting and debunking stone sites. Along on that day was Dr. Frederick Martin from Dedham. Dr. Martin is a research physicist who graduated from Yale and is active in the field of ion optics. Near the end of the day, almost as the group was leaving the site, Mr. Considine pointed out a row of stones ten feet from an ancient stone wall. These stones had been a curiosity to Mr. Considine, and the folks from NEARA became excited when they placed them in context with Pulpit Rock.
The row of stones, six feet in dimension, was aligned in the same direction and moved by humans. The second stone was what they termed a Manitou. Manitou is a word that is used by Algonquin speaking people to mean “spirit,” and these stones have been discovered across the New England landscape. The Manitou is similar in shape to a Colonial headstone and placed in places of great spiritual power. At Pulpit Rock the series of stones is aligned with magnetic north, and the theories that are emerging include the fact that this site may have been used to keep track of the passage of a year and possibly in connection with ceremony.
“There is a stone on which you can stand and see the Winter Solstice sun set over Pulpit Rock,” Dr. Martin said. “There is another stone that allows you to see the moon set at predictable intervals.” In essence, a straight line of monuments in which there are several unequivocal sightlines for annual and lunar timekeeping. A ceremonial stone clock, if you will allow the description.
What excites Mr. Considine is the fact that Pulpit Rock is quite similar and in his words “preeminent” to other sites with almost identical features. By mid-winter at the period of solstice late in the day, a deep shadow crosses the Manitou at Pulpit Rock and marks the darkest part of the year. Amazingly, the stones may line up to true north as it was over 10,000 years ago while today it sits off-axis by less than a few degrees.
Dr. Martin is working on publishing his findings in the journal Time and Mind, which specializes in archeoastronomy and prehistoric symbolic landscapes. He terms the site as fascinating and says that “since agriculture on bedrock is impossible, and colonial farmers are not known to be interested in the moon, it may be concluded that the stone row was constructed before the arrival of Europeans in New England.” The discovery in Canton is exhilarating in that it helps explain the long tradition of folklore and sacredness of a site long held so by modern people. The connections of Pulpit Rock to ancient people who were aligned by lunar and seasonal calendars is emerging as a very important reason for the site to be preserved.
This story originally appeared in the Canton Citizen on April 7, 2011.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Now the question is: Might this be Squaw Rock written about in Canton's history?