By R. D. Flavin
Heavy timbers and thick nails currently support Cannon Rock, in Lynn, Massachusetts, with a poured cement-bentonite mixture inside plastic restraints holding its three foundation stones. These drastic precautions were taken after a commissioned safety report by a well-known construction management firm, several neighborhood meetings, and a compromise agreed upon by a developer, nearby residents, and the local ward councilor. Why all this attention given to a rock?
Phaeton/Cannon Rock; © 2000 RDF.
Cannon Rock is located on city-owned property near the Peabody border and thought by some amateur archaeology enthusiasts to be related to Europe’s megalithic dolmens. However, nearly all professional geologists and archaeologists regard Cannon Rock as a glacial erratic (or perched rock) resulting from our last Ice Age and the retreat of the Laurentide glacier, c. 10,000 BCE. Because of blasting to make way for new homes in the area, it was thought the massive sixty-five ton capstone could slip from its foundation and tumble into one or more nearby homes. The structure deserves preservation because of its local, geological significance, though its classification is sometimes debated. However, who’s doing the debating and why? The answers are just as provocative as Cannon Rock itself.
Despite published claims which attribute the name to some Revolutionary War incident in which the structure was mistaken for a cannon, no such account survives in any of the histories of Lynn. Diane Shephard, the archivist/librarian of the Lynn Museum (formerly The Lynn Historical Society), suspects the name came about after 1924, when home development began in the area and a fanciful association was made to compliment New England’s colorful Colonial history. “It’s really no surprise,” Ms. Shephard remarks, “as before that time Cannon Rock was known as Phaeton Rock, and the locals probably didn’t know who Phaeton was, or how the rock got the name.”
Founded on Nov. 27, 1850, Lynn’s “Exploring Circle” was a group of hard working, local men who were interested in science, art, and literature, with natural science being their main focus. Aside from addressing the occasional incredible story (it took them several months to determine live toads had not been found within solid stone), the members made serious studies of the local area and brought in such professionals as they could. Thoreau visited once (his journal for April 26, 1859 mentions a walk to Dungeon Rock in the rain with C. M. Tracy), as his activities at Walden Pond somewhat paralleled the group’s interests. All of the original trustees of the subsequent “Lynn Free Public Forest,” an organization instrumental in preserving Lynn Woods, belonged to the “Exploring Circle.”
The “Exploring Circle” documented many noteworthy stones in the Lynn area, as several members were mechanics by profession and their drawings and descriptions remain impressive. Penned on a single sheet of thick, blue stationary, dated June 20, 1856, and currently in the possession of the Lynn Museum, is an announcement entitled “Excursion to Nunnery Pasture,” by Joseph Mason Rowell. It reads:
“Wishing to know more of the region between the Sluice and Browns Ponds, I visited it sometime since and results of my observations will be given to the circle at some future time. At present I will simply speak of a curious boulder which I discovered on the second range of the hills north of this locality. The boulder above mentioned rests on an outcrop of granite on the side of the hill, which forms a precipice some twenty feet in height over which the boulder projects several feet. It is raised from the ledge by four small boulders, and taken as a whole, presents a rude outline of an ancient chariot. I have taken the liberty to name it Phaeton rock, and consider it the most curious of all natures objects of interest in our vicinity. [signed] Jos. M. Rowell”
‘Phaeton’ refers to a lightweight, four-wheeled carriage popularized by the French and named after the Greek myth of Helios, the Sun-god, who used a magical chariot when he took the sun across the sky. Phaeton was Helios’ reckless son who borrowed the chariot and caused much grief, as he drove too close to Earth, setting the ground afire.
Phaeton/Cannon Rock; © 1996 RDF.
Rowell deserves credit for being the first on record to mention the stone structure, his vivid imagination and choice of names, but fails when he lists “four small boulders,” as there are only three.
[Note: I've learned that Joseph Henry, a 19th century scientist and the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, made a visit to Phaeton Rock in 1859. Secretary Henry wrote in a letter dated August 18: “It came from Canada and lodged in its present elevated position during what is called the drift period and was probably transported through the agency of ice (to be published in volume 10 of The Papers of Joseph Henry).” This early ease with gradualism instead of catastrophism or some other equally fantastic explanation would seem to indicate the Smithsonian got off to a good choice with its selection of Henry. See 2009 Update below.]
A brief note survives from early April, 1866 (Exploring Minutes, Vol. 3, 1861-1867, p. 210) which reads:
“Mr. Tracy announced that the Committee of the Essex Institute would meet that of the Circle at Phaeton Rock on Saturday next at 2.P.m. to examine & consult on means for its preservation.”
Apparently the group was concerned with the survival of the structure and contacted the renowned Essex Institute in Salem.
The results of the meeting were published in the Proceedings Of The Essex Institute, Vol. V., 1866-7 (Salem, MA: Essex Institute Press, 1866-8). Under Monday, April 16, 1866 may be found the following:
made the following
Mr. Tracy’s paper was read and referred for publication.
After some remarks by Mr. Putnam on the subject of bowlders [sic] and the drift, the matter was referred to a committee, consisting of Messrs. C. M. Tracy, Benjamin Pickman and Henry Wheatland, to take such action on behalf of the Institute, as they deem advisable.”
As the property containing Phaeton Rock never passed to the Essex Institute and nothing more is mentioned in the Institute records concerning the stone structure, it may be safe to assume …everyone had more important things to do. A shame, actually…
Though Lynn contains many interesting stones, Dungeon Rock with its associated tales of pirates and treasure, and such fanciful effigy stones as Turtle Rock and Eagle Rock which some (incorrectly) attribute to the Native Americans, Phaeton (Cannon) Rock was looked upon as a geological curiosity, and nothing more. And so it remained until the 1930s when the suggestion was made that certain structures looked like the work of Celts, perhaps built by ancient Irish explorers or Druids. Yes, Druids in New England!
Theories of Norse incursions into New England were popular among antiquarians in the 19th century. Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish scholar, looked at drawings of Dighton Rock, located on the Taunton River in southeastern Massachusetts, and believed he discerned runic writing (Antiquitates Americanae, Copenhagen, 1837). Rafn also identifying the Newport Tower in Rhode Island as a Viking-era church.
Prof. Eben Horsford (chemistry, Harvard), the inventor of baking powder, believed Leif Erikson sailed up the Charles River and that the “Norumbega” of 16th century cartography is the area where Newton, Waltham, and Weston meet. Horsford paid for a statue of Leif to be erected on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall at Charlesgate East in Boston in 1887, by famed sculptress, Anne Whitney, so his conception of “history” would be honored and not forgotten.
Norumbega remains; © 2000 RDF.
The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 featured the ‘Viking’, a reconstruction of an ancient Norse ship, which sailed from Norway, past New York, and into Chicago, implying the Vikings could have accomplished a similar feat. Shortly thereafter, the 1898 discovery of the so-called “Kensington Rune Stone” in Minnesota instigated fierce debate about its authenticity; a situation that continues to this day.
Around the turn of the last century, some Scandinavian Americans celebrated their culture by forming institutions and publishing lavish editions of Norse epics. Accounts of voyages to Iceland, Greenland, and beyond, were described in the extravagant, gilt-edged volumes produced by The Norroena Society. Contained in those sagas were explicit mentions wherever the Norse traveled, that the Irish had proceeded them, as in “Hvitramannaland,” or “Land of the White Men,” and “Irland ed mikla,” or “Greater Ireland. Subsequently a movement began in New England, probably influenced by the allegorical maritime adventures of the medieval Irish monk, St. Brendan, which attempted to give credit to the ancient Irish for every odd stone structure around.
Colonial-era root-cellars became the meditation chambers of Irish Culdee monks, the ruins of an old homestead in North Salem, New Hampshire were regarded as “America’s Stonehenge,” and Phaeton Rock achieved celebrity status as one of the finest examples of a ‘dolmen’ (from a Breton term meaning “table”) on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, such speculation is fatally flawed, …as the Irish/Celts did not construct Stonehenge, dolmens, or anything belonging to the Megalith Culture (c. 6000-2000 BCE) in Europe.
In the early 1970s archaeologists and prehistorians began to combine dendrochronology (counting tree-rings) with radiocarbon testing. As a result of this new method, the dates of the Megalith Builders in Europe were pushed back from c.1000-500 BCE to several millennia BCE. Clearly, such stone structures in Europe predate the arrival of the Celts and their Druid-priests. Yet, for many years the popular press mentioned the Irish in connection with a possible explanation of various New England stone structures.
The Irish in New England before Columbus? Of course such a thing is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, it’s just …there’s no credible evidence to suggest it happened.
Harvard University and its various faculty members have contributed much to the debate over Old World visitors to the New World before Columbus (an argument/model often termed diffusionism, or hyper-diffusionism, though “Pre-Columbian inter-societal contact” works just as well). The theories and efforts of Horsford, his claims of the Norse sailing in the “dirty water” of the Charles River, were tolerated by Harvard, as he had retired from his teaching position some years previously. He gave many public lectures about conjectural Norse visits to New England, such as one to the American Geographical Society at a special meeting held in Watertown in 1889, but Harvard never officially rebutted his claims.
Stone structure in Hopkington, MA; © 2000 RDF.
Replica built in the early 1940s by Henry Cheney, Jr.
(whose father introduced Malcolm Pearson to William Goodwin),
of a structure on the nearby Navez property.
The original collapsed in the winter of 1958.
While announcements of ancient Norse finds were being made in the early 1930s, such as an ax in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and rune-stones in Maine, Malcolm Pearson had uncovered a wonderful chamber built of rocks on his family’s property in Upton, MA. A second, though much smaller, structure was located on the property of Prof. Albert E. Navez (botany, Harvard), in nearby Hopkington. These stone structures were thought to be of Irish origin and served as the initial inspiration to investigate other areas of New England. When Malcolm Pearson introduced William B. Goodwin, an antiquarian from Hartford, CT, to the abandoned Patee homestead in N. Salem, New Hampshire, both believed they had located an archaeological find of tremendous importance that would rewrite American prehistory. The stage was set for confrontation and Harvard was ready at last.
Reacting to private correspondence from Goodwin concerning Columbus and the possibility of Vikings in New England, Samuel Elliot Morison (history, Harvard), formulated his “no explorers before Columbus” position. In 1938, Goodwin sent Morison, founder and editor of the journal, The New England Quarterly, an article which made a case for the N. Salem site as being Irish in origin. Morison then sent the article to Hugh O’Neill Henken (archaeology, Harvard), who contacted Goodwin and arranged to visit and critically examine the site. Goodwin must have hoped for a conformation and not a challenge to his Irish hypothesis, yet what happened next set the standard for relations between professionals and amateurs with fantastic ideas. Things got ugly with ad hominem attacks and such exchanges remain all too common today.
Goodwin’s article was rejected for publication. Instead Henken published “The ‘Irish Monastery’ at North Salem, New Hampshire” in the September, 1939 issue of The New England Quarterly, which dismissed Goodwin’s claims and put forth the theory the structures date from between 1826 and 1848 (though allowing for a somewhat earlier nucleus).
1941 saw the publication of The Truth About Leif Ericsson And The Greenland Voyages To New England (Boston: Meador Press) which claimed a Viking landing in Portsmouth Harbor, NH. In 1942 Morison published his Admiral Of The Ocean Sea: A Life Of Christopher Columbus (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.), which won the Pulitzer Prize for history the following year. Goodwin’s The Ruins Of Great Ireland In New England (Boston: Meador Press, 1946) is regarded as highly collectable, includes invaluable photographs of various stone structures in New England (taken by Malcolm Pearson), and …contains the most unabashed, purulent attack by an amateur against a professional ever to stain the printed page. Goodwin couldn’t even bring himself to name Morison, but rather calls him “Young Columbus.”
Fantastic ideas often gain popular acceptance when noted authorities weigh in. Such was the case with Worlds In Collision (New York: MacMillian, 1950), by Immanuel Velikovsky, who was on friendly terms with Albert Einstein. Einstein apparently supported the unconventional out of principle, but personally dismissed Velikovsky’s ideas as a “wilde Phantasie.” His endorsement of Velikovsky, though qualified, …helped sell copy.
The skinny is as follows: Velikovsky signed a contract with Macmillan Press (an international publisher of textbooks and academic publications) in 1946, shortly before Worlds In Collision was released in 1950, Harper’s Magazine ran two articles condensed from the book which attracted a great deal of public interest, Prof. Harlow Shapley (astronomy, Harvard) contacted Macmillan and criticized the publisher, the book was formally released, and after other outcries from the scientific community, Macmillan sold the rights to Doubleday Books, whose edition is often (though erroneously) regarded as first. Science fought back against silliness, but the achieved victory was limited and nonbinding to further speculation.
Erich von Däniken’s Chariot Of The Gods? (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968), as well as his In Search Of Ancient Astronauts, Parts 1 & 2 (narrated by Rod Sterling, 1975, 52 minutes each part, color, Xerox Films), were immensely popular and financially successful, but unfortunately even less scientific than Velikovsky’s work. Though roundly criticized for the absurdity of promoting extraterrestrial visits in Earth’s past, …the ‘idea’ our science, history, and knowledge of ourselves is somehow incomplete and therefore wrong, greatly influences and inspires a certain readership. The readership of pseudoscientific works apparently could care less that science and other disciplines allow for error, revise models based on new data, and admit levels of incompleteness (as, say, in the archaeological record).
Much of such speculation appears to derive from and consist of issues of poor self-image, a negative world-view, and a stance against the consensual. Finding the door of ‘authority’ open just a crack, many believe they can force the door open wide enough to allow their personal agendas to pass. An accessible investigation of such disturbing convictions may be found in Cult Archaeology And Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs About The Past, ed. by F. B. Harrold and R. A. Eve (Iowa: U. of Iowa Press, 1995).
In 1976, Prof. Howard Barraclough Fell (marine biology, Harvard) stepped forward with speculation about pre-Columbian American history and gained international renown, a dedicated following, and …perhaps the harshest of all possible criticisms from the scientific community. “Barry” Fell published his America B.C.: Ancient Settlers In The New World (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1976), which was reviewed by Glyn Daniels, editor of the journal, Antiquity (“Review of AMERICA BC and THEY CAME BEFORE COLUMBUS,” New York Times Book Reviews, March 13, 1977, p. 14), who called Fell’s work: “ignorant rubbish…” Ouch!
The works of Fell have been partially criticized elsewhere and need not be addressed here. [Note: See, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side Of American Prehistory, by Stephen Williams, Philadelphia: U. of Penn. Press, 1991, Frauds, Myths, And Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience In Archaeology, by Kenneth L. Feder, 3rd edition, California: Mayfield Publishing, 1998, and “Proto-Tifinagh and Proto-Ogham in the Americas: Review of Fell; Fell and Farley; Fell and Reinert; Johannessen, et al; McGlone and Leonard; Totten,” by David H. Kelley, The Review Of Archaeology, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 1990.] Whether correct or not, what Fell claimed is, however, important in understanding the popularity of Phaeton/Cannon Rock.
With America B.C. Fell claimed diverse Old World peoples (Basque, Celts, Iberians, Libyans, Egyptians, etc.) sailed to the New World in ancient times and left behind evidence of their presence in the form of inscriptions and certain stone structures. While the epigraphic evidence (alleged “inscriptions”) are attributed to many different cultures using various scripts and are drawn from across North and South America, the majority of the stone structures cited in America B.C. are located in New England and are said by Fell to be Celtic (or Irish) in origin and design. This may seem to be a recycled argument of Goodwin’s from the 30s and 40s, but Fell goes much farther afield.
“There is clear evidence that some of the megalithic monuments of Europe are indeed very ancient, antedating the Celts, though the Celts chose to use them, as indeed the Romans did sometimes. But that does not mean that all such megalithic monuments antedate the Celts, or that the Celt was so helpless as to be unable to build a building should he require one. Now we can take a look at the chief classes of megalithic monument, and the names appropriate to each
Best known on account of their bizarre appearance are the dolmens, a Breton word meaning stone table. Other names are used in Ireland, but these are not sufficiently well known to detain us. A dolmen is a memorial to a chief or to some event of importance, and takes the form of a huge central boulder, sometimes ten tons or more in weight, supported on three, or four, or five vertical stones like pegs. Good examples are to be seen at Bartlett, New Hampshire, and North Salem, Massachusetts. [sic] Other examples occur in Maine and at Westport, Massachusetts, the latter of relatively small proportions.” [America B.C., pp. 129 and 131.]
If one overlooks the proper location of North Salem (New York was meant), Fell’s identification of certain New World stone structures as “dolmens” is problematic and lacks substantive demonstration. He says it’s so and his readers are expected to believe him. Proof? Counter-arguments? No; Fell decided not to be conventional and propose models, cite pertinent contemporary publications, argue from data interpreted and results produced, allow for alternative interpretations, or any of the other common methodological procedures usually associated with a scientific investigation. And, as a retired Harvard professor with many published academic articles to his credit, …he knew better. This is the prevailing complaint that will never go away.
Goodwin, in his The Ruins Of Great Ireland In New England, drew attention to the New England corbelled chambers he claimed were built by Irish Culdee monks, c. 500-850 CE, and interpreted the stone structures in Upton and Hopkington as New World examples of these ancient monastic huts. Though buried mid-book, a lone qualifier holds:
"One cannot, however, deny the very apparent hold-over of the pagan past into that first and early present of Irish Christianity. At the same time history, traditional or factual, is not at all satisfactory until we have more information along certain lines. Anything, indeed everything, we have written must be taken as a suggestive answer, not a solution. 'Ea discamus in terris quorum scientia perseveret in coelis,' which paraphrased means 'Let have the truth!'”
Before the use of dendrochronology to recalibrate radiocarbon dating, it was believed megalithic structures (as well as communities, such as Skara Brae, Orkneys, Scotland) were somewhat recent and nearer in time to Celtic migrations into the islands, c. 750-450 BCE. We now understand the Megalith Culture as existing deep into Neolithic times and date their structures between 6000 and 2000 BCE, well before the arrival of the Celts and any social/ethnic emergence of what is today regarded as the ‘Irish’. There’s simply too much time between the megaliths and the Irish to make a valid connection.
However Goodwin rejected professional assessments that the Upton and Hopkington structures were Colonial root-cellars. Instead he likened the structures to similar beehive constructs as the Tomb of Nestor in Greece and stone houses in the Sinai Desert, he could have easily made a comparison with the medieval trulli in Alberobello, Apulia, Italy. So, why the ancient Irish in pre-Columbian America instead of the Italians?
As mentioned above, Norse records include an Irish presence in the North Sea and the legend of St. Brendan have combined quixotically to suggest in the minds of certain individuals a history apart from the one taught in our schools. An entry under “St. Brendan” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1905-1912, Robert Appleton/The Encyclopedia Press, unsigned, with a recent update at www.newadvent.org) reads:
"It is therefor, perhaps possible that the legends (of St. Brendan), current in the ninth and committed to writing in the eleventh century, have for foundation an actual sea-voyage the destination of which cannot be determined. These adventures were called the “Navigatio Brendani,” the Voyage or Wandering of St. Brendan, but there is no historical proof of this journey."
Early in his career, the historian Geoffrey Ashe investigated the legend of St. Brendan in his Land To The West: A Search For Irish And Other Pre-Viking Discoveries Of America (New York: Viking Press, 1962), and concludes:
"As to the question of St. Brendan himself, and the Irish generally before the Norse advent among them, I have sadly admitted the obligation to give up my early opinion, or rather hope, and concede that it is no use hunting for the Kerry missionary in Mexico. The hypothesis of a crossing by Brendan or his contemporaries is in any case not helpful in solving the problems as defined. If someone cares to suppose that his written legend was a long-delayed outcome of geographical researches by him, so that he discovered America (as it were) on paper, there is no cogent reason to object. It has emerged as more likely, however, that the legend is a gigantic distension of an actual sea-pilgrimage of his in the Hebrides." [Pp.285-286.]
The dramatic find of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Labrador demonstrates a presence at least that far south, but no evidence has come forward to prove a visit to New England by either the ancient Norse or the Irish. Well, no generally accepted evidence that is; Barry Fell believed otherwise.
In his Saga
York: Times/Quadrangle, 1980) Fell publishes a list of words he
are Celtic in origin and are now found in the Native American
language of British Columbia. Also, he includes a drawing (p.
and a photograph (p. 202) of Phaeton/Cannon Rock in Lynn, referred to
captions as a “dolmen.” No mention occurs in the body of the text
The Epigraphic Society letterhead, c. 1992. Used without permission.
Bronze Age America (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1982), Fell’s last book before his 1994 passing, likewise argues for a pre-Columbian presence of the Irish in the New World, but here he not only publishes a photograph of the Lynn “dolmen,” but refers to it explicitly:
"The largest of the dolmens utilize natural boulders, sometimes weighing up to 90 tons, supported precariously, so it would seem, on the underlying peg stones, yet their duration through 4,000 years shows their builders to have had a fine sense of stable construction. An example is depicted in Figure 2-10, from Ireland, and another in Trelleborg, Sweden, is shown in Figure 2-11. Corresponding examples from North America are illustrated in Figures 2-12 to 2-16. Figure 2-12 shows the dolmen at Lynn, Massachusetts, locally known as Cannon Stone. Figure 2-13 is an example from near Lake Lujenda, northern Minnesota, discovered recently by David Harvey, and the first to be reported from that state. The other examples are from Bartlett, New Hampshire (Figure 2-14), and North Salem, New York (Figures 2-15, 2-16).
I find it difficult to distinguish the North American examples from the European ones and believe that both sets were produced by ancient builders who shared a common culture. When the evidence of inscriptions is taken into account, as in later chapters of this book, the relationship of the American examples to those of northern Europe becomes undeniable." [P. 63, with photograph on p.66; the above references to “Figures” are for Fell’s Bronze Age America and not this article.]
Aside from the possibility of prior mentions in newsletters or amateur publications, the two brief mentions by Fell are the first occurrences of an identification of Phaeton/Cannon Rock as a “dolmen.”
Is Fell correct? Who can say with surety? What one may offer is the observation Fell didn’t check his facts (i.e., his usage of “Cannon Stone,” an expression not found elsewhere). He forsook and abandoned academic convention (i.e., methodology and models) to propose an “undeniable” association between New World glacial erratics and Old World dolmens. It works in the popular press, but doesn’t cut it in academia. Fell knew it, but he was too eager and overwhelmed with the possibility of a new historical paradigm to appropriately argue his case.
Lynn residents, Fell’s general readership, tourists stopping by to check out a possible “dolmen” in the New World, all shared in Fell’s excitement over Phaeton/Cannon Rock. It must be stressed that science demands more than a simple identification. Over the years certain Fell-supporters have chanted: “No one has proven the claims wrong!” That’s not how it works… It begins with someone initially demonstrating something is possible, then critics are encouraged to respond. Fell didn’t prove Phaeton/Cannon Rock was a dolmen; he just said it …and moved on.
Taylor Armerding, wrote recently (“Let’s not lose a sense of place,” North Shore Sunday, March 16, 1997, p. 4):
"James P. Whittall III of Rowley, in an article reprinted in a number of publications, notes that the three supporting stones are set at a 75-60-45 degree triangle. 'This dolmen seems to have been erected with mathematical precision,' he says, adding that it is 'extremely difficult to consider this monument a glacial erratic.'
He adds that there is no way to determine how old it is, but notes that if it were found in Western Europe, it would be assumed to be thousands of years old, and to come from the Megalith Culture.
He says a better term for such things are 'pedestal rocks,' noting that they don’t appear to be burial markers, but could have some ceremonial meaning, or be there to guide travelers.
He knows 'official' historians like Simon [Note: "Simon" refers to Massachusetts State Archaeologist Brona Simon. RDF] consider him and others who believe such pedestals were put there by design, not accident, to be 'part of the lunatic fringe.'
'But I have no respect for her either,' he says. 'She thinks nobody can know more than she does. It’s called ego. But she doesn’t know anything about lithic stone work.'
So what’s the point of carrying on about Phaeton Rock? It’s been sitting right where it sits now for thousands of years, and doesn’t appear to be in any danger of being toppled anytime soon."
strongly suspect such published
and conflict between a local expert and a state official greatly
to how Lynn residents regard Phaeton/Cannon Rock. By the way, one
might be able to date Phaeton/Cannon Rock by lifting the capstone,
between the stones, and convincing paleobotanists to perform a pollen
However, science generally dislikes breaking something to find out how
Simon letter; 9/1/00. For larger version click here.
From its discovery in 1856 by Rowell, of Lynn’s Explorers Circle, and its subsequent description as an “erratic” by the Essex Institute, Phaeton/Cannon Rock has remained a remnant of the Laurentide Glacier which departed from New England some 10,000 years ago. Claims by Goodwin, Fell, and others, of ancient Irish construction (or some vague association with the Old World Megalith Builders) fail because they are unsupported. Saying so, does not make it so, and a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand maybes, will never equal a single fact.
The residents of Phaeton Rock Road have privately paid for a couple of extra street-signs marked “The Irish Way," they were displayed for a few years, but were taken down several years ago. I’m sure most of them were/are proud and excited to be associated with a forced controversy and one that could possibly affect American prehistory. However, the odds of such a thing? Dear me!
Prof. Stephen Williams (archaeology, Harvard), at the end of a chapter on Fell (“Tales the Rude Monuments Tell,” Fantastic Archaeology, Philadelphia: U. of Penn. Press, 1991, p. 285), writes:
"You may ask how dare you judge? I can only reply: if one forswears the admittedly heavy burden of making critical evaluations and speaking them, one must also, I believe, give up the painstaking pursuit of knowledge and the happy, but seemingly endless, pursuit of truth. I haven’t." [Note: For a balanced reply to Williams, see: “Epigraphy and Other Fantasies: Review of Williams,” by David H. Kelley, The Review Of Archaeology, Vol. 15, No. 2, Fall 1994.]
Truth, as we all know, whether in the classroom or elsewhere, is consensual and agreed upon. The majority agrees Phaeton/Cannon Rock is not a dolmen. This is a current “truth,” and though it may be exciting, romantic, or challenging to claim it is otherwise, …the structure remains a perched rock from the Ice Age.
Gloucester; © 2000 Barbara Taormina.
Used with permission.
Just north of Lynn, in the fishing community of Gloucester, is a park surrounding the one-time home of Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865), an artist of extraordinary talent and who inspired the Luminist tradition. Lane’s home, sold after his death and used as the city jail, was restored in the 1960s with a statue of Lane, as well as interesting rocks for decorative effect and functional usage, erected to honor this great Gloucester artist. Those interesting rocks of functional usage? Dolmens… Benches or tables, it doesn’t matter; the designers choose a design to both serve and satisfy the tourists. Dolmens in Gloucester? Sure, why not?
developer who encased
Rock promises it will be restored in four or five years, or less.
It is believed the cement-bentonite mixture can be safely sandblasted
without disturbing the structure. We look forward to this time,
a doldrum of inactivity, as nothing further may be done until the
is restored. And then? Well, there’s always a theme-park!
Rock remains in bondage.
second time, my name has
been attached to an article about Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact
with the Americas which contained inaccuracies about Phaeton
Rock. The first (“Written In Stone," by Bill Strubbe and Rick
Traveler, February 1999; pp. 30-35) inspired the above work and
the second, “Goodbye Columbus” by Barbara Taormina ; North Shore Sunday;
Oct. 9, 2005; pp. 1, 4 & 5), which ends with “North Shore-based
freelance writer Richard Flavin contributed to this story,” is ...yet
another example of the difference between lazy popular writing and
sincere effort. I apologize and promise to try and pick better
In 1976, when the United States was in a bicentennial mood, Barry Fell,
a retired marine biologist who had a distinguished career at Harvard,
wrote a booked [sic] called
"America B.C." [Fell taught at
Harvard from 1964-1979; he was three years away from retirement when America B.C. was released.]
Fell's hobby was ancient languages and he spent much of his free time
studying rock structures and carvings in stone.
Another update will
follow soon with a few important developments about when the supports
will be removed from Phaeton Rock and its continued open access by the
public. There's talk that the access land at the end of Phaeton
Rock Road has been sold, a home will be built, and another developer is
now responsible for removing the supports. More soon.
I returned to Phaeton Rock during the first week of October 2009 and found the supports still in place, though more than a little worse for wear. As I was leaving, I spoke briefly with the home-owner of the house closest to the glacial erratic and where the rock might end up should it tumble from its perch. The home-owner said he wasn't aware of any plans in place for further development or new home construction in the immediate area of Phaeton Rock. He was busy with a contractor building a new porch, I was running late, and as I was getting into my car, the home-owner said he was concerned about safety as one of the pedestal rocks had fallen away. What, where, why, and how? He said a few years ago, suggested I study my previous photographs, and as I drove away I thought on my flippant argument that one could scientifically test for a date when the dolmen-like structure was actually first combined by analyzing pollen remains perhaps trapped between one of the small support boulders and the huge capstone. It was a silly proposal, entirely theoretical, as one would have to disassemble (or break) the “dolmen” to perform the test, and is something no responsible person would ever do. Still, if one of the small boulders was now available...
That night, I looked at many previous photographs of Phaeton Rock and compared them with the ones I'd taken earlier in the day. I hadn't framed any of the new photographs to distinctively show the smaller boulders, couldn't see much of a difference between the 2005 and 2009 ones, and wondered if the home-owner could have been mistaken about the displacement of a support boulder. There was only one way to find out, so I went back to Phaeton Rock the following day.
The home-owner was again in his front-yard with his contractor, but this time Mrs. “Home-Owner” was there as well. I waved and mentioned that I needed a closer look as I headed up through the woods to once more study the natural wonder that is Phaeton Rock. I glanced at the bottom of the ledge, near the home-owner's property, but couldn't identify a boulder which would match a support stone for the glacial erratic. The thought that some Lynn city-worker could have carted the small boulder away for safe keeping was dismissed immediately, as the support boulders, though “small” by comparison to the capstone, are still rather formidable in that they likely weigh several hundred pounds apiece. Rocks that heavy usually stay where they end up... It was time for an up-close inspection.
As I suspected, all three support stones were still in place. The home-owner had recently inherited the house from his mother-in-law and there were likely some tall tales at play (i.e., building construction yarns of Phaeton Rock, related to stories like the structure was once used as a fake 'cannon' to threaten the British during Colonial times or that the perched rock was a New World example of the megalithic dolmens and cromlechs of Neolithic European design, later incorrectly associated with the Bronze Age Celts). However, while the three support stones were all accounted for, the nine-year old construction and blasting supports of wood, cement, plastic, and iron bands were not holding up well at all. The banding around one of the support stones was coming undone (see above, picture 4) and the main (pine?) beam which underlies the entire length of Phaeton Rock was warped, cracked, and wasn't attached to or supporting anything (see above, pictures 2 & 3). The beam was moved freely (I pulled it away a few feet before returning it) and the beam doesn't serve any current support purpose.
Mr. and Mrs. “Home-Owner” were at their fence when I came down from the ledge. I informed them that I had some "good news and some bad news." The fact that all the support stones were present was, of course, a good thing, but that the wood and other construction supports were in unsettling and tough shape was ...bad. Mrs. “Home-Owner” brought out a twelve-year old North Shore Sunday newspaper clipping (see above), which I chuckled at, and told both of them that the 'dolmen' identification was no longer pursued by most. I mentioned that I had in my files photocopies of the original proposals and contracts between the City of Lynn and the construction company which had performed the blasting and new home building. All of the blasting was over by 2001 or so, the supports were supposed to come down in five-years' time, and I promised them I'd ask around and see what I could do about restoring Phaeton Rock. As I drove away, I experienced an odd bemusement as I considered changing hats from feature writer and independent researcher/scholar to glacial erratic preservationist advocate. I only own a few hats and none of them seemed up for the change.
I left my name and telephone number with the Mayor's
Office and, on a whim, sent an e-mail to the Friends of Lynn
Woods, a local advocacy society which might, ...just might, be able
to help a lonely and distant (some mile and a half away) ancient
natural wonder to survive a bit longer. The Mayor's Office has never
returned any of my several telephone calls over the last near-decade,
didn't return my last one as of this writing, and the Friends of Lynn
Woods ...apparently didn't get the e-mail.
"'Ruskinesque' sketch of a glacial erratic, a 'rocking stone,' in Lynn Woods. The Exploring Circle was interested in geology as well as botany, and in 1858 formed a 'Committee on Bowlders and Erratic Rocks.' This drawing was made by Stephen Decatur Pool in 1854 (Cushing 1988, p. 43)."
The nineteenth century “Exploring
Circle” of Lynn continues to fascinate me and I'd be dishonest if I
didn't admit to being duly impressed by their amateur efforts.
Founded in 1850 by Cyrus M. Tracy, these largely self-taught amateurs
of the Exploring Circle helped define modern Lynn,
Massachusetts. Tracy spoke at the dedication of a new Lynn City
Hall on November 30, 1867 and also, after a disastrous fire
of downtown Lynn in 1869, as the local fire-department was unable to
procure the necessary water, he successfully lobbied for and
helped establish the first Lynn “Public Water Board” department.
From this effort at preservation, emerged the “Free Public Forest
of Lynn” and a board of trustees to protect the ponds, rocks, trees
and plants of Lynn Woods in 1881 (Cushing 1988, pp. 44 & 45) and
1882 (Hawkes 1893, p. 6).
The City of Lynn is many things to many different people (let's toss
the trash-talk aside, for now), yet, because of the fortuitous
involvement of the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who first
privately advised for and then openly advocated in favor
of a “park-like” Lynn Woods, the forest reservation has been
maintained as a unique environment to both a romantic's dream-scape
(e.g., legends of pirates and the spiritualism crusade in the 1850s
Rock), as well as a spectacular protected
environment (saved from unregulated logging in the mid-to-late
nineteenth century and the recent and
ongoing housing development land-grab). Lynn Woods is special,
whereas across the street and up the road, where Phaeton Rock rests
uncomfortably, not so much. Lynn Woods has benefit parties,
Rock or the “Lynn Dolmen” is in need of repair and restoration, and the
glacial erratic doesn't have too many “Friends” any more.
“park-like” aspect of Lynn Woods has recently given rise
to climbing enthusiasts who regard the various erratics and natural
formations as a means to provide fun and exercise. The fairly
remote locations of most of the
boulders of Lynn Woods present an inherent danger, should accident or
occur, and the sole park ranger assigned to Lynn Woods, “Ranger Dan,”
expected to cover all 2,200 acres of the forest reservation.
Still, climbing on
As noted above in
an early version of this online article,
the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, Secretary Joseph Henry
1859 letter by J. Henry mentioning a Lynn glacial erratic; click images for larger versions.
The mention of an “iron ladder” by Henry indicates a popular desire to climb atop certain local rocks, though when the ladder was removed from Phaeton Rock is currently unknown, though probably sometime before World War I. Henry’s letter about the “huge boulder” in
Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) and 1870s "stereoview" photograph of Agassiz Rock, Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA.
In “Dolmens: Who Were
the Builders of America's Pre-Columbian Megaliths?” from ESOP
Vol. 16, 1987, pp. 10 & 11, Phaeton Rock is described and presented
as a “dolmen” by Prof. Barry Fell and the Epigraphic Society.
As remarked above,
it’s a shame there was a continued confusion between the Neolithic Megalith
Builders and the later Celts and a disregard for radiocarbon dating
corrected by dendrochronology. There is
no amount of irony lost on the fact that the person most responsible
theory that Phaeton Rock was not
a glacial erratic, but a Celtic
retired from Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1979, the same
institution founded in 1859 by Prof. Louis Agassiz, the originator of
Last week, I telephoned “Ranger Dan” at Lynn Woods and asked his advice on how best to approach the problem with restoring Phaeton Rock. He suggested that I contact the City of Lynn Department of Public Works. So, it looks like I’ll be in touch with Commissioner Jay J. Fink, P.E. I hope this works out. Maybe I can convince Mr. and Mrs. “Home-Owner” to make a call as well.
2009 Update bibliography:
Louis. 1840. Études sur les
“Friends of the Circle, let us not forget
We journey on in Life's late afternoon,
While lengthening shadows warn that all too soon
The fringed clouds foretell earth's waning sun has set...”
“Lines (Read at the Forty-first Anniversary of the Exploring Circle, 1891.)”
In memory of James P. Whittall, Jr. and David Barron. The stones of New England have lost two of their greatest admirers!
Modern dolmen structure on the property
of the late Jim Whittall; © 2000 RDF.
thank the Lynn Museum and the Phillips Library of the Peabody/Essex
Museum for help in research and
photographs for this article. Also, conversations with Andre
Navez and D. Buchanan greatly assisted this article.
A version of this article was presented as "Phaeton Rock: Diffusion or
Delusion?" at the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures
October 11-14, 2001, Columbus, GA.