Stone Chambers Silent on Their Makers
By MICHAEL POLLAK
Published: July 16, 1995
KENT, N.Y.— ON a hillside a mile from the nearest paved road, surrounded by a latticework of stone walls, about 10 feet high and 15 feet wide, far wider and higher than needed to contain any cow that ever lived, the stone chambers looked like ancient temples.
"The shaman goes into the chamber and gets charged up," Martin Brech theorized, standing atop the huge wall. "The rest of the tribe stands here and watches the sun come up."
Mr. Brech, 68, a resident of nearby Mahopac who has taught philosophy and religion at Mercy College and is an enthusiast of unconventional archeology, walked up to a mortarless vault cut into the hillside. It was lined with slanting, or corbeled, boulders and topped not with logs or the rotted remains of a plank floor but with stone slabs more than four feet wide and eight feet long, each weighing many tons. "The ancients had respect for these large stones," Mr. Brech said, adding that they were considered full of energy. "But why would a farmer bother with them?"
Mr. Brech, a former librarian with a master's degree from Columbia University, camped out in this chamber about five years ago, on Dec. 20, the night of the winter solstice. He watched the morning sun's first rays hitting the back of the chamber, something enthusiasts say is not a coincidence. "It was a profound, mystical experience," he said. He had felt what he called a oneness of the energy field, "a feeling of bliss."
There are similar vaults along Route 301 or on other roads in Putnam and upper Westchester Counties, next to highway markers and doctors' offices, but here in the woods, in stands of witch hazel and allspice and moosewood and the occasional giant white oaks the colonists spared for their sweet acorns, the chambers did seem to convey a primitive power, energy fields notwithstanding.
What's going on here can be explained in two ways. This is the first way, preferred by mainstream historians and archeologists:
From the Colonial days until the westward and urban movements of the 19th century, many farmers in the Northeast grew crops and raised dairy cows on some rather poor farmland. In much of New England and the Hudson Highlands, the land was rocky and the transportation limited. Farmers decamped en masse when the country opened up, and whole hillsides in Putnam County and northern Westchester were abandoned, leaving only the farmers' stone walls and root cellars.
This is the second explanation, preferred by many intelligent, sincere, truthful believers:
Also Irish monks, copper-seeking Bronze Age miners, Libyan sailors, Iberian adventurers and Celtic moon worshipers. All before Columbus, some before Christ. (Indeed, friends of Christ, if one believes the faction that says Joseph of Arimathea crossed the Atlantic.) They wrote on the stone chambers in strange alphabets like Numidian and Irish Ogham (glacial scratches to the unconvinced).
But why are there no artifacts: pottery, bones, tools, clothing fragments, burial regalia or other hard evidence that ancient civilizations would have left? Acid soil would have destroyed those things, the believers say. These were not root cellars, they maintain; they were calendars, mostly lunar, designed to catch the first rays of the winter solstice and honor the rebirth of the new year.
From sunken Atlantis to lost Mu to the remains of Noah's Ark to Viking inscriptions in the Midwest and Roman crosses in Arizona, exotic discoveries based more on wish fulfilment than on evidence have a long history.
Stephen Williams, in his book "Fantastic Archeology" (University of Pennsylvania Press), wrote that the mid-19th century was a golden age of sorts for discoveries of exotic lost European civilizations in America, a coincidence he attributed to the growing country's search for an instant past.
Putnam County has the largest collection of isolated stone chambers in the Northeast: more than 160 have been identified, mostly in Kent and Putnam Valley, according to the New England Antiquities Research Association, whose branches from Pennsylvania to Quebec do research on ancient structures, which they believe may be signs of pre-Columbian settlement. Mr. Brech is the Hudson Valley coordinator.
Mainstream scholars remain unconvinced, including Sallie Sypher, Putnam County's official historian. "Nobody has suggested aliens from outer space yet, but I'm waiting," she said.
Ms. Sypher said that New York State's Colonial settlers had the equipment and the know-how to build stone chambers, which were effective refrigerators and whose temperatures could be regulated with wooden doors. The Putnam Valley Historical Society has the papers of a 19th-century Putnam Valley farmer, Lucas Barger, who wrote an account of how such chambers were built.
But she treats the unconventional researchers with respect, not disdain. "If there's anything in at least our part of New York State that defines our landscape, it's the rocks," she said. "It helps to give us our sense of place."
Celtic temple believers and root cellar adherents are on the same side, she said: both are fighting developers to preserve the stone structures as striking achievements, no matter who built them or when.
Last month, Ms. Sypher was host to an evening of lectures on the cellars, sponsored by the Putnam Valley Historical Society. She prefaced the evening by warning the audience and participants: "We have people with very pronounced points of view about stone chambers." She announced ground rules that everyone agreed to:
Call them stone chambers (which would be more neutral than temples or root celllars).
Farmers definitely built some of them (but not necessarily all).
Farmers definitely used them (even if someone else built them).
Farmers had the tools and materials and could have built them all.
Most important, she said, "They are absolutely worth preserving."
Mr. Brech, who spoke at the meeting, agreed. Touring the chambers in the Kent woods, he said that his society always tells its members to alter nothing at the sites. He recalled finding a county road crew preparing to demolish one cellar next to Route 301 for no particular reason; getting them to stop, he said, was simply a matter of letting them know that someone cared about the chamber.
Before heading back to the road, he walked beyond the chambers, past wellheads installed by the developer who owns the land. He rested at a giant set of glacial boulders known as Hawk Rock, whose resemblance to a bird of prey is unmistakable. Petroglyphs of a turtle and birds are incised there. A flat table rock many yards in diameter lies before the hawk like an altar stone, and it was hard to avoid wondering how many Indian fires and ceremonies had been held on the site.
"A good megalith is hard to find," Mr. Brech said.
Photos: Martin Brech at a giant set of glacial boulders known as Hawk Rock outside Carmel, N.Y.; A petroglyph resembling a turtle is incised on Hawk Rock. Other carvings resembling birds can be found on the rock. (Librado Romero/The New York Times) Map of New York showing location of Kent.