Skip to main content
  1. Travel
  2. City Guides

Understanding the Upton Stone Chamber and others in New ENgland

See also

Scattered across four New England states remain approximately 240 stone–built chambers, possibly of an ancient origin. Originally there were 800 or more. These remarkable chambers, found nowhere else in North America, can be circular or rectangular in form, up to 30 feet in length but usually half that, occasionally 10 feet wide and up to 10 feet tall in the central chamber. They are characteristically constructed of expertly–fitted dry masonry stones capped by megalithic slabs. Most of the best preserved chambers can be found sunken into the contours of the landscape. Although some structures are freestanding, the most fascinating structures are accessed by passageways driven into the hillside.

More Photos

The most elaborate are described as "beehive" chambers, indicative of the conical shape in the central room, supported by a large ceiling capstone. These sophisticated structures sometimes feature "smoke holes" to ventilate the chambers, as well as shelves, benches or recesses incorporated into the walls. Some had blocked passageways and remained intact underground only to be discovered years later when a roof caved in, or a plow or pick–axe penetrated the chamber. It is unfortunate to mention that a vast majority of these New England stone buildings have been torn down for quarried stone, repeatedly vandalized, or otherwise dismantled, destroyed, or abandoned by the landowner blocking the entrance.

A Laundry List of Potential Builders
Early records of the New England colonists make mention of some of the chambers preexisting before they settled the land. Assuming that the structures were built by vanished Indian tribesmen and were free for the taking, New England colonial farmers put them to use as extra storage space shelters. Sometimes the age of the chamber could be authenticated by trees a hundred years old growing into the unmortared walls. The conventional wisdom at the time was that these enclosures were built as "colonial root cellars," or if an old tree dated their age then they were termed "steam baths for Indians." The root cellar and the Indian–built theories are dismissive because they overlook basic facts, such as the passageways being too low and narrow to wheel a cart into, most having soil floors that would rot vegetables, or that nowhere else in North America did Indians construct sweat lodges made of stone.

Let us use the logic test called Occam's Razor to our laundry list of potential builders. The test goes like this: when you have two or more competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is always better. If there is scant evidence for European colonials or Native Americans building the chambers, then who else could be responsible for their construction? Is it possible to contrast these chambers against anything of a similar design? Where else in the world are beehive enclosures located?

One possibility is the ancient Greek Mycenaeans who buried their nobles in beehive tombs called tholoi, large circular burial chambers with a high vaulted roof. This is a possible influence, especially since the pre–classical Greeks were contemporary with the Phoenicians who may have lived at America's Stonehenge, a location we will examine in another article. As for the beehive chambers of New England, like nowhere else in the world, they closely resemble smaller structures found around the islands of northern Europe. The New England chambers are dead ringers for those built by the Culdee Monks of Scotland, England, and Ireland who adopted the building style from their Celtic ancestry.

Getting to the Upton Stone Chamber

In the hills surrounding Boston, Massachusetts the Upton Stone Chamber is one of the largest and most precisely built beehive chambers in New England. This chamber is aligned to observe the setting solstice sun and stars of the Pleiades, as marked by cairns on nearby Pratt Hill. The Upton Stone Chamber is located within the newly created city park called the "Upton Heritage Park" located just outside the town of Upton on Elm Street, about 12 miles (20 km) southeast of Worcester. About a mile away, across the valley from the chamber is Pratt Hill where several cairns are located near the summit, aligning the chamber to observe the setting solstice sun and stars of the Pleiades, as marked by large stone piles located on nearby Pratt Hill, which is best explored in the winter when the trees have lost their leaves.

Reprinted with permission from Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations by Brad Olsen. (c) 2013.