How old are the chambers? The construction techniques used are the first indication of their antiquity. The walls are built using a technique called corbeling. This sophisticated architectural design is used to support the chamber walls which are made up of piles of stones arched inward to support the ceiling lintel stones. This corbeling technique was used in Bronze age Europe as far back as 4500 years ago. The chamber ceiling stones are huge flat slabs of rock. The weight of the ceiling pressing down on top of the walls gives them enormous stability.
Are there any records of the chambers existing before Colonial times? No records seem to exist in Putnam, but in a letter from a John Pynchon dated November 30, 1654, he talks about the strange walls and stone chamber found in Groton, Connecticut that the settlers had just discovered. It reads:
'Honored Sir, Understanding you are now at New Haven and supposing there will be opportunity from Hartford for conveyance thither, I make bold to scribble a few lines to you ... Sir, I hear a report of a stone wall and strong fort (chamber) within it, made all of stone, which is newly discovered at or near Pequet (now known as the Gungywamp Range). I should be glad to know the truth of it from your self, here being many strange reports about it.
If stone chambers were already in existence in nearby Connecticut in the mid 1600’s, it’s highly likely that the Putnam chambers were also around at that time as well.
The Pound Ridge Historical Museum holds another letter, this one from July of 1742. It was written by a priest to a local farmer who had just discovered a stone chamber in the woods near his property. The priest instructed the man to stay away from the chamber saying it was the work of the devil, and that it was a place where the devil could enter this world.
Who built the stone chambers? Many scholars believe that these structures were built by ancient European explorers centuries before Columbus discovered America. They point to the construction techniques, alignment with the sun, and mysterious carvings found at some of the sites. Some consider them sacred sites with mystical power, while others dismiss the stone chambers as simply being root cellars or places to store meat, and dairy products built by 18th-century farmers. Let’s take a look at some of the theories and you can be the judge.
Mainstream historians and archaeologists believe the chambers were built by Colonial farmers. They point to a lack of archaeological evidence that these are ancient structures, and say that there is such a large number stone chambers in Putnam because the area is rich with large slabs, rocks, and boulders. This is because 20,000 years ago, as the Laurentide Ice Sheet made its way over what is now Putnam County, rocks embedded in the bottom of ice sheets were pushed over the underlying landscape, scratching bedrock surfaces and creating large boulders. Conventional historians believe that farmers simply took advantage of the abundance of stones in the area and used them to make the chambers to store meat, dairy products, and vegetables. As for the chambers facing east and west, mainstream historians claim that the farmers needed the morning and afternoon light to use the cellars.
But, is there written evidence that farmers built the chambers? The Putnam Valley Historical Society has the papers of a 19th-century Putnam Valley farmer, Lucas Barger, who wrote that he recalled hearing relatives’ describing how the chambers were built. It’s important to keep in mind that he did not say that he actually built them, or that he ever saw anyone build them. He just wrote what his relatives told him about the chambers.
Thomas F. Maxon of Highlands Preservation, Inc. wrote, “According to the historical root cellar position, the early European farmers built them in the 1700s and 1800s, or hired construction gangs to build them. Many of Kent’s chambers are found where the earliest colonial farms were located. Lucas Barger, a Putnam Valley farmer who was born in 1867, wrote an account of how his relatives told him the chambers were built, describing the digging of a hole in the side of a hill in advance of the stone placement. Once the hole was dug and cleared of rocks, the side, back and front walls were constructed. The stones were placed so they couldn’t shift, and the doorway was topped with a lintel stone over it. Then, large capstones would be dragged over the top by teams of oxen pulling on chains tied around the capstones. Sometimes logs were used as rollers to facilitate the placement of the capstones. Once the stone placement was completed, about four feet of dirt was used to cover the entire structure. Finally, sod was placed over the dirt to complete the insulation of the chamber. A door would be fitted over the entrance to help regulate the interior temperature and humidity.” (1a)
But critics of the theory that the chambers were built by farmers point to the fact that these structures are found in one of the worst areas for farming. They also point out that most of the chambers are located on slopes which would have made it impractical for ease of access.
If these are ancient structures, who built them? No one knows for sure, but theories abound. Potential builders include ancient Celts, sailors from Libya, Irish monks, Phoenician traders, and Iberian explorers. Their purpose? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some say they are Celtic cathedrals, though having been in several I can assure you that they are far too small to hold more than a handful of people. Others think they were Viking dwellings (again, too small), Indian burial tombs, slave hideouts, and even homes to witches.
In 2001, Martin Brech, the Hudson Valley coordinator for the New England Antiquities Research Association, was interviewed by the New York Times about the stone chambers. Mr. Brech is convinced that they were built by ancient European explorers centuries before Columbus, and he vehemently opposes theories that the chambers are simply Colonial root cellars or storage spaces. In the article, ‘Putnam’s Mysterious Chambers of Stone’, Mr. Brech says that it is “… preposterous that some farmer would -- or could -- haul multi-ton slabs of granite just to make a shed. ''You don't need to go to these lengths for a storage space,'' he said. ''You'd only do something like this for religious purposes.'' As for 19th-century farmer Barger’s description of how the chambers were constructed, Mr. Brech considers the writings a ''yarn”, and says that they do not describe the chambers accurately. (1b)
Believers in the ancient explorers theory point out that archaeological digs at chamber sites have never uncovered any farm tools or artifacts which would suggest they were built by local farms. And apart from farmer Barger’s brief mention of the chambers as related by his relatives, there are absolutely no other written records of them being built. This is very hard to explain considering farmers wrote in diaries about building stone walls, farmhouse foundations, barns, orchards, and every other kind of structure.
Author Phillip Imbrogno has done an extensive amount of research on the Stone Chambers. In a 2008 ‘Daily Banter’ article he wrote, “One of the most popular theories is that the chambers were built by Celtic explorers who came to the east coast of the United States sometime around 100 BC. In the Pound Ridge, New York museum I found a reference to the structures dating back to 1699. The local colonial farmers compared them to similar structures found in Ireland which were known to have been built by Druids and were considered to be evil because they were part of the old pagan religion. During colonial times in New York people were told to stay away from these structures by the local priests who said that they were ‘The hop points of the devil from hell to earth’. It wasn't until the early 19th century that farmers started using some of the chambers found on their property to store tools, but they were never used as root cellars.”
Regarding the age of the stone structures, Mr. Imbrogno estimates that the earliest chambers were built around 1000 BC, while the last group were built around 500 AD. He theorizes that they may have been built by the early Celts, and notes that they show a strong Druid influence. He goes on to say that one chamber had carvings which were actually a type of writing used by the Celts in Europe over 2000 years ago. He writes, ‘The writing was translated as a prayer or dedication to the Celtic God Bel on the festival of Beltaine which was celebrated on May 1st.’ (1)
In the 1990s, Dr. Bruce Cornet, then a staff geologist at the Lamont Doherty Observatory, brought a proton procession magnetometer, a device used to measure variations in the earth’s magnetic field, when visiting four local chambers. Dr.Cornet said he recorded “the strangest readings I ever got in this area. It was strong enough to reverse a compass. Each stone chamber had a significant magnetic pull right in front of the door. This magnetic anomaly is a true clue that they are much older than the early colonists.” (2)
‘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.’ (3)
Those who believe that it is a man-made object say that it is similar to European dolmens which would be in line with the theories that the Celts once visited Ancient America. Some researchers say that there is a strong magnetic field under the huge stone, and experiments have apparently proven that seed stored under the structure grows faster and stronger than seed stored elsewhere.
But not everyone believes that this is a man-made structure. Geologists call this type of rock configuration a glacial erratics. Local geologist Steven Schimmrich says that the boulder is pink granite, and estimates that it weighs about 178 tons. Boulders such as these were picked up and transported by massive continental glaciers during the last few ice ages. When the glaciers melted, these rocks remained. While most rocks ended up on the ground, the boulder in North Salem landed onto a few other rocks which formed the unique structure we see today. (4)
Even though it sits on private property, you can park your car in a small parking area and walk around it. If you look closely, you’ll see ‘graffiti’ from the 18th and 19th century carved into the stone. I stopped by Balanced Rock this past summer and had a fascinating conversation with the owner of the land. He told me that while he’s not totally convinced that the huge stone is anything other than the work of an Ice Age glacier, he does admit that it looks like it was constructed by man — so who knows? In the end we both agreed that whoever built it, or whatever natural event moved it to its present location, it sure is amazing.
You be the judge! There are strong arguments on both sides of the Colonial Farmers and Ancient Explorer theories. One thing is for certain, these structures are incredible, valuable slices of history and they need to be preserved and maintained.
- http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/22/nyregion/putnam-s-mysterious-chambers-of-stone.html New York Times article from 2001 about the Putnam Chambers
- http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/16/nyregion/stone-chambers-silent-on-their-makers.html New York Times article from the 1990s about the chambers
- http://www.subterraneanbases.com/the-ellenville-tunnels-and-pine-bush-pits/ An excellent article. Check out the reports of strange hooded figures seen near the chambers.
- https://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/story/sports/recreational/2014/04/22/hike-week-visits-mysteroius-stone-chambers/8016087/ A good article with excellent photos of the chambers.
- http://www.paganspace.net/forum/topics/ancient-celtic-sites-found Phillip Imbrogno’s excellent article from the Daily Banter.
- http://www.aheadworld.org/2014/02/26/mysterious-stone-chambers-of-putnam-county/ Great Photos
- http://rockpiles.blogspot.com/2006/05/putnam-county-new-york.html Nice photo of the “King’s Chamber” in Putnam, along with a short article.
- http://mix97fm.com/mysterious-stone-chambers-of-dutchess-and-putnam-counties/ Article which mentions specific location of a few of the chambers, plus a video.
- http://www.highlandspreservation.org/uploads/2/5/1/7/2517862/stone_chambers_of_kent.pdf Excellent article
- http://ashfieldnewsarticles.blogspot.com/2011/01/mysterious-stone-chambers-of-new.html Excellent article about New England stone chambers, including those found in Putnam
- https://www.kelticenergy.com/the-stone-chambers A beautiful website set up by KEPRI, a paranormal group interested in investigating and preserving the stone chambers
- http://hudsonvalleygeologist.blogspot.com/2013/07/north-salem-balanced-rock.html Geologist Steve Schimmrich's essay on North Salem's balanced rock.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Nf2x9PQzec Excellent video about the chambers.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckBMW_p2fbo Phillip Imbrogno’s Youtube video
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJTm2w0CbbY Video about the Winter Solstice Stone Chambers in Whang Hollow, Putnam County, NY
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XauetGUuXB0 Video about North Salem’s Balanced Rock.