WOODSTOCK – They’ve been debated about and argued over for decades.
Some say farmers placed them when clearing fields. Others claim it was the nearby quarry workers playing around on their time off. Some even speculate that Works Progress Administration campers made them, or that they were fashioned by hippies high on LSD.
They are large stone mounds – petroforms and serpentine walls – and, in fact, none of this prior conjecture about their origins is correct.
Dr. James K. Feathers, Research Associate Director, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, conducted research using optical stimulated luminescence (OSL) to date two mounds on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, NY. Results for the first mound, known as #4, revealed a suggested construction date of 1550 CE (+/- 50 years), based on sediment analysis, likely making it among the oldest documented man-made structures in Ulster County, NY. These results are based on samples collected in the fall of 2020. Results of a second sample from mound #1 are pending.
“Although the age corresponds to the time of earliest European contact, it predates European settlement and was likely constructed by Indigenous Communities who lived in the area prior to contact with Europeans,” said Dr. Feathers.
Dr. Feathers, along with colleague Dr. Marine Frouin, Assistant Professor, Department of Geosciences, Stony Brook University, took samples from two man-made stone structures on the south slope of Overlook Mountain as well as at several other locations from seven states in the Northeast. OSL is used when scientists and researchers want to minimally disturb the structures they are studying. It can work on a variety of materials: ceramics, lithics, quartz or feldspar sediments. OSL determines when sunlight was last shown on minerals in stones and sediments.
Erecting tents and “collection cocoons” to block out light, the team retrieved samples and returned them to Feathers’ lab in Seattle. Just over a year later the results revealed dates of 1550 CE for mound #4. The dating work is currently undergoing peer review for publication in a scientific journal. Many samples Feathers and Frouin collected in other Northeast sites date to around the same time.
Prior to the OSL dating, everything about the mounds’ age was conjecture. In fact, one local archeologist dismissed the mounds entirely, considering them nothing but farmers clearing land. This created additional controversy and conflict because Indigenous tribes who visited the Overlook Mountain site recognized these stone structures to be Manitou Asunals or “spirit stones” that are part of larger ceremonial stone landscapes (CSL).
“The results of this research clearly puts the site’s origins to pre-history, pre-European contact, and confirms what Indigenous communities knew all along – that these sites are ceremonial and spiritual expressions of their ancestors,” said Glenn Kriesberg, Chair, Overlook Mountain Center, the nonprofit that helped fund and commissioned the research and oversees
stewardship of the 37-acre archeological site on Overlook Mountain where the studies were conducted. “We hope it puts to rest some of the controversy over their origin.”
“Stones were and are used for prayers, healing and ceremony,” said Michaeline Picaro, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Ramapough Lenape Nation Turtle Clan, and Board member of the Overlook Mountain Center. “Placing a stone (prayer stone) in a specific area, predesignated, or spiritually guided, is an ongoing practice even today. Recognizing ceremonial stone landscapes like this one is crucial to protecting them.”
Overlook Mountain Center, a 501(c)3 nonprofit formed in 2013, promotes awareness and understanding of the relationship between Overlook Mountain and the human populations that have encountered it throughout time. OMC creates programs and conducts research to educate, experience and celebrate all aspects of Overlook Mountain and its ecosystems.