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Solving the Stone Faces Riddle

Were 5 rocks with sunken eye sockets found in Massachusetts sculpted by Indians, prehistoric settlers or practical jokers?

June 15, 2003|Adam Gorlick | Associated Press Writer

WORCESTER, Mass — WORCESTER, Mass. -- They've been overlooked as useless oddities for decades -- flat-backed stones with sunken eye sockets and gaping mouths carved into them -- stowed in bowling ball bags, left in barns or fashioned into candle holders by those who found them in the woods of central Massachusetts.

Now in the hands of retired state geologist Joseph Sinnott, the five stone faces found in Sturbridge and Southbridge are getting the attention of archeologists and antiquity researchers throughout New England. They are wondering whether the stones were sculpted by American Indians, prehistoric settlers or practical jokers.

"I'm not saying I know who made these," Sinnott said. "I'm looking for information on who made them. Nobody I've spoken to has ever seen anything like these."

When Sinnott saw the first face, he wasn't too impressed. The 16-pound rock was given to him two years ago by a Southbridge man who said that he found it in 1991 near the Quinebaug River. He took the rock in a bowling ball bag to Sinnott's house in Worcester, and said he could take the geologist to the spot where it was first picked up.

The outing turned up no new evidence, and Sinnott shrugged off the stone as a curiosity not worth pursuing.

But a year later, Sinnott found himself staring at a second stone face in the custody of another Southbridge man.

"After seeing two, I thought we had something worth showing the public," he said.

Three more stones -- all chunks of granite weighing between six and 25 pounds that were found within eight miles of each other -- have been turned over to him since stories about the faces appeared in local newspapers. He recently received a call from a woman who said that she found a sixth in nearby Brookfield.

One rock that Sinnott examined had been kept in a family's barn for about 60 years. Another was coated with wax after being used as a candle holder.

Sinnott, who retired as the state's top geologist in 1992 after a 22-year career that included overseeing the raising of the only pirate ship ever recovered, argues with those who say that the visages are a hoax.

There is no evidence that the wide, smiling mouths and deep eye sockets are hollowed out with modern metal tools, he said. And the carvings -- which can't be dated with certainty -- appear to be hundreds of years old because of how they're oxidized, he said.

"These weren't made in a day, maybe not even a month," Sinnott said. "You'd have to spend weeks just picking out the eyes with a stone."

Sinnott showed the stones to members of the Nipmuc Indian tribe, which populated central Massachusetts for thousands of years. But he was told that the carvings matched nothing the Nipmucs ever did.

It's Sinnott's guess that whoever carved the stones left behind tools or some evidence of a homestead. He wants to pinpoint a location this summer for an archeological dig, where he'll look for more stone faces mingled with the debris of a much older civilization that he could date using traces of carbon.

"Whether they're colonial, Native American or from some lost race, they're just fascinating," said Richard Lynch, a Rhode Island geologist and member of the New England Antiquities Research Assn.

Lynch believes that the stones might have been used for sacrificial rituals. Their flat backs might mean that they were supposed to be positioned to stare at the heavens, and their deeply dented mouths could have held burnt offerings.

But not everyone is so sure that there's something mythical or spiritual about the stones.

"My first hypothesis is that these are a hoax," said Ed Hood, an archeologist and research historian at Old Sturbridge Village. "It may be a 50- to 100-year-old hoax. I'm pleased Joe is pursuing this and I'm maintaining an open mind, but I have a feeling there won't be a conclusive answer for who made them."

Hood, who has examined some of the stones, said he can't tell if metal tools were used for the carvings or if someone tried to mask the marks that would have been left by modern tools.

Although he disagrees that the faces were made by modern-day pranksters, Sinnott is open to any other explanation as to who carved them.

"To say they were done by a cult, Native Americans or a lost civilization could be the answer," he said. "But we have no reason to speculate."

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