A centuries-old stone wall, stretching for miles; enormous pictures scratched into the ground of a desert; rocks arranged in a circle. You know what these landmarks are, right?
Guess again. Instead of the Great Wall of China or Stonehenge, these are all ancient American ruins and landmarks. The United States is a relative newcomer to the world stage, but there have been people long living on this continent, and they've left traces of their presence just as mysterious as those found in other countries.
MYSTERY HILL (aka "AMERICA'S STONEHENGE")
Salem, New Hampshire
Mystery Hill, New Hampshire (photograph by Rwike77/Flickr)
Although locals sometimes call this "America’s Stonehenge," Mystery Hill bears little resemblance to the English megalith. Instead, it's a complex of stone structures and artificial caves, most likely only as old as the 17th century. However, exact dating may never be possible, as the ruins suffered from tampering at the hands of a 1930s landowner who was convinced the structures were the remains of a 7th-century Irish monastic colony. So convinced, in fact, that if parts of the site didn't match his theory, he'd "fix" them.
The site's "mysterious" reputation has made it a popular tourist attraction for decades, and it's even earned some pop culture fame — H.P. Lovecraft reportedly visited the site for inspiration, and The X-Files set one episode nearby.
CASA GRANDE RUINS
Casa Grande, Arizona (photograph by midiman/Flickr)
Archaeologists understand some things about Casa Grande in Arizona. They know that it was probably constructed in the early 13th century, that the builders used adobe, and that the full complex included several other adobe structures and a ball court, and was once surrounded by a wall.
What they don’t know is what the four-story central building was for: a guard tower, a grain silo, a house of worship, or something else. The site was abandoned nearly half a century before Columbus's voyage to the Americas, long after the nearby Hopi had moved away, and was too ruined for early Spanish explorers to do their own investigating into what it was.
Today the main building is under a protective roof built by Civil Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s, and the full ruins are a federally-protected national park — the first such park in the United States.Read More
The Ramsgate Tunnels (all photographs by the author)
The Ramsgate Tunnels in England were reopened this May after 75 years of lying dormant. Originally known as the "Tunnel Railway," a narrow gauge track that connected neighboring Broadstairs to Ramsgate, it went through a variety of guises over the years, from WWII facility to tourist attraction.
In 1939, after much campaigning and persuasion, the tunnels were expanded as an air raid shelter, a system that extended beyond the initial narrow gauge tunnel and into a whole series of offshoots. The entrances were spread across the town enabling anyone, at any place in the town, to enter the shelter in under five minutes should the alarm sound. They were also cleverly concealed in order to not stand out in the event of a blackout and could accommodate up 60,000 people — Ramsgate’s population was only approximately half that. Though they were built as a preemptive measure, and were thought by some to be an unnecessary luxury and an indulgence by the “Mad Mayor” Aldemore, the Ramsgate tunnels proved invaluable during the war.
Being a costal and port town, facing France, Ramsagate was a clear target for aerial attacks in WWII. On one particularly memorable air raid, 500 bombs were dropped in under ten minutes causing devastation to the town, but incurring a fatality count as low as 11 because of the sheer expanse of the network. The vast majority of the townspeople were so far underground they could not even hear the bombs going off overhead.
Some markings left by old and new visitors
The tunnels were initially intended to provide a place to hide safely and sleep overnight in one of the pre-bookable bunks; it became more of permanent settlement than many intended. When you go and visit the tunnels today, you can see some reconstruction settlements at various stages. As you approach the mouth of the tunnel you are met with a WWII era café — “The Ratz” — playing 1940s music and offering hot drinks and tea cakes, necessary if you have braved the walk along the beach on a winter’s day.Read More
Lee Harvey Oswald's arrest card (photograph by Heritage Auction Gallery / Wikimedia)
Lee Harvey Oswald, the sniper who launched a thousand conspiracy theories, was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery on November 25th, 1963, during a funeral so sparsely attended that reporters were asked to act as pallbearers. He was laid to rest in a simple pine coffin his brother Robert had purchased the day before for $300. Now, as the New York Times reports, ownership of that coffin is being disputed in a Fort Worth courthouse.
The reason the coffin is in question at all is that in 1981, Oswald's body was exhumed at the behest of British writer Michael Eddowes, who believed that a Soviet spy had been buried there instead, and Oswald's widow Marina Porter, who wanted to set to rest the doubts and conspiracies. Robert Oswald tried to block the exhumation with several restraining orders, but a Dallas judge ruled that a surviving wife has the right to control a deceased person's remains over a brother. After Oswald's body was exhumed and its identity verified, it was reburied in a metal coffin and steel vault. The original pine box, which was badly damaged, was returned to the Baumgardner Funeral Home in Fort Worth, Texas, from which it had originally been purchased. It remained in storage there for nearly three decades.
Oswald's grave marker, used after the original tombstone was stollen (photograph by Iconsoffright / Wikimedia)Read More
Amboy, California (screenshot from Other America)
The town of Amboy, California, was a popular stop on Route 66 during the American roadway's heyday. When the Interstate Highway System put in speedier infrastructure to move cars across the country, Amboy was suddenly off the map. Now just four people live in the ghost town.
Filmmaker James Coulson visited Amboy as part of his Other America series, a 12-part short video exploration of the United States. Rather than zoom in on the derelict remains of the town, or focus on its sensational sale on eBay for $4,000, Coulson interviews a man named Fred who runs the Roy's cafe and filling station, as well as the post office a few days a week. The other residents in Amboy, Fred says, are the postmaster, the town sheriff, and "the guy that runs the salt plant but I can't remember his name." He explains the allure of living in a forgotten rural place: "Out here you can go fly in a hang glider, go dirt biking, go ATVing, go shoot something, and not worry about it, you're not stuck in a cubicle."
Four videos from the Other America series are online, with new installments released biweekly (you can see future destinations plotted on the front page map). They include interviews with the Lakota living on Rosebud Reservation alongside Mount Rushmore, people in Manchester, Georgia, where the absence of the former textile industry has left the storefronts empty, and a man from Mexico who moved to El Paso, Texas, and turned a gas station into a blacksmith shop. Coulson, born in the UK, was so drawn to the people he met and the places he explored that he became an American citizen partway through the journey. Below you can watch the video on Amboy, and find the continuation of Other America on Coulson's site. It's an engaging example of small budget filmmaking showing the personality of places on the margins.
View more films from the Other America series online.Read More
Dutch queen Wilhemina & princess Juliana as snowpeople in the Netherlands (1913) (via Nationaal Archief)
Humans are innately drawn to creating effigies of their own likenesses, often forging the figures from a crude stack of frozen balls plopped one atop of another. Building a snowman utilizes materials that are free of cost, easy to manipulate, and plentiful in certain times and places. It requires minimal artistic skill, as the placement of a few simple twigs and rocks can furnish your creation with an eerily expressive personality.
Snowman with charred backside in a 12th-century Book of Hours (via Koninklijke Bibliotheek)
Early snowman documentation has been discovered as far back as the Middle Ages, but we must assume that humans, creative beings that they are, have taken advantage of the icy materials that fall from the sky ever since winter and mankind have mutually existed. Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman, found the snowman's earliest known depiction in an illuminated manuscript of the Book of Hours from 1380 in the Koninkijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, Netherlands.
The despondent snowman seems to be of anti-Semitic nature, shaped with the stacked-ball method, and donning a jaunty Jewish cap. As he sits slumped with his back turned to the deadly fire, the adjacent text pronounces the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Apparently, plague-ridden Europeans needed a comical stooge onto whom they could foist their blame and frustration, and the Jewish snowman fit that bill.
Women attacking a cop snowman in a 1937 painting by Hans Dahl (via Wikimedia)
In the Middle Ages, building snowmen was a way for a community to find the silver lining in a horribly oppressive winter rife with starvation, poverty, and other life-threatening conditions. In 1511, the townspeople of Brussels banded together to construct over 100 snowmen in a public art installation known as the Miracle of 1511. This event was uncovered by Eckstein in his The History of the Snowman book.
Their snowmen embodied a dissatisfaction with the political climate, not to mention the six weeks of below-freezing weather. The Belgians rendered their anxieties into tangible, life-like models: a defecating demon, a humiliated king, and womenfolk getting buggered six ways to Sunday. Besides your typical sexually graphic and politically riled caricatures, the Belgian snowmen were often parodies of folklore figures, such as mermaids, unicorns, and village idiots.Read More