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28 July 2008
Battle over Rhode Island rock mounds

As a boy, John Brown remembers traveling with his family to the wooded hills in northwest Rhode Island (USA) where his fellow Narragansett Indians gathered near stone piles they believe were left by ancient ancestors. That belief is now at the center of a struggle between the rural town of North Smithfield and a developer who wants to build a 122-lot subdivision on the land. The town suspects the piles are burial mounds, and has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the land a historic burial ground. But the developer contends the piles were left behind by farmers or loggers, and has been pushing since 2001 to build.
     Little is known for certain about the hundreds of rock mounds near Nipsachuck Hill and swamp. The piles of granite, slate and quartz rocks on hilly, forested land there are generally two feet or taller. Similar mounds have been found along the Appalachian Mountains and into eastern Canada. "The land was in use by Native Americans and it contained these mounds," said archaeologist Frederick Meli, who was paid by the town to survey the site. "Whether they're burial or ceremonial, I think they go back at least a couple of thousands of years."
     Brown, the historic preservation officer for the Narragansett tribe, said the stone mounds appear to be man-made and probably mark a burial or ceremonial ground common to several tribes. Narragansett Indians continued to gather there for sunrise ceremonies and other commemorations into the 1960s or 1970s, when conflicts with property owners halted the meetings, he said. Although many in this rural town knew that the rock piles existed, they are spread throughout private land and out of public view.
     Michael Kelly, an attorney for the developers says the town's most recent lawsuit is a ploy to block the development. Town officials say they just want to enforce building laws and protect burial plots. Each side has hired archaeologists to examine parts of the disputed land. Last year, the town hired Meli to conduct several walking surveys of Nipsachuck Hill and swamp. He found multiple artifacts that he believes show the site was in use by humans thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived. He identified a triangular boulder that he thinks is a Manitou stone, an American Indian marker used to identify areas of spiritual significance. He also recovered a stone ax in the debris of one partially toppled rock pile. Elsewhere, Meli found several rock projectile points, including one that he dated back to at least 2500 BCE. Still, none of these clues proves the mounds are burial grounds. The lawsuit is pending, and a Superior Court judge has not yet set a date for arguments.

Sources: Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle (20 July 2008)

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