The Elephant’s Secret
Our house was at the top of a short, steep hill in a town of many hills. We were surrounded by mountains. In addition to the famed Presidential Range just miles away, the town was home to its very own Mount Jasper. We called it Elephant Mountain as its profile imitated a pachyderm’s trunk, head, and back. Like all mountains, Jasper was a shape-shifter. While we could access the trail head by turning right and walking to the end of our street, the elephant appeared hunkered down at a short distance directly in front of our house. Jasper wasn’t a majestic mountain like its near neighbors, but it was ours, its reassuring bulk our North Star.
I always had a particular fondness for Mount Jasper. It was a kid-sized mountain and, in my child’s mind, named after the street on which I lived. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that my friendly neighborhood mountain played an singularly important part in the activities of the region’s prehistoric people.
Thousands of years ago, during the Early Archaic period, native people discovered a rich vein of green and red banded rhyolite on Mount Jasper. They dug deep into a steep area of the mountain to harvest the stone which they used to create the tools necessary for their survival. It boggles the mind to think of these native people discovering this stone on a what I grew up thinking of as the elephant’s forehead. I mean, we’re talking 9,000 years ago. What were they doing up there? And what were the chances they’d make such a discovery?
Perhaps their shaman had a vision. Maybe the old stone tools needed replacement and scouting parties were sent out to find just the right substance for their needs. According to archeologists, there was a dearth of appropriate material in New Hampshire for fashioning stone tools. Hard to believe, this being the granite state. Perhaps granite was too hard for lithic technology. Flint, a sedimentary stone, wasn’t found in the state, and quartz, though abundant, was difficult to work.
Imagine then, how delighted was the Early Archaic traveler who discovered this rare banded form of rhyolite perfect for his purposes. There’s no way of knowing, how long and how many workers, it took to dig the horizontal mine 30 feet long and almost 20 feet high deep into a steep incline just meters from the top of the mountain. In addition to the mine, archeologists have found evidence that the area was also a prehistoric industrial site where a variety of stone tools — knives, spear points, scrapers, and other cutting and piercing tools — were manufactured. The stone was quarried, then moved to more level locations on the mountain to be worked.
Evidence of Mount Jasper rhyolite, which has been found nowhere else in the adjacent river valleys, has been recovered in sites far removed from the mountain. Conversely, worn tools made of stone from hundreds of miles away have been found at the mountain’s worksite. Does this mean people carried their worn and broken tools to this site specifically to make new ones of this rare stone? If so, how did they learn of it?
I grew up in the shadow of Mount Jasper unaware that thousands of years before, prehistoric people had discovered its secret stash of rhyolite. The history and science I was taught in school made no mention of this astonishing discovery or the role the stone played in the lives of Archaic and Woodland people. Not surprising, perhaps, as it wasn’t until 1976 — a full decade after I left my hometown — that archeologists furnished the first thorough description of the Jasper mine.
Recently, I set out to write a blog about growing up in Berlin and found myself describing Mount Jasper. A quick Google search led me to an article by Richard Boivert, former New Hampshire State Archeologist, in which he describes the area and tells the story of the Mount Jasper Lithic Source, now on the Register of Historic Places.
Now that I know the Elephant’s secret, I am planning a summer visit to explore the Jasper mine and renew my acquaintance with my neighborhood mountain.