June 6, 2011 – I don’t think I’ve ever seen an artifact in a museum that seemed more reluctantly displayed than the Mystery Stone of Lake Winnipesaukee. When I visited, which was a couple of years ago, it was in a small stand-alone case beside a large vent and up against an unobtrusive blank wall that you passed on entering the museum’s Native American exhibit. If you didn’t look behind you as you entered, you didn’t see it, and for some reason it seemed like the museum was okay with that.
But that could just be me projecting, based on the rather unstoried history of this smooth chunk of hieroglyphed stone.
Made of either quartzite or mylonite, the Mystery Stone looks for all the world like a Cadbury Creme Egg in both color and shape, although it’s about twice the size (so more like the UK version of the Easter treat). On its surface are carvings, the most prominent of which being a face, but it is also inscribed with a teepee, an ear of corn, a spiral, a circle, and other, more abstract symbols. Through its major axis has been drilled a hole that, like the rock itself, is small at the top and larger at the bottom. Overall, it doesn't look that remarkable.
However, when it was found in the ground during a fence installation project in 1872 near Lake Winnipesaukee in central New Hampshire, it apparently seemed remarkable, especially to Seneca Ladd, the businessman who organized the dig. He held onto the stone until his death 20 years later. All the usual guesses were made about its origin, but when it came down to it, nobody had a clue what it was or who made it, and that made it seem cool.
Ignorance makes a lot of things seem cool.
Today, we still don’t what it is or who made it. It's still a mystery...stone. However, experts are pretty sure the hole was bored with a machine. That’s enough to hurt its mystery right there, since the explanation seems to be “Some dude just made this for kicks, and relatively recently.”
After Ladd’s death, it found its way into the possession of the New Hampshire Historical Society, where they eventually gave it the aforementioned semi-embarrassed display in their Museum of New Hampshire History in the state capital of Concord, separated from the main displays of Native American and 1800s-era cultural artifacts, as well as items of modern-day interest, like a Segway prototype (invented in NH…we’ll make up for that at some point, I promise).
Actually, I guess the New Hampshire Historical Society is not completely embarrassed by it. I mean, it’s not too hard to find information about it on their website, they sell T-shirts featuring it, and they admit it’s the piece that receives the most inquiries. Still, judging by the exhibit display, you could tell that the museum curators didn’t know exactly what to do with it, and are at least wary of making too big a deal of it.
And, sure, one day we might learn that it’s the top of a lever from a time machine or the necklace bead (or kidney stone) of an ancient god, but its purpose, if it ever really had one, is probably a bit more prosaic. And deep down, everybody with a connection to or an interest in the stone, kind of knows it.