Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Exploring An Ancient Cave

There are a lot of things I want to do “someday.” One has been exploring an ancient mine on Mount Jasper in Berlin, NH. Long-postponed somedays are here now since I decided last spring to cap my teaching career at thirty-six years. So, a couple of weeks ago my wife and I climbed to the top of Mount Jasper’s southwest-facing cliff, then carefully threaded our way down to an old cave. It’s a man-made cave that took thousands of years to hack into a seam of multi-colored jasper. The material is also called rhyolite and it threaded diagonally up the exposed ledge of the mountain after forming over a hundred million years ago.

For years, I’ve been finding stone artifacts and flakes left by prehistoric inhabitants of the Fryeburg area, many of which I noticed were made from distinctive kinds of stone. Online, I learned some of it was a material called rhyolite from a source near the upper Androscoggin River in Berlin. Available evidence indicates that early Americans discovered it there and have been extracting tool-making material from this cave for about nine thousand years.Berlin from the ledge above the mine. Rain shower coming in from the south.

The first I’d learned of the mine was in a column by Ed Parsons in The Conway Daily Sun back in 1998 or ’99. Parsons writes mostly about hiking, and it seems he’s been up nearly every hill and mountain in the area. Included was a photo of the City of Berlin taken from top of the ledge above the mine. That’s when I made up mind to go there someday and check it out.

Two things made this a trip my wife and I could enjoy together: one - it involved rocks, which we both like. Two - it involved hiking, which isn’t one of my passions, though I do it occasionally because she likes it. “Just to get to the top” doesn’t motivate me to walk up up a steep hill for hours. If there’s a pegmatite mine on top, that would be some incitement, but that kind of mine is common in this part of the world and there are many I can drive to. If there were old cellar holes to examine on the way up a hill, that would motivate me too, but if there’s just a nice view, well, there are lots of nice views around I could drive to and enjoy with a sip of wine without getting all tired and sweaty climbing up and down. The historical significance of the Mount Jasper mine, and that it’s one of the oldest human-made sites in the whole northeast, excited me greatly and it was only about a half-hour hike up. All that put it near the top of the bucket list for this retired history teacher.

I researched it as much as I could before going, of course, and learned that ancient Americans probably didn’t spend a lot of time on site. Evidence uncovered thus far indicates that they went to replenish their tool supply. They would chisel pieces of jasper/rhyolite out of the cave, lug them to the top of the ledge or down to the bottom near the Dead River, and begin working them into tools like spear points, arrowheads, knives, scrapers and drills. Sometimes they would make cores, or rough chunks, which they would lug back to their settlements to further knap into the finished tools listed above. The flakes I found in Fryeburg were a result of this process.Close match. The one on the right was found at the entrance to the cave. The two on the left I found in Fryeburg.

Those who made finished tools there would sometimes discard their worn-out knives or arrowheads made of stone they’d gotten elsewhere in the northeast - like Mount Kineo or Munsungan Lake, Maine. These were found in the two working areas above and below the mine, which were partially excavated by Archaeologist Michael Gramly, whom I’d had the good fortune to meet and talk with for hours while visiting in Oquossoc, Maine. He strongly encouraged me to make the trip to Mount Jasper.Different facets show different effects of weathering as rhyolite chunks have been chiseled away over time.

When first glimpsing the entrance to the cave we noticed pieces of rhyolite strewn about and exposed to the elements. Material on the walls of the mine inside was not weathered and showed different colors ranging from red, blue and green to gray. I’d found both weathered and unweathered artifacts and flakes of Mount Jasper rhyolite in Fryeburg, and I’d carried some to the mine with me for comparison.Close-up of image above. It's a pretty rock.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the rhyolite would change its appearance after weathering. Old stone walls turn gray after little more than a century while newly-dug-up stone looks distinctively different and contrasts older stones when added to an already-existing wall. Some of the rhyolite artifacts I’ve found had been laying around a long time. Others seem to have been covered by soil shortly after the knapping process and retained their fresh appearance. I found these latter while examining freshly plowed and harrowed fields after a rain.Mount Jasper cave ceiling

In my research, I learned there’s another, even older site near Mount Jasper in Jefferson, NH where a similar kind of rhyolite was being knapped twelve thousand years ago. The “someday” I explore there will likely arrive later this fall.

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Anonymous Texas Transplant said...

Tends to put everything else in perspective, doesn't it?

9/28/11, 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because its there !

9/28/11, 9:36 AM  
Anonymous Ed Parsons said...

Tom, thanks for the small mention in your column. Glad I could turn you on to Mount Jasper. And thanks for telling me about that site in Lovell years ago. We're even. Unless you have more such places to tell me about. Have you ever looked around out in the Harbor at the confluence of the Kezar outlet, Charles Brook and the Saco meander? Contact me at if you have more places to tell me about.
No, I haven't hiked up every mountain. :)

9/29/11, 6:02 PM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

The area you describe is where I found the stones pictured above. It's a couple of miles down the road from me and I visit often to see if there's been more plowing and harrowing. Then, after every rain, I walk around.

9/30/11, 7:45 AM  
Anonymous Ed Parsons said...

Cool! I want to do that too. I knew about Helen's big collection from there (still in the attic at AZ's). Looking at one of your old articles, it looks like you park at the church and walk behind it.
Also, not sure where I see the stones you say are pictured above. You mean in that old archeology column?

9/30/11, 8:57 AM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

Two of the three rocks pictured in the column above - the ones I found in Fryeburg. Scroll down a few paragraphs from where I mentioned you.

9/30/11, 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Ed Parsons said...

See them. Interesting. Reminds me of a spear point of hornfels that someone brought to a talk by Boisvert at Runnels Hall. He had found it in his driveway off Rt. 25. His house was near the deposit in the Ossipees. Same rock had been found all along the Merrimack and beyond. Indians constantly moved about, and without GM or Ford.

9/30/11, 5:43 PM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

I was over in the Ossipees today. Just got back. I found lots of hornfels along the Gilmore Valley Road area between Nickerson Mountain and Mount Whittier, but I've read there's another mine somewhere near the new Club Motorsports track being built on the northeast slope of Mount Whittier. Couldn't find it today.

Might you know its location?

9/30/11, 6:25 PM  
Anonymous Ed Parsons said...

Ya, if you drive further west on 25 past the Club Motorsports trailer and the road to Tamworth on the right, you soon come to a long driveway on the left called Lord Hill. I think that's where the guy lives who found the spear point in his driveway. So, somewhere between his place and the ClubMotorsports trailer, up in the woods,is the deposit.

10/1/11, 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Ed Parsons said...

I think....

10/1/11, 3:21 PM  
Blogger Average American said...

Sure wish I had known you were coming to Berlin Tom. I live here and would not have let you go back home without first checking out the displays at the children's library and also at the old Brown House museum. They have a good deal of history on the Mt Jasper site also. There's also a feller up in Milan that is about an expert on Paleolithic stuff. Been meaning to tell you also, nice to see your column in the local paper.

10/5/11, 4:56 AM  

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