Relishing relics

Our historical society owns the big sepia photograph that looks as clear as yesterday's print. Arthur, who may as a boy have known these men and women lined up proudly in front of the old mill, was sure I would like to see the photo. The men in their handlebar mustaches and ladies in mutton-sleeved long dresses probably all lived in our little town: There wasn't much commuting in those horse-and-buggy days. I could just make out my big barn in the distance. But the mill in the photo is now gone, save for its huge granite foundation down below where the millstream charges through as though nothing has changed.

There is in the picture a barren look, with none of the big second-growth trees that now surround my millhouse. Perhaps the sawmill just naturally gobbled up every tree in sight like a hungry dragon. I told Arthur, who is our unappointed town historian, that I wasn't sorry the mill was gone. He agreed the woods were pleasanter to look at, but like me he has a feeling for what has been. Years ago he had come calling in his mackintosh and cap to introduce himself and to tell me about the history of the millhouse I now owned. It was as if he didn't feel the place was properly mine until I was introduced to those who'd been here before me.

Arthur had it all written down on a slip of paper, names and dates. He'd even brought along an old volume with the lineage of townspeople way back to the king's grant that originated our town. Arthur reeled off the names of the first 20 families as if they were candy on his tongue. My house, he said, was at one time lived in by a man who tended the wounded at Bunker Hill. Of course we New Hampshire folk know to call it Breed's Hill, and we know with certain satisfaction that most of the men who fought there happened to be from our state.

It's easy for Arthur and me to slip into other centuries. We're sometimes more comfortable there than here. Things of the past are more certain: We know how the Revolution turned out, when the mill came down, how what was before changed the taste of what came after. It isn't even difficult to insert ourselves into another race, such as the Indians who owned this land before us. The big lake up our country road is so uninhabited most of the year that I have no trouble picturing the straight-backed tribesmen running like the wind through silent trees and skimming their birch bark canoes over the water.

But now Arthur has brought a book that awakens me to the very earliest visitors to our neck of the woods. Somehow we Americans have thought ourselves such a new country that it didn't seem possible there could have been visitors to these shores much before the Norsemen. Now Arthur talks of civilizations far earlier, that actually settled where we live. The book he lent me shows photographs of ancient inscriptions on stones found nearby, supposed to be Celtic markings of people who predated the Christian calendar.

Sometimes in the black night, with snow emptying out of the sky, I lie in a warm down cocoon and think of these seafarers out on the swirling Atlantic, blown in small boats by the prevailing winds to these uncharted rocky shores. Archaeologists have only recently speculated that the so-called stone ''root-cellars,'' unearthed in our area and throughout New England, may be remnants of this ancient culture, Celts sent here possibly by their Phoenician masters to discover sources of needed metals.

Arthur speaks of these inscribed stones in neighbors' woods as if they were ordinary signposts down the road. He ran across a promising one just a while ago while working on my neighbor's granite boundary markers. So often these ancient stones have unknowingly been incorporated by farmers into their stone fences, and the incisions on the rocks were thought simply to be glancing marks of old plows. But Arthur, steeped in his historical studies, has a sharp eye, and he notified some of his friends at a prestigious university of his latest find. They in turn put the word out to a big television station in Boston, thinking this was a worthy event.

With a camera crew in the offing, Arthur's neat wife, Caroline, persuaded him to abandon the old mackintosh for his Sunday best. It wasn't certain what day of the week the television people would show up to record him and his stone, so for several days we were treated to the sight of Arthur in collar, tie, dark blue suit, and shiny pink face.

He endured the discomfiture in silence while the Boston people kept putting off the event because of big-city headline news that always seemed more important than Arthur's stone. It had waited a couple of thousand years, and a few days more wouldn't matter.

But Arthur's collar and tie couldn't wait. He finally doffed them for his comfortable working gear, and he and the television people now seem to have agreed to forget each other. I don't know if Arthur has found any more Celtic stones. If he has he's keeping it close to himself, and I don't blame him. There are a lot of discomforts a New Hampshire archaeologist willingly endures, but a collar and tie for more than two days running is not one of them.

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