Stone Walls, a Closer Look

A white haired professor emeritus standing by a stone wall in the woods explaining its origins
Forman explaining the colonial-era origins of a stone wall in Newbury Field, Concord, Massachusetts
Photograph by Nell Porter Brown/Harvard Magazine

New Englanders know them well: the iconic stone walls that border roads, fields, and old farms are easily taken for granted, seemingly as natural as pine forests and babbling brooks. Yet the oldest “stone fences,” as they were once called, were laboriously created to safeguard crops and contain livestock, as Concord, Massachusetts, ecologist Richard T.T. Forman has found out during recent years of serious trail-walking. He’s identified numerous types of these relics, explaining when, why, and how they were constructed in “Deciphering Concord’s Old Stone Walls and What They Indicate,” published by the Concord Land Conservation Trust last year. “Envision the English settlers in Concord coming in 1635 and seeing the forests just covered with these rocks,” he says during a walk through the Newbury Field conservation land. They cleared land for crops and timber but when cows and sheep arrived, sturdy fencing was required. Oxen hauled the glacier-deposited round stones out of the woods on sleds, then people piled them up, from large to small, in practical and pleasing configurations. In Newbury Field, the wall that looms perpendicular to the woodland trail, about a three-minute walk from the entrance, “was for cows because it’s shorter,” says Forman, professor of advanced environmental studies in the field of landscape ecology, emeritus, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “Higher fences were for sheep because they can jump.” He jabs at the humus with a metal rod, hunting for sunken basal stones that farmers likely placed there sometime between 1675 and 1775.

A decorative wall from the 1890s at Nashawtuc Hill
Photograph by Richard T.T. Forman


He’s identified numerous stone structures, from those built for barn and cellar foundations, impounding stray livestock, and altering stream-flows to the “double cultivation” walls featuring a V-shaped trough where farmers tossed small stones that surfaced in freeze-and-thaw cycles. Such industriousness meant that by the 1850s, a dearth of good stones led residents to cannibalize old walls to make new ones, leading to more modern walls made of a jumble of hand- and machine-cut rocks. But a walk through any New England woods grown up on former farmland will still likely reveal stretches of lichen-layered stone of walls, some laid down centuries ago. And those are, he says, “a treasure to discover.”

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

You might also like

Historic Humor

University Archives to preserve Harvard Lampoon materials

Academia’s Absence from Homelessness

“The lack of dedicated research funding in this area is a major, major problem.”

The Enterprise Research Campus, Part Two

Tishman Speyer signals readiness to pursue approval for second phase of commercial development.  

Most popular

Poise, in Spite of Everything

Nina Skov Jensen ’25, portraitist for collectors and the princess of Denmark. 

Claudine Gay in First Post-Presidency Appearance

At Morning Prayers, speaks of resilience and the unknown

Dominica’s “Bouyon” Star

Musician “Shelly” Alfred’s indigenous Caribbean sound

More to explore

Exploring Political Tribalism and American Politics

Mina Cikara explores how political tribalism feeds the American bipartisan divide.

Private Equity in Medicine and the Quality of Care

Hundreds of U.S. hospitals are owned by private equity firms—does monetizing medicine affect the quality of care?

Construction on Commercial Enterprise Research Campus in Allston

Construction on Harvard’s commercial enterprise research campus and new theater in Allston