NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. - Long before the first European settlers, bands of Indians roamed the hills and woodlands in this section of northern Rhode Island. They hunted game in the hills and likely settled along the rivers and swamps.
Some scholars believe the various tribes that traversed this area for centuries buried their dead in the forested hills, using the abundant rocks scattered throughout to create uniquely shaped mounds to honor them and to mark their burial sites.
What these piles mean and whether they are significant are questions that have sprung anew now that a group of developers wants to turn 264 acres of these woodlands into residences. The proposed Rankin Estates development would consist of up to 120 single-family homes, making it by far the largest single residential development in this rural town of about 11,000.
The developers have been stymied so far by a heated dispute over whether clusters of rocks found on the property are Indian burial mounds or simply piles of stones cleared away by early settlers to farm the land.
The presence of Indian burial mounds would be significant, because it means the developers would be required by law to preserve the grounds and to establish a boundary around them - limiting the land that can used for house lots. If enough of the suspected sacred sites were found, the proposed subdivision could be scuttled.
William Simmons, a professor and chair of the anthropology department at Brown University, said he saw stone structures on a tour earlier this year of the general area, known as Nipsachuck Hill and Swamp, that he believed could be centuries old and "were definitely made by human hands - they are not natural formations."
"They consist of many field stones arranged in neat more or less dome-shaped piles perhaps two-to-four feet high," Simmons wrote in an e-mail. He added that excavating some sites is the only way to tell how old the clusters are and possibly who built them.
And now some local leaders are calling for just that: a full blown archaeological survey that would include excavating some plots to determine whether ancient burial mounds exist.
"There's a lot of evidence showing that [Indian burial mounds exist], and how exciting it is," said Linda Thibault, the North Smithfield Town Council president. "It's such a huge piece of history if it turns out to be" old burial grounds.
The dispute underlines a recurring theme in New England, where open land is increasingly scarce, and suspected burial plots - whether of Indians or early settlers - can preclude development.
Scholars agree that several Indian tribes journeyed regularly in the Nipsachuck woods. The first battle of the King Philip's War, which pitted English settlers against Indian tribes, was fought there, according to Edna Kent, the town historian in nearby Glocester.
Frederick Meli, an archaeological consultant and former adjunct professor in the anthropology department at the University of Rhode Island, believes the clusters of rocks - some hidden by thick vegetation - are Indian burial mounds. Meli, who has toured the area on and around the proposed development and produced a report last spring for the Town Council, said the orientation of stone piles, the presence of rocks that he believes were brought from the coast as "tribute stones" to the dead, and the area's history as an Indian crossroads convinced him the rock clusters are Native American burial mounds.
Meli rejected the developers' assertion the rock piles were created by settlers as they cleared the land for farming.
"These are hills with sand, gravel, and stones," Meli said. "The only thing you can grow is stones."
But a report prepared by The Public Archaeology Laboratory Inc. in 2001 for the developers concluded the area was used for agriculture.
"They not only investigated [suspected Indian burial mounds], they excavated them, they reviewed them and concluded they are piles of rocks and were part of a farm in the 1800s," said Michael Kelly, a lawyer who represents the property owners, Narragansett Improvement Co., Rankin Path LLC, and USB Realty LLC.
Even the number of suspected burial plots is unclear. Kent said she found two on the Rankin Estates grounds; Meli said he saw many more during a walk through the surrounding forest. Some locals believe there could be hundreds throughout the area.
Adding to the confusion is that Kent, from her position as a member of the state Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, has already designated two sites she found on the Rankin Estates property as historical cemeteries. It is unclear what effect the designation could have on the development.
Nevertheless, North Smithfield leaders think the rock piles warrant a closer look; the Town Council has authorized Meli to investigate the site more rigorously. And last month, the town's planning board unanimously denied the developers' application, saying it was incomplete, according to Bob Lowe, the town administrator. Kelly said his clients plan to sue.