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On The Trail

On The Trail: Paleo patter

Does anyone else have problems getting their head around small encampments of Paleo-Indian hunters spearing to death migrating caribou funneled through a tight ravine at the base of Sugarloaf some 12,350 years ago? Yes, mind boggling indeed, yet quite real.

I suppose what makes it all so unfathomable is the sad fact that the typical American citizen taught in the average American school is lost in a very intentional Christian/cultural fog that deceives most into believing that New England history began with the Plymouth pilgrims in 1620. If creative, curious and sophisticated, you may even want to begin with Leif Erikson and long-lost Vinland, circa 1000 AD, still to this day being hunted by scholarly explorers. Well, let me tell you a little secret: It all started way before the Vikings, secretive Basque fishermen or a Portuguese explorer named Christopher Columbus, and it was happening right here where we live, dating back between 12,000 and 13,000 years, maybe even a bit earlier. That was proven this week by radiocarbon dating performed on calcine (baked) bone fragments collected on a two-week archaeological excavation led from Sept. 7-21 by veteran, soon-to-be 67-year-old archaeologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly, a Harvard Ph.D specializing in Paleo discovery, with the ground-breaking Vail Site in western Maine’s Rangeley Lakes Region and many other important sites to his credit.

Not one to putter around procrastinating over scholarly reports while storing artifacts in dark, locked vaults secreted far from public view, Gramly has been aggressively piecing together the clues uncovered with shovel, trowel and soft-bristled brush by his veteran, highly coordinated American Society for Amateur Archaeologists crew since he returned home on Sept. 21. After packaging and mailing his bone samples to Beta Analytic, a respected Miami, Fla., lab he and other top archaeologists have for 30 years used to date material, Gramly has continued to diligently pick away at the artifacts, attempting to reassemble broken pieces and comprehend precisely what it all means. Beta lab has already examined the bone and dated it to 10,350 years Before Present, plus or minus 50, which, according to Gramly, computes out to approximately 12,350 actual calendar years or to roughly the date 10,337 BC … mind-blowing indeed. That’s nearly 10,000 years before ancient Greece and Rome, more than 9,000 years before ancient Egyptian civilization coalesced.

Wow!

Truth be told, Gramly was a little disappointed with the date because what he had seen led him to speculate the artifacts gathered at the site dated back as far as the Vail Site he dug in 1980. Beta Analytic and another independent lab dated the bone collected there at about 350 years older, some 12,700 years old. But hey, a layman might ask, what’s 350 years in a picture so deep? And although that sounds like a reasonable assessment, Gramly says one should be careful not to dismiss 3½ centuries so haphazardly, saying 350 years is not in any way insignificant in the big picture. Much can change in three centuries, including such crucial factors as climate, glacier-melt and vegetation to name a few, and Gramly insists that archaeologists must pay close attention to the minutest details when interpreting prehistoric data. So, for the time being, he’s going to treat the Vail and Sugarloaf sites as apples and oranges, comparing the South Deerfield site bordering a sandy, agricultural Whately plain as a “sister site” to the famed Bull Brook Site of Paleo legend in Ipswich.

“That site sits 120 miles due east of the Sugarloaf Site,” said Gramly, reached at his North Andover home Tuesday. “We don’t know if we’re dealing with the same bands of hunters at the sites, or related bands, or if it was the same people migrating with the caribou herds from one site to the other. We may never know, but I’d sure like to know.”

Gramly’s most recent dig was his second at the Sugarloaf Site. Following his first dig — performed in 1995 on private abutting property that has since been purchased by the state and kept off-limits — Gramly wrote a book and gave all his field notes kept in India Ink along with reports and photos to Memorial Libraries in Deerfield. Not only that but he gave all artifacts to the rightful owners, the Whately family that owned the land before selling it under pressure from the state. That family has shown the artifacts to many, including New York scientists who are now trying to date them using new, state-of-the-art technology. But now Gramly has beat them to it, finally getting a definitive date after nearly 40 years of bureaucratic thumb twiddling fueled by professional/academic competition and jealously. Gramly’s top priority on the latest venture was to date the site, and that has now been done thanks to the many bone fragments he was able to collect. Actually, he could have sacrificed the only bone fragment he found on his last dig 18 years ago but refused because it was the only piece of bone he found and he didn’t want to destroy it. In the near future, he’ll also be submitting an exciting collection of charcoal discovered in more than one two-square-meter pits, including one uncovered toward the end of the second week that what was believed to be a bowl-shaped fire pit. However, Gramly warned, “Charcoal dating is a little more risky. Sometimes a tree can burn right down to the roots, leaving charcoal. That’s why I wanted bones to date. Bone dating can’t be denied.”

In the meantime, Gramly is working furiously to put together a PowerPoint summary of the Sugarloaf dig he plans to unveil a few weeks down the road in Portland, Maine, where the prestigious Eastern States Archaeological Federation is meeting the weekend of Nov. 1. There, with rumors likely already swirling through scholarly Northeastern archaeological circles, Gramly will likely blow the cover off the Franklin County site, which he implores has sat idle long enough and should be explored further in search of habitation and kill sites there. If he can supply the wind behind the sails, that Sugarloaf Site could open the gates to long overdue exploration of other important Pioneer Valley prehistoric sites, places like Canada Hill overlooking once-sacred Peskeomskut waterfall in Turners Falls, the Bashin in North Hatfield, Kells Farm in Greenfield, sites in Northfield and Hadley and Sunderland and on and on and on.

“I don’t know what they’ve been waiting for,” said Gramly. “I’m a scientist and the inactivity makes absolutely no sense to me. How can they continue to ignore it? Here we have one of the most important Paleo sites in North America, one we’ve known about for more than 40 years, and they’ve been just sitting on it all this time. By now, in my opinion, there should have been 40 or 50 doctoral dissertations to come out of that site and related sites right there in your home, the Connecticut Valley, an archaeological treasure trove that needs to be explored.”

Asked if it’s likely there are earlier sites in the neighborhood, Gramly didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

“Yes, it’s very likely there’s just such a site not far away,” he said. “Bud Driver has a drill point of an earlier style that showed up prominently at the Vail Site, and it came from within a mile or two of Sugarloaf. I intend to investigate that site and talk to the farmer.”

So, stay tuned: The days of public railing against this stuff as hysterical anti-development rhetoric and historical hooey may be over if Gramly has anything to say about. My guess is that a new clamor is building intense pressure and ready to blow. New spokespeople driving the message will be unimpeachable experts in their field, and the old boys trying to discredit and demean them will look foolish indeed, if not intentionally manipulative and, in the end, uninformed at best.

As for the staid academic cultural-resource managers committed to silence in the name of protection and preservation, well, we’ll see how it all turns out for them. They may yet figure out how to have it both ways.

“Can you imagine the state buying that first site I dug to prevent further study?” asked Gramly. “They paid almost half a million dollars for it. Just think what we could have done with a half-million to dig it.”

Something doesn’t smell right.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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