Native Insight: Ancient ceremonial complexes interesting to the inquisitive mind

  • A great view of Pioneer Valley from Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF

For The Recorder
Sunday, July 23, 2017

Ceremonial, spiritual and/or sacred landscape and peculiar stone structures within — all of it buried under forested canopies — all of them are concepts that have gained traction in contemporary anthropological circles.

Such features can potentially mark ancient ceremonial complexes where people gathered for annual open-air rituals, perhaps celebrating the solstice or equinox, maybe spring or fall harvest of fish or nuts or berries or you name it; maybe a burial or crevice from which underground spirits or evil serpents emerge. All of it interesting. Yes, interesting indeed to the inquisitive mind.

Even the likes of Tom Wessels, the well-known, respected author/lecturer on New England stonewalls and forested landscapes, believes that some stonewalls were here before Europeans settlers appeared to set their stakes. Then again, talk to experienced archaeologists as I have, and you’ll find that there are more hits than misses when it comes these curiosities, things like beehives or stone piles or stone rows or rocking stones, buried in the forest, often near the remains of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Of course, proximity to early dwellings and outbuildings doesn’t necessarily rule out indigenous origin. Often the earliest hilltown farms were built on the footprint of old, seasonal, hunting village sites that were easier to clear than forest. But still, it’s a guessing game when it comes to stone structures, which in no way detracts from the recent fascination among amateur and professional investigators alike.

Which brings us to the fourth annual Pocumtuck Homelands Festival, a Nolumbeka Project brainchild co-sponsored by Turners Falls RiverCulture, on the shady banks of the Unity Park waterfront in Turners Falls. Buried deep under the Turners Falls dam impoundment are what’s left of the ancient, spiritual fishing falls between Unity Park and Riverside, Gill, just above a radical left-hand turn in the river. There could be no more appropriate Franklin County site for such an event, created to celebrate Native American art, music and culture. This year’s festival is a scant two weeks away, scheduled for Aug. 5 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The crowds for the family affair have grown each year and that trend will likely continue again this year.

A main attraction this year will be Native stone structures and archaeology scholar Tim MacSweeney, creator of the blog “Waking up on Turtle Island,” devoted to Native American ceremonial stone landscapes features and culture. He will be on hand to field questions, evaluate artifacts brought by festival attendees or just to shoot the breeze about deep history of the Northeast.

Last year, it was Mary and James Gage, also well-known, published stone-structure experts. Now MacSweeney. Should be fun.

Bowser Road mastodon excavation

Digging much deeper into the well of time, Dr. Richard Michael Gramly, a paleontologist associated with the Sugarloaf Site — a Paleo archaeological site known in archaeological jargon as the DEDIC Site in Whately — is accepting orders for his new book, “Archaeological Recovery of the Bowser Road Mastodon, Orange County, New York.” It should be fascinating reading, having dug the bones and ivory tools crafted from husks of previous kills at a site in Middletown, N.Y., north and west of New York City.

“The Bowser Road mastodon excavation and subsequent research represents a quantum leap forward and point the way to things to be looked for at each new mastodon find. … It will help set the standard for information possibilities that are new, perhaps even revolutionary,” praises Dr. Russell Judkins in the forward.

With contributions from several experts, Gramly addresses the first Clovis-age mastodon kill and ritual site to be reported for the Americas, contrasting data about bone and ivory artifacts, etc. with records of discovery from Eurasia.

The 365-page study includes nine appendages, nearly 200 color figures, plus tables. The cost is $45 for durable (heavy tab) softcover or $70 for cloth hardcover with dust jacket, plus $8 shipping. All orders can be prepaid to ASAA/Persimmon Press, 455 Stevens St., N. Andover, MA 01845. Books will be shipped in a stout carton by U.S. Postal Service.

I myself have listened to Gramly’s description of what he found at the Orange County, N.Y., site, then his tales over the winter of going through a mass of bones and artifacts collected at the Hiscock Site in western New York and stored in metal lockers at the Buffalo Museum. Mastodons, our ancient elephants, have been extinct in the Americas for at least 12,000 years, but are included in indigenous myth and the archaeological record. The site addressed in the book was uncovered by a farmer digging a bog with a backhoe. Unnerved by the unearthing large bones and later informed by experts that they were those of a mastodon, he stopped digging and eventually put the site up for public auction. Gramly raised the funds needed, became the high bidder and excavated the important site.

Now you can read about the dig and his fascinating observations and hypotheses. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Recorder Sports Editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Send your questions, stories about our area to him at: gsanderson@recorder.com.