Unearthing Issues

I’ve found that most things happen for a reason. Take, for instance, Wednesday morning’s incoming mail.

Having heard the white USPS jeep pass a half-hour earlier while reading, I pulled my truck up alongside the mailbox to retrieve the mail on my way out of the yard to run the dogs. The first item to catch my eye was a flier from Cobb’s auction in Peterborough, N.H., the cover displaying the glossy color photo of a formal Chippendale chest of drawers similar in style to a friend’s recent purchase. The next item to pull me in was a pale, robin’s-egg-blue, greeting-card-sized envelope addressed to me below a paste-on return address from Kirk Spurr, the dean of diggers assisting Dr. Richard Michael Gramly on a recent archaeological excavation along the perimeter of an important Paleo-Indian site situated on a sandy terrace below Mt. Sugarloaf. Inside was a personal note and a compact-disk archive of photographs taken by Spurr, 83, and other participants during the important two-week dig performed by members of Gramly’s American Society for Amateur Archaeology on what is likely the hottest Paleo site this side of the Mississippi River, definitely sacred ground in the archaeological world.

Before I proceed, I suppose I should take a moment to explain to those who spend their free time perched in treestands with bow and arrows how a man penning an outdoors column can get drawn into writing about archaeological excavations. Well, all I can say is that hunting and fishing and the outdoors are still important to me, but not nearly as fascinating as 12,000-year-old Paleo hunters spearing caribou and wooly mammoths on my childhood haunts with stone, bi-faced weapons sharpened in an open-air workshop being uncovered before my eyes on Sugarloaf’s lap. Can it get any more interesting than that? Not in this man’s world.

But, back to Spurr — a man I observed performing various excavation chores, usually wearing a distinctive, tinted-billed straw hat, not to mention a palpable gleam of boyish enthusiasm — my indelible image of him was planted in my mind on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 25, as the archaeological crew buttoned down its sophisticated, fine-tuned project for the night. My wife had spelled me in my son’s Springfield hospital room and told me in passing that a friend had left a phone message to say he was traveling to the site to meet an important Paleo scholar expected to arrive from France that afternoon. Good timing, I thought, having already intended to stop on my may through and see what was happening. Upon my arrival, I noticed local dig-liaison and Deerfield Historical Commission member David “Bud” Driver standing and talking to a thin, distinguished, bespectacled, gray-bearded man between the gabled ends of two barns stuffed with aromatic field tobacco. Driver signaled me over with his hand and introduced me to Duncan Caldwell, who I discovered was the very man my telephone pal thought I should know en route. Fact was, he was not coming in from France, though, but a place much closer, Martha’s Vineyard, his summer place of residence. What does it matter? He winters in France. Anyway, I spoke for some time with Caldwell, a fascinating man and skilled conversationalist who was most interested in historical context of the site I know as Hopewell, the plain and swamp below, which I was more than willing to provide. Our rambling, dynamic conversation lasted perhaps 20 minutes, stopping just in time to wander toward the picnic table where the work crew drifted at the end of each day for casual conversation and laughter.

On our short walk to the table, capped with a cooler-ful of soft drinks, a few colorful pumpkins and items of discarded clothing here and there, Caldwell recognized Spurr standing near a wooden-framed, wire-screen sifter resting on sawhorses along the edge of a two-meter-square hole and greeted him with a warm hello and smile. He immediately walked over to him, shook hands and wrapped both arms around him in a brotherly embrace that told me Spurr — a retired Ph.D chemist with a Dartmouth and Cornell academic pedigree — was not anyone you’d call an amateur. Caldwell, a world-renowned expert in Paleo-Indians, was obviously greeting him as a peer and colleague, someone he had worked with many times before and for whom he held his deepest respect.

“They call us amateurs because we don’t get paid for this work,” Spurr explained in his quiet, humble, Ivy League way, “but we have more field experience than most working professional digs, which are usually manned by young college students.”

Another big difference I have sensed between professional and amateur archaeologists from personal observation is hesitance on the part of the former go public with site locations and reports. Not so with Gramly, who I watched drop whatever he was doing several times to walk a new arrival around the site explaining everything, and then some. A true educator with youthful exuberance and energy, Gramly never showed a trace of impatience or a hint that he was being inconvenienced. On the other hand, local academics have been digging locally for decades and largely keeping their reports and artifacts hidden from public view in the name of site preservation and protection. Not only that, but these folks, the haughty professionals, pejoratively refer to Gramly’s crews as “amateur,” even though a cursory review of their crews’ credentials would reveal an entirely different story. No one can call Gramly an amateur, he who holds the same Harvard degrees as his most outspoken critics, not to mention decades more experience. And the same can be said for most of the men and women who follow him from site to site as a faithful, competent crew.

“I was happy to hear Mike was leading this dig because I know he’ll publish something quickly that people can get their hands on,” said perhaps the world’s preeminent Northeastern lithics expert the first time we met on-site. And although this source didn’t go into detail and throw anyone under the bus, I knew the target was the secrecy and perhaps hidden agendas of state officials and some local academics who carry their water at digs conducted under state permit.

Although I won’t go overboard criticizing the state archaeologist and her UMass minions who deny they are secretive, then refuse access to their reports and artifacts, I know of two local landowners who permitted important archaeological excavations on their land over the past 20 years and have yet to see an accounting of the artifacts dug or the reports written. One of these landowners even sent a written request for a report and had received back not even the courtesy of a response at press time. Yet defenders of state policy claim that all reports are maintained by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and can be requested by interested parties. Of course, that doesn’t mean such a request will be approved. In fact, I’d say it’s unlikely that John Q. Public Citizen, or a newspaper for that matter, would have much success obtaining such reports. If you doubt it, give it a shot and see where it leads.

Gramly, a sophisticated scientist at the top of his game, is likely now in marathon analysis of the many artifacts collected over 14 days in Deerfield, and I know from speaking to him on-site that he is in awe of what was gathered and will publish in a timely fashion a comprehensive summary of his findings, something average readers will be able to purchase and understand. It is also likely that many others who participated in the dig will write their own accounts describing what it means in an assortment of magazines aimed at scholarly and average readers.

It’ll be interesting to see where this all goes and what the “official reaction” is. My suspicion is that the wheels are already spinning, someone’s unhappy with Gramly, and something is about to break. But my guess is that officials who make and enforce the rules will be very careful. Remember, given a choice, they’d rather sweep this stuff under the carpet than stir up a dust storm in the press, especially when the facts could turn public perception in the wrong direction.

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