Archaeology Conference A Feather In Eaglebrook’s Cap

Arctic char in our prehistoric Connecticut Valley?

Yes indeed, if you read the hidden information contained in ancient sediments (or varves) left behind by glacial Lake Hitchcock, which filled from south to north as the Wisconsin Glacier receded over approximately 4,000 years — beginning some 18,000 years ago. At its peak, the lake of various widths and depths filled our Connecticut Valley from Rocky Hill, Conn., to St. Johnsbury, Vt., covering more than 200 miles and dammed by some “natural” obstruction, be it ice floes, large stones, vegetation, all of the above or — dare I? — maybe even the unnatural handiwork of ancient giant beavers of our Pocumtuck Range’s “Beaver Myth” fame. Back then, the late-Pleistocene rodents were the size of today’s black bears. So who’s to say these gargantuan beavers didn’t at some point make some contribution to the obstruction holding Lake Hitchcock back? Hmmmmm? Who knew or would have guessed it could have actually been Beaver Pond Hitchcock that finally breached around 14,000 years ago, eventually leaving us with a terraced Connecticut Valley of river cuts, oxbows, marsh  and fertile cropland?

But let’s not wander off to never-never land. Too many questions. Not enough answers. But oh-so ripe for tasty discussion, speculation, hypotheses … and the lively, meandering ebb and flow of intellectual sparring.

The intriguing mention of Arctic char in glacial Lake Hitchcock’s archaeological record was introduced Saturday at Eaglebrook School in Deerfield by Stuart Fiedel, senior archaeologist for the prestigious Louis Berger Group. The final presenter, Fiedel was one of many fascinating scholar-lecturers at Saturday’s cutting-edge archaeology conference — “Glacial Lake Hitchcock and its Primal Inhabitants” — sponsored by the Western Chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society at the posh pre-prep school. The all-day, comprehensive conference began with keynote speaker Richard Little, the ubiquitous emeritus Greenfield Community College  professor who spoke about his trademark “Geology of the Connecticut Valley.” Then came ancient-stone analyst Barbara Calogero’s “Lithic Resources During Early Prehistory,” followed by three informative presentations by Western Chapter President Richard M. Gramly, who spoke on “The Palaeo-American Cultural Sequence in New England,” “What a Single Discovery of a Pelaeo-American Artifact Might Mean,” and “The Bowser Road (Middletown, N.Y.) Mastadon Site and its Implications for the Lake Hitchcock Region.”

After an absolutely delicious lunch on Eaglebrook — one that included smoked duck and homemade, native strawberry shortcake among many other sumptuous, healthy entrees — the program resumed with Deerfield’s Peter Thomas’ insightful “Riverside Archaeological District and the Valley’s Geomorphology Following Lake Hitchcock Drainage,” followed by Ashfield’s Lester Garvin’s “Mapping Lake Hitchcock” and Fiedel’s “Potential Utility of Lake Hitchcock Data for Identifying Cultural Resources.”

It was one fascinating discussion about  our valley’s deep history after another, with many new avenues of discussion and debate opened up along the way. The conference attracted more than 100 attendees. Who could have asked for or dreamed of a more dynamic day of archaeological discussion, the likes of which may have never previously touched down in Franklin County?

As for the prehistoric Arctic char population, well it  left behind 15,000-year-old fin marks in the Lake Hitchcock varves explored by researchers from Tufts University and elsewhere during this new millennium. Add those archaeological ancient-fish fossils to traces of sculpin, bullhead and lake and blueback trout that were also discovered, and it provides a native-fish profile of what would have been here for the earliest people of  our valley, potentially extending back to pre-Clovis days before Lake Hitchcock drained. In fact, that was the question Fiedel posed before launching into his mop-up  presentation at around 3 p.m. “Were there people here before the lake drained?” was his question. When he ended a nearly hour-long PowerPoint presentation by returning to that thought-provoking query, his answer was, “Probably yes,” which may well have riled a few of the more conservative experts in attendance.

Intriguing questions of origin do indeed arise from this recent discovery of Arctic char in our deep-history profile. Remember, when these fish were here, we were on the arctic edge as are today’s Arctic char residing in our northern climes along the Arctic Circle. Did these fish follow the slow glacial melt north? Did they come from afar and circle in from the oceans? Did most of the char migrate north with the receding glacier while others took residence to eventually evolved into Eastern brook trout, our native trout and a member of the char family so ravaged and threatened today by toxic acid rain falling through industrial air pollution that drifts across the Northeastern skies from the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes Region? Arctic char are known in different vernaculars as blueback trout, and the native brookies I’m familiar with do have a distinctive steel-blue back and sides? Perhaps they inherited this hue from ancient char. Who knows? I’ll dig a little deeper and see what I can find.

The answers to the all of the above questions will likely by answered by exciting new research. Hopefully such findings will be presented at annual or semi-annual Eaglebrook conferences, which could become the place for answers as well as exciting new questions for future exploration.

The consensus of attendees questioned in the days following Saturday’s maiden voyage was that the Eaglebrook event was a home run. We can only hope it was just the first of many, an event that could in the future become a tough ticket to come by, and a feather in Eaglebrook’s cap.

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