Sugarloaf Site Update

Septuagenarian archaeologist Richard Michael Gramly Ph.D. never allows the so-called Sugarloaf Site – a Paleoindian caribou-hunting encampment dating back nearly 12,500 calendar years – to wander far from his fertile imagination.

The site, a vast, sandy, outwash plain deposited during the deep time of peri-glacial Lake Hitchcock drainage, sits on the southwestern skirt of Mount Sugarloaf. Gramly, called Mike by friends, performed two important archaeological excavations there, one in 1995, the other in 2013. He doesn’t hesitate to call the treasure trove “the largest human population aggregation and artifact deposit of its time and culture in America, insofar as we are aware.”

Gramly, 74, knows of what he speaks. He is among a handful of the most experienced Paleo or Clovis-era experts in North America, with important digs such as Dutchess Quarry Cave, Vail Site, Hiscock Site, and Bowser Road to his credit, all of them and notable others here in the Northeast.

A high-energy bundle of intellectual curiosity, Gramly has made waves over the past 30 years by challenging modern cultural-resource-management paradigms that have greatly changed the archaeological landscape since he earned his Harvard doctorate in 1975. Over the years, he’s become a rebel outlier, some may even say renegade, and an outspoken one at that. Due to irreconcilable differences with the professional and/or academic community, he allowed his professional affiliations to expire before 1995, when he founded the Amateur Society of American Archaeologists with his very own Persimmon Press. Even his harshest critics cannot claim he didn’t put his money where his mouth was.

It’s true that funding for archaeological exploration and publishing is difficult without independent wealth, affluent benefactors, and/or financial support from government or private academic sources. Yet Gramly, committed and creative, always seems to find a way.

Though one never knows what the topic will be when his name appears on caller-ID, you can be sure it’ll be interesting, often captivating. Since 2015, he’s been chasing around the country on his own dime trying quite successfully to place human hands all over existing museum collections of ancient mastodon remains previously thought to have died of natural causes.

The impetus for this study was his own 2014 and 2017 skeletal mastodon-recovery missions at Bowser Road in Middletown, New York, where he identified clear evidence that the beasts had   fallen to human predation and been the target of ancient rituals involving bone weapons crafted from mastodon rib.

In his “spare time” last year, he not only identified an important new gem-like translucent yellow Southwestern stone used in ancient Stone Age tool-making, but also discovered its lonesome, high-altitude source in the arid Nevada mountains. Remarkably, this remarkable stone. valued as a lithic commodity in the New World, is almost identical in appearance to a rare African gem-like material known to the Old World as Libyan Desert Glass.

As for the Sugarloaf Site, nestled along the South Deerfield-Whately line, Gramly recently received corroborating radiocarbon dates for calcined bone fragments gathered from an ancient hearth during his most recent excavation there. Told of new, improved, more-precise radiocarbon dating capabilities, in 2019 he sent samples for analysis to noted Paleo expert James C. Chatters, Ph.D. of Applied Paleoscience and Direct AMS Radiocarbon Dating Services in Tempe, Arizona. The results, which were delayed for months by COVID-19 constraints, basically confirmed previous radiocarbon dating of calcined bone from the same hearth by Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Services in Miami, Florida.

Also confirmed was the upper Pioneer Valley site’s contemporaneity to another important Clovis site in Ipswich, known in the field as Bull Brook. Gramly believes many of the same hunters used the two sites, which lie about 100 miles apart.

Although the new Direct AMS radiocarbon age of 12,470 years old, give or take, adds about 120 years to Beta Analytics’ number for identical bone samples, both labs are in the same neighborhood, so to speak. Let’s be honest: What’s a mere 120 years weighed on such a deep time scale? It’s like comparing inches to miles.

Remember, we’re not talking about 1,250 years but 10 times that, a time span that’s nearly unimaginable to modern mainstream perceptions. Think of it: that’s more than 10,000 before Christ.

And to think the site is right here in our midst, situated a half-mile from the Sunderland Bridge, watched over by a peculiar, twisted mountain known to some as the Great Beaver’s Head – a landmark that has served distant travelers dating back at least to our nomadic Paleoindian hunters following caribou migrations.

Gramly believes the evidence suggests that the Sugarloaf Site existed for eight to 10 years as a seasonal encampment serving 200 to 400 roaming caribou hunters who followed north-south herd migrations, traveling from summer to winter feeding grounds and back. The Sugarloaf Site was an advantageous location where herds could be forced down a narrow ravine carved into the landscape by Sugarloaf Brook. The herds would have passed through twice a year, spring and fall – the latter likely the time for hunting, according to Gramly, who doesn’t rule out spring hunting as well.

The hearth containing what are most likely calcined caribou bones was exposed within a feature Gramly believes was one of six “Clovis men’s clubhouses where tools were maintained and conversation must have flowed.” These workshops would have been strategically located to shelter the hunting parties from wind, cold, and sandstorms while they performed essential butchering, cooking, tanning, and flint-knapping chores.

Accepted on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, some of the Sugarloaf Site is today under protective covenant following UMass Amherst archaeologist Tom Ulrich’s 1978 recovery survey that found priceless Clovis artifacts on the then new Deerfield Economic Development and Industrial Complex (DEDIC). Once Ulrich’s survey was complete, his UMass supervisor, the late Dr. Dena Dincauze, ordered a strip of the “Ulrich Locus” buried under a long, lean, 10-foot-high mound of dirt that still stands today. Then, 15 years later, following Gramly’s 1995 excavation, Dincauze’s intervention led to the state’s purchase of the site to prevent further exploration.

And there it sits today, “protected” from further study.

On the east end of the 300-foot mound of sand, dubbed “Mt. Dincauze” by critics, stands a soft-maple tree taller than the roof of an adjacent tobacco barn. The tree is an organic monument standing in celebration of modern cultural-resource-management protocol some would call archaeological neglect.

Gramly is a charter member of that traditional club. He believes a serious researcher could spend a lifetime of discovery and interpretation on the iconic site.

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