Gungywamp keeps its mysteries
When it comes to explanations for the Gungywamp property in Groton, Al Brown has heard them all.
Some say the collection of stone chambers, rocks lain in circular patterns and rows of erect granite slabs are the work of the followers of Saint Brendan, the 6th-century Irish monk. Others see similarities to structures left by the Vikings in Newfoundland, or wonder whether the first inhabitants were Arctic peoples during the time of the glaciers. Still others credit pagan mystics who knew how to tap the “ley lines” of energy flowing through the site. A small window in one of the chambers is oriented to capture the azimuth of the sun at the fall and spring equinoxes, so a shaft of light shines into the underground room.
“Wait until the vortex opens,” Brown joked, as he ducked to enter the cavern.
Brown, a town resident who’s hiked the wooded trails there about 20 times over the years, is content to let the place keep its mysteries.
“The name itself is part of the enigma,” he said Tuesday, as he led the way to the intriguing collection of stone structures. “The ‘wamp of gungy,’ as I call it.”
The earliest reference to the name, he noted, is found in a 1654 letter to John Winthrop, governor of colonial Connecticut, about a “newly discovered” stone wall and fort located at Gungywamp. The Pequot tribe that lived in the area at the time did not erect stone structures, Brown said, so the fort, chambers and other architectural ruins must have been built by other hands.
“There are a lot of questions, but not a lot of answers,” he said.
Brown, who works on publications and technical support at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, is also the center’s authority and leader of hikes to the Gungywamp property, a constant source of inquiries from all over the world.
“I blame the History Channel,” he said, referring to a segment broadcast a few years ago that fed speculation about the site’s origins. “I get at least one email a week from someone wanting me to do a walk up here.”
Located in the northern part of town, portions of the site were a camp owned by the now-defunct YMCA of Southeastern Connecticut, and sections were overseen by the Gungywamp Society, a nonprofit group that has also disbanded. The nature center is now steward of the property until a permanent ownership arrangement is established. As part of its oversight of the property, Brown said, the nature center has included information about Gungywamp on its website and offers the public the chance to visit on guided hikes two or three times a year. The site, at about 270 acres, is otherwise not open to the public.
The next of those hikes will take place Wednesday, to coincide with the fall equinox. Brown will lead a two-hour, easy hike of the area, stopping at the various archeological curiosities along the way.
The first of these is a small stone enclosure beside the trail, not large enough for a house or pen for animals.
“It could have been a hunting blind, or a guard post, anything you can suppose,” Brown said.
Next is the remains of Hanna Adam’s house, with parts of its fireplace and chimney still intact. Excavations at the site uncovered a token dating from 1742, marking the house as a colonial structure.
“She may have been an herbalist,” Brown said, noting that remnants were found at the site of cannabis and Indian poke, used by practitioners of natural medicine at the time.
Next, Brown shows the way to the double stone ring, which may have been part of a grinding wheel for bark and acorns used to tan leather. Or, for those with more imagination, it’s a North American Stonehenge. Further along come the underground chambers, then the line of stones planted in the ground like fence posts, oriented to the North Star. On one of the stone faces is carved a curvaceous figure some say resembles a raven.
“You see what it is, and that’s what it is,” Brown said, smiling. “It’s whatever your mind tells you it is.”
Gungywamp set to become a state park
Long the stuff of local legend and speculation, the Gungywamp property is on the verge of finally coming under the wing of an official entity that may be able to protect the intriguing collection of stone ruins there.
Graham Stevens, director of the office of land acquisition and management for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said Tuesday that his office is hoping for a court proceeding before the end of the year to legally establish state ownership of the property.
“The state is the owner of the property,” he said. “We are the owners, but we need to perform a legal maneuver” to make it official.
“We’ve recently resolved the title issues and had a land survey done,” he added.
The 270-acre parcel was given in 1928 by the estate of Clarence Latham to the YMCA of New London, which ultimately folded into the YMCA of Southeastern Connecticut. Portions of the property were used as a YMCA camp, while the portion with the ruins was overseen by the Gungywamp Society, a local group of amateur archeology enthusiasts that has disbanded.
In 2011, the YMCA also disbanded. When that happened, Stevens said, a provision of Latham’s will took effect that stated that if the YMCA was no longer able to take care of the property, it should become a state park.
Once that happens, Stevens said, the state can act to protect “any important archeological resources.”
That’s good news for Vance Tiede, a Guilford-based archeologist who’s done some preliminary investigations at the site.
“I really want DEEP to protect that site,” he said.
Based on his analysis, Tiede believes a full-scale archeological investigation should be done there. Some of the structures, he believes, are not the type that would have been built by English Puritan colonists but are more consistent with the drystone chambers built by the Irish monks who were followers of Saint Brendan, known for his 6th-century voyages in the North Atlantic. As evidence of this, he points to the alignment of a small window in the back of one of the chambers to receive light on the spring and fall equinoxes, a feature of monastic architecture used to determine the timing of Easter.
On the fall equinox Wednesday, Tiede plans to visit the site as part of his quest to enlist more support for an archeological excavation there. He plans to do GPS mapping of the site and give a demonstration of the light tricks in the chamber when the sun is at just the right position in the afternoon.
In addition to the orientation of the chambers, Tiede also sees possible evidence of early Irish Christian occupation in marks on some of the stonework he says match the script used by monks at the time, and in configurations of erect stones that match those at monastic sites in Ireland. In addition, he points out, Carbon-14 analysis of charcoal found beneath the double stone ring done at the University of Washington in 1993 dates the shards to the 6th century.
His “preliminary interpretation,” presented in 2006 to the Eastern States Archeology Federation, he said, shows that earlier investigations may have been too quick to dismiss alternative explanations for the ruins.
State Archaeologist Brian Jones said Wednesday that though he’s never been to Gungywamp, he’s familiar with the various theories — some of them kooky. His predecessors at the state archeology office, he said, attempted to “put the controversy to bed,” writing an academic paper in the 1980s that characterized the ruins as colonial structures.
“I’m skeptical of the associations with Celtic explorers,” he said, “but we always have to keep an open mind. You can make an argument that today’s technology is better for doing an archeological investigation.”
Rather than dismiss Tiede’s theories out of hand, Jones said he plans to visit the property himself and will advocate for protection of the ruins once DEEP takes ownership.
“Whatever it is, it’s an important historical site,” he said. “The main thing would be to establish it as an archeological preserve to keep the site safe.”
What: Hike of Gungywamp property with Al Brown
When: 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 23
Where: Call the Nature Center for meeting location at (860) 536-1216.
Sponsored by: Denisonpequotsepos Nature Center
To register: http://dpnc.org/calendar/fall-equinox-at-gungywamp
Fee: $8.50 for nature center members, $10 for non-members.
More information: http://dpnc.org/gungywamp-structures/
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