The Damned Story: When many of us think of “ancient places” here in New England, most of us tend to imagine abandoned Colonial-era settlements or early Native American sites, either of which may only be a few hundred years old. But in Groton exists an unusual complex that has been dated back to nearly 2,000 B.C. — now that’s what you call ancient!
As with many truly ancient sites, it’s not exactly clear who originally built Gungywamp or for what exactly it was created. The complex — which is divided into north and south sections — has many fascinating features, including a double circle of stones, standing stones and multiple stone chambers. At least one chamber is constructed so that during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, sunlight streams in through an opening in the wall and illuminates a “hidden” subchamber. There are also stone mounds, cairns, walls, petroglyphs and a rock ledge called “The Cliff of Tears” where visitors have been known to experience sudden bouts of inexplicable sadness or depression.
A few people who have visited the site seem to think that it may have been originally built by ancient Celts who came to Groton in hopes of establishing a new colony; others think that the mounds and chambers may even be some interdimensional portals. Not a shred of evidence supporting either wild claim has ever been unearthed at any point during the many excavations of the site.
Evidence has been discovered suggesting that the site was first used by Native Americans for centuries, and then later by colonial settlers. The stone foundations of colonial dwellings still stand in a few spots. All in all, a treasure trove of damned history.
As you might expect, Gungywamp has been the focus of multiple professional archaeological explorations, which has unearthed a lot of information as well as everything from arrowheads and pottery fragments to coins and animal bones. One of the stone circles appears to have been a mill for extracting tannins, which would’ve been used in turning animal hides into leather. Some of the standing stones seem to be along astronomical line and could have been a calendar of sorts. The exact purposes of the chambers are unclear, but if the site was initially a sacred complex, then it’s possible the chambers used in various rituals. Later, they were used by settlers as root cellars, among other things.
Investigators have also discovered that the area around “The Cliff of Tears” has a very strong electromagnetic field, which would explain the many odd feelings and reactions by those who come in contact with it.
Our Damned Experience: We finally got to visit Gungywamp in March 2010 as part of a tour organized by Atlas Obscura, who was celebrating their worldwide “Obscura Day.” Even better, it was on the vernal equinox, so we were able to witness firsthand the setting sun shining through a shaft in the calendar chamber and on the side wall, as you can see in this picture we snapped — one of a bunch we took that day. (See the full gallery at the bottom of the page.)
Just to the right of this image is the “hidden” subchamber, and a little after this picture was taken, the light reached that chamber. (Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get a picture of that because there were a few different research groups there trying to record the moment, none of whom that seemed all that eager to share with the others.) In the gallery, there’s a picture of the shaft from the topside.
Our tour was happily guided by Bill Dopirak, a member of The Gungywamp Society, who clearly has spent a lot of time at the site, researching and excavating various areas of it. He took us around to the many chambers and other structures, and shared what he knew about the site. Interestingly, it seemed like he originally started investigating here hoping to find evidence of the Celts or something unusual, but all their research and study seems to keep pointing to the same, not-surprising idea — that various parts of the site were created originally by ancient Native Americans, and over the centuries, was taken over by colonists, who shaped the structures to their own, more mundane uses.
Despite that, many of the stone structures are impressive in their own right. The alignment of the stone circles along celestial events, and places like the calendar chamber, which were constructed with an eye to special days of the year, just illustrate the fact that the native people who lived here a few thousand years ago were a lot more intelligent and capable than most want to give them credit for.
A few other things of note to look for in the gallery:
- The one stone formation that looks like the profile of a Native American.
- The row of standing stones — no one seems to have an idea of exactly what they were for. Astronomical timepiece, or a place to hold sheep while they were sheared?
- The close-up of one of the standing stones in which a petroglyph of a bird is apparently carved.
Anyway, it was a damned interesting afternoon.
If You Go: Gungywamp is on private property in Groton, not too far from Route 12. The Gungywamp Society offers guided tours of the site from time to time.