Picking Up History

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tommclaughlin
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Picking Up History

There are places along the Saco where I like go looking for Indian artifacts when conditions are right. I won’t dig for them because to do so would disturb the site. If I did, I’d have to abide by strict guidelines to document what I found, where, and at what level. Then I’d have to publish results. In other words, it’s a lot of work and I’m not inclined to make that much of a commitment. Instead, I let farmers excavate, which they do in the course of their work. Then, after a sufficient amount of rain has fallen on the plowed and harrowed field, I go looking. The strata in which the artifacts existed originally has already been disturbed and real archaeologists wouldn’t be interested in what I find unless it were something very unusual. What I find, however, is routine to them.

I don’t find very many arrowheads. Where I look has been picked over for many decades, but I do find one occasionally. Mostly I find the small chips produced while making arrowheads and all the other sharp tools necessary for Indians to live as they did. I find a lot of scrapers — sharp pieces of stone used to remove flesh from inside animal hides or to remove fur and hair from the the outside. I find those every time I go out. Arrowhead hunters eschewed picking them up but I do and they make up most of my collection.

Nearly everything I find is made of stone because everything else has rotted away. Wood, bone, hide, turtle shells, mussel shells, and so forth don’t last in New England soils. Once I found a bone amulet, but it was largely disintegrated. Archaeologists can find bone if it has been heated to the point where its chemistry changes into something called calcined bone. That will resist disintegration longer, but I haven’t found any of that. I do fine pottery sherds though.

The arrowheads I’ve picked up are only 1000-2000 years old and they’re dated by their size and shape to the “Woodland Period.” Indians were thought to have started using pottery around 3000 years ago, around the time they began farming. Local Indians are believed to have begun farming only a few centuries before European contact and cultivated three main crops: corn, beans, and squash here in southwestern Maine where I live now.

I don’t know how old the scrapers are. They could be much older but I have no way to tell because I didn’t find them “in situ” — or where they were originally left by the Indians who used them. If they were found near a hearth with charcoal in an intact level they could be dated by both the charcoal and the strata. All I know is that they were in the "plow zone” turned up by farmers which goes down about two feet.

On Sunday I spent a wonderful afternoon along the Old Course of the Saco completely by myself. It was sunny, in the seventies, and with a slight breeze to keep most mosquitoes away — perfect conditions. It was perhaps three centuries ago that the last Pequawket Indians used the site, just prior to Captain John Lovewell’s raid in 1725, after which Indians abandoned Pequawket (now called Fryeburg, Maine) and went to live with their fellow Abenaki in St. Francis, Quebec.

The rest is here.