SEARSPORT, Maine — Much evidence of the earliest inhabitants of Maine has been lost, and now much of the remaining evidence of American Indian sites along the coast are threatened, according to Dr. Steven Cox, an archaeologist and specialist in coastal Maine sites.
Cox was one of the speakers Saturday at the 2008 History Conference “Looking at Our Waterfront Through Time” at the Penobscot Marine Museum. The long-running annual conference regularly focuses on topics related to the history of New England and particularly Maine and the midcoast region, according to museum Executive Director Niles Parker. The conference brings in experts in various fields to discuss topics and regularly features photography, often from its own collections.
Cox’s talk covered about 10,000 years of human history along Maine’s coast from the first arrivals after the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age to the arrival of Europeans in Maine. Evidence of early sites has been lost because the ocean covers Maine’s coastline, once located about 10-12 miles seaward of where it is today.
Cox used slides to demonstrate the changes in the tools the different cultures used as they adapted to a changing climate and changing social conditions.
Excavated sites along the coast, in areas such as Blue Hill and Brooklin, show evidence of now extinct species, such as the great auk and the sea mink, that were an important part of the life of early inhabitants.
The sites also show evidence of trading taking place as early as 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Excavations of the Red Paint Indian sites included tools made from stone found only in northern Labrador.
By 3,700 years ago, the Red Paint culture had disappeared, but trading continued and expanded, trending to the south and west. Traded items included not only tools, but also agricultural products including tobacco.
Cox has excavated a number of sites along the coast, including shell middens, which have helped researchers to understand how and when people were living on those sites. That work, and the work of others, he said, is important because many of those sites are threatened. Archaeologists are in a race with time, he said.
“All of the coastal sites are being eroded due to the rising sea levels,” he said.
Within 50 years, Cox said, all of those coastal sites could be gone. With little money available for archaeological digs, archaeologists such as himself rely on field schools and volunteer digs in order to salvage some information.
“It’s harder to find sites that have not been disturbed,” he said.
The rest of the conference dealt with more modern activity along the Maine coast. Bill Bunting reviewed a selection of photographs from glass plates, part of the 40,000 plates from the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co. collection at the museum. The company printed postcards between 1906 and 1950. The selected photos focus on coastal Maine, many of them depicting coastal scenes of interest to tourists.
In contrast, Ben Fuller presented photographs from the museum’s collection of the Atlantic Fishermen, a trade magazine for fishermen that was published between the 1920s and 1950s when it became National Fishermen. The photographs depict Maine’s working waterfront from York Harbor to Eastport.
Both photography presentations drew comments from the 100 or so people who attended. The conference often became discussions as participants recognized individual boats or scenes in the photographs, and had stories to tell about the boats and the people pictured with them.
Other presentations focused on the working waterfront including commercial boat building and the pilots on Penobscot Bay today, as well as other photography and folk art presentations.