Volunteers sought to unearth Colonial Pemaquid

Posted July 12, 2011, at 7:34 p.m.
Last modified July 12, 2011, at 8:41 p.m.
A volunteer works the dirt screen to hunt for artifacts at Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site, New Harbor, during last year’s archaeological dig. Items found at Maine’s most important archaeological site include pieces of pottery, beads, coins, and other artifacts. The site museum has selections from more than 75,000 artifacts excavated from the site of the fishing village and forts dating from the 17th century.
Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands photo
A volunteer works the dirt screen to hunt for artifacts at Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site, New Harbor, during last year’s archaeological dig. Items found at Maine’s most important archaeological site include pieces of pottery, beads, coins, and other artifacts. The site museum has selections from more than 75,000 artifacts excavated from the site of the fishing village and forts dating from the 17th century.

BRISTOL, Maine — One of the most difficult questions in archeology is obviously “Where is the stuff buried?” but at Pemaquid Point in coastal Bristol, there’s a place where everyone is bound to find something.

And “everyone” includes you if you choose to volunteer next week for an archaeological dig that’s open to anyone who wants to participate.

Stone tools and weapons from Native Americans who used the area as a canoe portage, iron implements left by cod fishermen 400 years ago and the remains of a series of military forts that marked the boundary between English- and French-controlled land are all littered across Pemaquid Point, according to Tom Desjardin, a historian for the Maine Department of Parks and Lands.

“It’s just loaded with stuff,” said Desjardin. “You really can’t dig a hole at Pemaquid without finding something.”

Serious archeology in the area started by accident in the 1960s when the then-landowner uncovered some artifacts with a bulldozer. Archaeologists working at nearby Fort William Henry persuaded him to stop.

“For about 20 years after that there was pretty much a constant archaeological dig going on,” said Desjardin.

Pemaquid was one of the earliest settlements in northern New England, but had been used for centuries by American Indians as a canoe portage to avoid the treacherous rocks off Pemaquid Point where the Pemaquid Lighthouse sits today. European fishermen used the shores of the point to dry and salt codfish in the early 1600s, and by the middle of the century there was a village of some 70 structures, said Desjardin. Most of the settlers were from Bristol, England, which is how the Maine town of Bristol was named.

But life there must have been difficult at times. In those days the English controlled the land south of the Kennebec River and for the most part the French and Native Americans controlled north of the Penobscot River. The English settlement at Pemaquid, located between the two rivers, was seen as an intrusion by the French, who sacked a series of forts and burned numerous homes over the years.

“The last fort was destroyed by the settlers themselves in 1775 to keep the British from using it in the Revolution,” said Desjardin. Fort William Henry, which stands at the site today, is a replica of that fort. The settlement, for the most part, petered out in the late 1600s or early 1700s.

“Over time they got burned out and attacked and burned out and attacked enough so they just sort of went elsewhere,” said Desjardin.

Today the land is owned by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which maintains it as a park in partnership with a group called Friends of Colonial Pemaquid. The friends group has sponsored the volunteer archaeological dig, which is overseen by experienced archaeologists, for several years. This year, a retired state archaeologist named Leon Cranmer will lead the exploration of a new site at the Colonial fishing village, where he and others are convinced there was once a cluster of buildings.

“You’re going to find something, whether it’s a piece of pottery or an old foundation,” said Desjardin. Or possibly, as has happened repeatedly in the past, a real historical treasure will appear, such as pottery bearing ancient Chinese markings, a rare German jug and a pile of dozens of centuries-old cannon balls. Last year’s public dig uncovered part of a foundation and posts from a kitchen garden fence. Those items add context to a rich story that couldn’t be told if Colonial Pemaquid was still under ground.

“Some people are like, ‘So what? You found a garden fence,’” said Desjardin. “But someone built that fence and grew vegetables there. It says that a person was there. That person probably had a family. It kind of reminds you that they were just people like us.”

This summer’s dig is scheduled for Monday through Friday, July 18-23, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information or to volunteer, call Desjardin at 287-4975. The archaeological dig will also be open to the public for observation. For information on Colonial Pemaquid, visit www.maine.gov/colonialpemaquid.

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