Archaeologists have recovered the oldest, and only pre-European contact, dugout canoe ever found in Maine. They pulled the Native American vessel, which is estimated to be between 700 and 800 years old, from the mud off Cape Porpoise last week.
Only three other dugout canoes have ever been located in Maine and they were all made after Europeans arrived.
“This one carbon dates between 1200 and 1300 A.D., give or take a few years,” said archaeologist Tim Spahr, of the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance.
Europeans didn’t start trying to settle Maine until the 1600s.
The canoe, made from a single yellow birch log, is further proof of a booming, semi-permanent Native American settlement in Cape Porpoise. It’s also a reminder that American history doesn’t start with Columbus in 1492. It stretches back thousands of years before European contact and recorded history, Spahr said.
Archaeology in the mud
The Archaeological Alliance is a joint effort between the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk. It was formed in 2017 to study the intertidal zone along Cape Porpoise and the islands just off the coast.
That’s just where Spahr located the canoe last November, in the mud between Redin Island, Stage Island and the shore. He’d been out doing his regular survey of the mud flats at low tide and was hustling back, trying to beat the incoming tide.
“All of a sudden, I just came across two lines [of wood] and they looked like boat gunnels,” Spahr said.
He’d surveyed the area before, but intertidal archaeology is different from the land-based variety. You have to constantly survey the same ground, over and over again.
“What you’re going to find on land is going to be found in your first survey,” Spahr said. “But that’s not the case in intertidal archaeology.”
Intertidal archaeology examines the constantly eroding and shifting landscape of low-tide mud and sand. It’s always changing, alternately concealing and revealing new objects and information.
It’s rare to find wooden artifacts this old in Maine, said archaeologist Gemma Hudgell, a stone tool expert consulting on the project. That’s due to Maine’s acidic soil. In this case, it was the mud itself that preserved the canoe.
“Up here, everything just rots away,” Hudgell said. “It’s not everyday you pull out a 700-year-old canoe.”
This past winter, the ocean continued to wash the mud away, revealing more of the canoe. This spring, to keep it from being destroyed by the sea or carted away by vandals, the decision was made to remove the canoe.
It was a delicate operation. Currently, the wooden canoe has the sponge-like consistency of wet peat moss.
Spahr, other scientists and volunteers from the University of New England and the University of New Brunswick, dug passages under the canoe, passing wide straps around it. Then, they raised the 10-foot boat, placed in a custom wooden box resembling a coffin and took it to a Kennebunkport Conservation Trust building.
Conserving the past
The dugout canoe now sits in the box, covered in fresh water. That’s the first step in cleaning and preserving the ancient boat. If allowed to dry out, it would fall apart.
“It would just turn to dust, peel away and disintegrate,” Spahr said.
For now, Spahr is gently soaking and cleaning the canoe, removing centuries of accumulated grime and bacteria with a soft paintbrush. He’s changing the water once a week and expects the process to take about a year.
Once it’s clean, the canoe will be structurally stabilized with special chemicals and someday go on display in a museum
“That’s going to be a number of years down the road,” Spahr said.
The cape’s original summer people
Looking at the canoe now, Spahr can see evidence of how it was made by Algonquin-speaking Native Americans 700 years ago.
The shaping process likely began by setting fire to the top of the log. The char was chopped out of the center using some sort of stone tool. Native Americans in the area didn’t use metal tools until after European contact.
“I’d imagine it was something like a grooved ax,” Hudgell said. “Something pretty rugged to give them a really good chop.”
The bottom may have been flattened as well, making the vessel more stable.
Spahr said through other objects located in the area, archaeologists believe Native Americans spent summers in Cape Porpoise digging clams and catching fish in weirs. They also grew corn and squash. At the end of the season, they probably migrated south, to what’s now Massachusetts.
Now, they also know they made canoes. Unlike a birch bark canoe, which indigenous Maine people made in later times, dugout canoes were heavy. It would have been made somewhere close to where it was found, Spahr said.
This dugout canoe might have been used to tend wiers and bring the catch ashore for drying.
Anthony Sutton, a PhD candidate at the University of Maine, who is also Passamaquoddy, studies Wabanaki food and communities. Sutton agrees that the sheltered harbor behind the island’s at Cape Porpoise was probably a thriving seasonal indigenous settlement.
“There are not many places along the eastern seaboard sheltered like that,” he said. “The islands had hardwood trees as well as fresh water.”
In addition to its utilitarian fish hauling, Spahr thinks the canoe was used as basic transportation.
“Who knows, maybe someone lived on one island and had a girlfriend on another and would sneak out in the dugout,” said Spahr. “I think they were used just like we’d use any mode of transportation today.”
Part of a shared history
The people who made the canoe had likely never seen a European person, Spahr said. The Portugese mapped Maine’s coast in 1525. France’s first colony was founded in 1604 and the British got one in 1607. That’s 300-400 years after the canoe was made.
Spahr said it’s important to remember that American history goes back further than European first contact. It’s older than colonial times, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
“There were people on this continent 13,000 years ago and we have to look at that as an important aspect of our own history and culture,” he said.
Spahr is sure the Cape Porpoise mud flats have more secrets to reveal about that history, so he’ll keep looking in the mud.
“We [archaeologists] don’t like to think of it as finding things,” he said. “We want to understand cultures of the past. We’re not there to get the arrowhead. We’re there to study the arrowhead and understand the people that owned it. ”
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