July 23, 2019
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Uncovering history beneath our feet

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Archaeologist Tim Spahr (right) and volunteer Geena Baber gently clean an 800-year-old dugout canoe recovered from the mud off Cape Porpoise last week. The canoe is the oldest ever found in Maine.

It’s amazing what we can find in the mud, if we take the time to look.

For centuries, a Native American canoe sat buried in tidal mudflats just off the coast of Cape Porpoise, a village in the town of Kennebunkport. There’s no telling how many boaters, paddlers or clammers walking out at low tide passed over the 700-or 800-year-old watercraft, completely unaware of the history that lay below their feet.

It took shifting sands and the careful, meticulous eye of a local archaeologist to locate the historic treasure — which was made from a single yellow birch log.

“We don’t like to think of it as finding things,” explained Tim Spahr of the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance. “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.”

It seems that Spahr and his partners are understanding more and more about the vessel he first located last fall, and has now been carbon-dated back to sometime in the 1200s or 1300s. That means it not only was the work and tool of Native Americans living on the coast, it also predates European settlement here in Maine.

In a world of Google Maps and wifi, it’s easy to feel like our frontiers have all been settled, our routes charted, our history completely understood. But as the Cape Porpoise canoe reminds us, the wonders of discovery are still out there — and sometimes much closer than we realize. There’s still plenty for us to learn about who and what came before us.

As noted in a National Geographic interview last year with paleontologist Stephen Brusatte, new technology and new research opportunities in certain countries are bolstering the search for dinosaur fossils and leading to new discoveries. We’re living in the “ golden age for dinosaur discoveries,” according to Brusatte.

“Right now is the best time in the history of dinosaur research. People are finding more dinosaurs nowadays than ever before: about 50 new species a year, which is incredible,” he told National Geographic. “That’s a new species each week, on average. Not a new bone or skeleton, but a totally new species.”

And it’s not just the experts who are making new discoveries. Sometimes, history has a way of finding us.

In 2016, a nine-year-old tripped over a 1.2 million-year-old fossil while hiking with his family in the New Mexico desert. Jude Sparks didn’t know it at the time, but he had stumbled on a massive skull of an elephant-like stegomastodon.

The discovery, and subsequent excavation, helped rekindle Sparks’ past interest in dinosaurs and fossils.

“I’m not really an expert,” Sparks to the New York Times at the time. “But I know a lot about it, I guess.”

We can only hope that the canoe found in Cape Porpoise will similarly catch people’s interest and inspire others to actively join Spahr and Brusatte in the search to uncover and understand the past.

The painstaking effort of conducting archaeological studies in an intertidal area, like the mudflats where the canoe was found, provides a fascinating window into the search for history. Though seemingly constant, these environments are constantly in flux. What is hidden for generations may be uncovered in a single storm. What is there this year may disappear the next in the slow but persistent movement of tides and currents.

This type of search requires patience and repetition. But as this recent discovery demonstrates, the work is worth it.

 



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