Buried and engraved along Maine’s coast are valuable pieces of the region’s past at risk of being lost forever. But before they’re gone, researchers at the University of Maine are collaborating with members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in an effort to learn, preserve and share as much as they can.
Each gravel sample, small fragment of seal and fish bone, and discarded clam shell is a piece of the larger puzzle spanning several thousand years, from early tribal occupants to the more recent mix of tribal, French and English settlers of the last 400 years.
Combine that with the largest petroglyph site on the Northeast coast of the United States, and you’ve got rich and rare history that tells its own story through images that were carved thousands of years ago into the rocks of Machias Bay. In addition, it provides an exceptional connection between the Passamaquoddy and their ancestors.
“In archaeology, these sites are important for what we can learn from them,” says Brian Robinson, a University of Maine assistant professor of anthropology. “For the Passamaquoddy, they are sacred places, directly connected to their heritage.”
Robinson coauthored a Maine Academic Prominence Initiative (MAPI) Grant from the university that funds a four-week summer field school for anthropology students. Last summer marked the second of three field schools.
The goal is to provide students, primarily undergraduates, with hands-on experience excavating endangered shell midden sites on Maine’s coast, while at the same time working with the modern Native communities whose ancestors lived there.
Last summer also proved valuable when the Passamaquoddy Tribe received its own grant from the National Park Service to document and begin creating a management plan for the petroglyphs. Project director Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, enlisted Robinson to direct test excavations, working with Passamaquoddy tribal members Stephanie Francis, Scott Francis and Kani Malsom, all students in the University of Maine System; Natalie Dana from Washington County Community College; Joseph Francis and David Soctomah. Dana and David Soctomah also participated in the UMaine field school.
They were joined by some of the other UMaine field school students, who volunteered to stay on to work on the petroglyph project.