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Ongoing Research

Archaeologist, Students Uncover Surprising Pieces of the Past

Story posted June 23, 2005

clam midden

The bleached, white fragments of clam shells that lie scattered in mounds, or middens, along the Maine coast are reminders of Native inhabitants that made these shores their homes centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

These mounds often contain discarded artifacts such as ceramic shards, arrowheads, and remnants of flora and fauna that help archaeologists - such as Coastal Studies Center (CSC) Director Anne Henshaw - piece together a picture of a place, a time, and a people.

Henshaw has been excavating a midden located on the CSC property for nearly five summers, with some surprising results.

With student researchers, Henshaw uncovered a hearth with charcoal that dates the site to A.D. 1270-1400. Further excavation revealed remains of an extinct sea mink, as well as the bones from a 40- to 50-pound cod. They also found what appears to be a bone of a pig with a butcher mark, suggesting the site may date early European contact.

"A lot of archaeology is putting together pieces of a puzzle," says Henshaw. "You're always missing some of the pieces, but the more lines of evidence used, the richer and more detailed picture will be painted of the past."

This summer's research, which will include senior Carrie Atkins '06, focuses on a little-examined aspect of cultural reconstruction: human-plant interactions in the past. Atkins is using Bowdoin's scanning electron microscope to analyze the site's charcoal to determine early wood-use practices.

"The advantage of long-term research is that every year you add more to the picture and can engage students in hands-on learning that builds on the work of others," notes Henshaw.

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