Bowdoin Archaeology Student Digging The Maine Coast

Story posted July 26, 2010

matt gannon at site
Matt Gannon '11, standing, at one of the test sites.

Uncovering the pottery shards was exciting, but finding the dog teeth careened 2,000 years of history into the present.

Matt Gannon '11 helped to discover them while elbow deep in dirt and clamshells at an archaeological dig taking place on Haskell Island.

The island, which is just a hop and a short boat ride away from the Bowdoin campus, is one of hundreds of islands in Maine's Casco Bay. It contains an outstanding deposit of prehistoric remains of Native American settlements dating from between 500-1600 A.D.

"You realize you're going really deep in time in just a few feet of soil," says Gannon, an anthropology and biochemistry double-major who won a Matilda White Riley Fellowship to participate in the dig. "When we found the canine and molar tooth from a dog it gave me special insight into these people. You can just picture them hanging out there with their dog."

Several excavations are taking place along a shoreline bluff that has a thick shell midden—a shell heap where summering Native Americans dumped their domestic waste. Native Americans summered on many Maine islands, but this midden, at roughly 100 feet long, is an especially large site.

"This is where we dig for our hidden treasures," says Gannon, showing off a small, square pit in the earth. "You go down level by level." He kneels on the ground and sweeps the bottom gently with a whisk broom, then inpects a loosened fragment: "You can't really tell until you carbon date this stuff, but we can estimate some of the pottery we're finding is about 2,000 years old."

leslie shaw at midden
Leslie Shaw at the Haskell Island shell midden.

So far, the sites have yielded good deposits of pottery, as well as bone fragments from game, fish and the now-extinct sea mink. Data from the excavation will be compared with those collected from other islands to give archaeologists a clearer picture of the full range of foods and artifacts used by that community and of their strategies for adapting to the coastal environment.

shell midden
Shell midden up close.

"It's been great working with Matt Gannon," says archaeologist Leslie Shaw, Bowdoin visiting assistant professor of anthropology. Shaw is co-directing the project with Dr. Nathan Hamilton from the University of Southern Maine.

"In archaeology you really learn by doing, so it's important to get students out in the field learning about how data are collected," adds Shaw. "Matt's also going to spend several weeks washing and cataloging everything, then learning how analyses are done."

By then, there will be no sign of the two-week encampment. Queen Anne's lace will again rule the grassy hilltop. And one Bowdoin student will be starting the academic year having held the past in his hands.

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