UMaine and tribal experts collaborate to save Maine’s rare petroglyphs on Machias Bay
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.
Cooperation between UMaine and the Passamaquoddy Tribe has benefited both. The Passamaquoddy received technical assistance through UMaine expertise and resources, while students learned directly from the Native communities rather than an abstract historical account.
“The students learn basic techniques, but they also learn them in the context of Native values and interests,” Robinson says. “You can’t do that in many places.”
UMaine anthropology major Gabe Hrynick of Benedicta, Maine, worked at both sites and is conducting research on items unearthed. His anthropology thesis will focus on two gravel floors discovered during the field school and at the petroglyph site.
Using carbon dating and artifacts, Hrynick hopes to determine how long it’s been since the sites were occupied. The UMaine junior now is sifting through ziplock bags of gravel samples taken from the floor sites to see what they contain.
“Hopefully we can use them as a window into the past of the hunter gatherers of the region,” Hrynick says.
Such hands-on learning makes coursework very relevant, says Hrynick, who is interested in anthropology and archeology, particularly as they pertain to living communities.
“More than just reading about it, it synthesizes all the coursework,” he says. “It’s easy to forget that archeology pertains to people who are still alive. You’re actually studying their ancestors.”
While worldwide there has been some contention between archeologists and tribal members, Hrynick says having Passamaquoddy Tribe members involved in the excavation work helps take away some of the ethical concerns of the past.
“For some time, anthropology treated Native American communities and individuals as the objects of anthropological and archaeological research. Now, we see the relationship as one of mutual benefit, collaboration and partnership,” says Lisa Neuman of UMaine’s Anthropology and Native American Studies departments.
Neuman, who coauthored the field school MAPI grant, stresses the importance of creating a partnership between the university and the tribes.
“This was a great example of cooperation for a common goal,” she says.
Today, what many fear is that the rising sea level soon will wash away all remnants of the remaining shell middens and history will be swept out to sea. In just the last three decades, many shell middens formerly tested by UMaine archaeologist David Sanger have already been destroyed by erosion and construction.
“A lot of us suspect that these shell middens will be a thing of the past in the next half-century or century,” Robinson says.
The same is true of the petroglyphs. If not managed properly, they face the same harsh weather conditions, and potentially could be damaged or ruined by careless or disrespectful visitors to the site.
That’s one reason why the specific locations of the carvings are held close to the hearts of the Passamaquoddy and the researchers hoping to learn from the ancient artwork. Access to the ledges is now limited as the Passamaquoddy explore ways to both protect and share their heritage.
“One rock ledge has 250 petroglyphs spanning 1,000 years, Robinson says. “They’re fragile. They’ve survived very well mostly because they’re isolated.”
Many of the images created by the Passamaquoddy ancestors can be interpreted from the oral traditions of the Wabanaki and broadly distributed Algonquian people. Some of the most recent depict sailing ships.
The petroglyphs have been studied for 30 years by archaeologist Mark Hedden, who worked with Donald Soctomah and others who obtained the recent grants.
The Machias Bay area where the glyphs are found was in dispute between the English and the French up until the Revolution, and served as a refuge for a variety of groups during those years, Robinson says.
“They selected that bay for 3,000 years,” Robinson says. “The tradition being carried on was spiritual and artistic. It shows strong evidence of continuity that’s difficult to get sometimes in other parts of archeology.”
Exactly why the site was chosen as a place to record history remains a mystery that Robinson hopes archeological evidence can help solve.
Through the combined efforts of the tribe, local landowners and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the first step toward ensuring that the Passamaquoddy will be able to properly care for the site came when it was transferred from private ownership to the tribe in 2006.
The next step is development of a plan to manage this disappearing piece of their past that still holds many secrets and has the potential to serve as a breathtaking educational tool.
“They want to use the petroglyphs to share their past,” Robinson says. “They know that they’re eroding. They know that they’re not going to be there forever.
“What they’re doing is a great project,” Robinson says.