Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Just Another Rock? Nope

Rocks interest me. Always have. One I picked up last spring from a banking that led down to Willard Beach in South Portland has been in the pocket of the fleece I was wearing ever since. It’s very familiar to me now because I feel it every time I put that fleece on. My thumb goes carefully across its sharp edge, just as one might feel the edge of a sharp knife. The rest of the stone fits my thumb and index finger fairly comfortably - just as I believe it fit into the hand of at least one other person hundreds - perhaps thousands of years ago. It’s a prehistoric tool. It isn’t a JAR - “Just Another Rock” - in the parlance of some Maine archaeologists with whom I’ve worked.
A little of Fort Preble and Portland Harbor in upper right

Waves from winter storms had worn the banking away and exposed strata in an area I knew had been settled very early by some of the first British colonists in Maine. Just above the bank is a cemetery established in 1658, which is on the campus of Southern Maine Community College now. It was March, and thick vegetation that grows there in summer hadn’t sprouted yet, so I climbed up for a close look. Just beneath the turf were late-20th-century artifacts like detachable pop tops from aluminum cans. Old enough to remember those? I am. Layers below that showed pieces of red brick that could have gone back from the 20th to the 17th century. There were pieces to old ceramic dinner plates and crockery interspersed with them, so I concentrated on the layers below. I was looking for prehistoric stone artifacts.
Shipping channel just off Willard Beach

Certain kinds of stone were favored by prehistoric Americans and quartz was one. It’s the most difficult stone to shape into a useful tool by knapping - that method of striking that chips off pieces in predictable ways - but quartz will hold an edge better than others. It’s very hard, and it’s ubiquitous in Maine. There are seams of quartz in the metamorphic sedimentary rock one sees all along Maine’s coast, so when I saw a small piece sticking out of the bank, I picked it up right away. Unlike jasper and rhyolite and flint, which are stones also favored by Maine’s early inhabitants, white quartz doesn’t change appearance much from weathering. Even very old pieces are fairly easy to recognize.
White quartz outcropping just below the banking

I’ve picked up lots of prehistoric quartz tools in the Fryeburg area along the Saco River over the years, but this was the first I’d found in the Portland environs. There are plenty of potential sites to explore in that area, but there’s been so much building and re-building over almost four centuries of the historical era that finding prehistoric artifacts is much more difficult. I’ve found artifacts further up Maine’s coast where there’s been very little development. It’s relatively easy to find small shell heaps above the high tide marks further east just by walking along - if you know what to look for. My wife usually accompanies me  at such times and she’s learned to be patient. She likes to pick up shells and rocks with visual appeal while I search for artifacts. I like those pretty rocks too, but they don’t interest me nearly as much as stone worked by prehistoric Americans.
Southern Maine Community College last summer

Some of you looking my piece of quartz may think: “No. That’s just another rock.” When as a kid I saw pictures of similar artifacts in National Geographic - picked up by archaeologists who claimed they were tools. I was skeptical too. They looked like ordinary rocks. After a few years of studying knapping techniques and some field work, however, I’m better at distinguishing an artifact from a “JAR.” When walking near a river or beach these days, I’m always picking up stones and looking them over. When I find a stone artifact, I imagine the landscape as it looked when the last human being handled it.

Scooped up by a dragger off Bass Harbor (photo by Joe Kelly, University of Maine)
It’s somewhat frustrating, however, when I realize that most of the earliest prehistoric sites along Maine’s coast are very likely underwater now. Sea levels were much lower 12 thousand years ago when the last glaciers melted away from Maine and the people who were probably Maine’s earliest inhabitants likely gathered their seafood along a coastline that is now deeply submerged. Draggers occasionally bring up stone tools from the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere along America’s Atlantic coast. Exploring those sites would be much more problematic though, so I guess I’ll stay on dry land when pursuing my avocation - looking for prehistoric stone artifacts.

1 comment:

shane said...


Great story! I grew up in CT and have a nice collection so I know what it feels like to be picking up rocks all the time. Since moving up here I have only been out actively looking for artifacts a few times along the Saco and did find one nice pottery piece. Thanks for the new incentive.