Wednesday, September 02, 2020


The Stone

Last week, I picked up a piece of stone from the ground in Fryeburg, Maine where a machine of some sort had cut into an old riverbank. It was unlike any other stones around it because it came from a cave on Mount Jasper in Berlin, New Hampshire forty-five miles away. Archaeologists and geologists call it “Mount Jasper Rhyolite” and Indians mined it for about 12,000 years or more.

In the hands of a skilled “knapper,” the stone can be fashioned into various tools useful to Indians who hadn’t learned to use metals here in what is now the United States. Everyone is familiar with arrowheads or spearpoints but probably wouldn’t recognize other artifacts that are much more common wherever Indians lived and worked, sometimes only seasonally, during prehistoric times in what is now Fryeburg.

What I picked up is a scraper. It was used, probably by a woman, for various purposes — most likely to prepare hides from animals brought to camp by hunters who used those other tools archaeologists call “projectile points.” There was no way for me to figure out how long the scraper had been there. It could have been used as recently as four or five hundred years ago, or it might have been used 10,000 years ago or more. Scraper technology hadn’t changed much over ten millennia.

Early Paleolithic type projectile point

Projectile point technology, however, had. I cannot say it advanced because there’s little agreement about that. We do know that it changed. The shapes of projectile points varied over millennia, but their function remained the same. They were hafted onto either an arrow, a spear, or a dart, but the hafts — and whatever material was used to attach the point to the haft — had long ago deteriorated. With relatively rare exceptions, only stone artifacts remain to be found here in the 21st century.

Calcine bone from the site

Those exceptions include something called “calcine bone.” Unless heated, bone will deteriorate quickly. When it’s heated sufficiently during the cooking process, it turns into calcine bone and can be preserved underground under certain conditions for millennia. Another exception is pottery. Though I didn’t find any yet at the site mentioned above, I’ve found many fragments a few miles away alongside the old riverbed. Archaeologists generally agree that American Indians learned to make pottery only about 3000 years ago at the beginning of the “ceramic age.”

Damariscotta Shell Heap

One more exception would include coastal sites where human and animal bone has been preserved under shell heaps, which are fairly common along the coast of Maine and the Maritime provinces of Canada. Bones going back a few millennia have been found under discarded shells of oysters and other shellfish. Some shell heaps like those found in Damariscotta, Maine can be quite large.

The Fryeburg site is new to me and I learned of it while reading notes and journals of the late Helen Leadbeater whose extensive artifact collection I’m packing up for delivery to the Maine State Museum soon. Although she didn’t say she collected there, she referred to others who had. It’s not ethical for me to disclose the exact location of any archaeological sites and I’ve pledged not to.

Though I’m tempted to scrape away at the raised riverbank where I found these artifacts to look for more, I resist. If I were to do so, I’d be obligated to conduct a dig according to strict archaeological guidelines which I have neither the time nor the inclination to undertake. I’m content to walk around and surface-collect and then figure out where the stone from which the artifacts were made originated.

This interests me. It’s a thrill to pick up something that hadn’t been touched by another human for hundreds or thousands of years. It’s also interesting to speculate about how the unusual stone — called “exotic” by archaeologists when the source is hundreds of miles away — got to where I discovered it. The Mount Jasper rhyolite came from Berlin, NH forty-five miles away as stated, but Berlin is on the Androscoggin River, but I was collecting on the bank of an old channel of the Saco River.

Inside the cave at Mount Jasper

I also found small flakes of of the same stone as the scraper which indicated that tools were manufactured on the site, or sharpened at least. These are clues about whether Indians habitually used the site or if it were a temporary encampment. Also visible were what archaeologists call “fire-cracked rock” which are associated with hearths. Indians used river cobbles to surround fire pits the same way campers do it today. Continued use of the same hearth caused the stones to redden and crack.

All this fascinates a history geek like me and I’ll definitely return to the site as time permits to see what else turns up.


Brian said...

I'm fascinated by this stuff as well...nice column!

Jared James Bristol said...

But're losing it! Tom used the very un-PC term, "Indian". I'm so very disappointed.

CaptDMO said...

"Trade" has been proposed as explaining how certain artisan artifacts "move around" .
Abandoned for something better? (Those crazy, traveling, Abanaquis and other assorted Algonquins)
Like that inexplicable car half way up Hidden Washington?
I mean, come shoes, and entire home foundation cellar pits, can be found in some pretty strange places.
Pointy things. How many were "lost" when hitting, but not mortally, potential game* (or predators).
Only to be carried to the fleeing animals ultimate final resting place.
And how much "travel garbage" from points well South can be found TOSSED by the side of the road in "Scenic Maine"?
(*I suspect this happened quite a lot.)

Brian said...

I'll leave such things to people that are a bit more nit-picky on PC terms - good catch, though! I must admit I am guilty of ignorantly using that word myself sometimes. I even slip up and say Oriental sometimes. Old habits die hard, but it is good they are dying out.