PASSAMAQUODDY BAY PREHISTORY
By: David Sanger
The St. Croix River forms the International Boundary between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, as it flows south and then east into Passamaquoddy Bay. Prehistoric Indians utilized the large interior lake system of the St. Croix and harvested the rich marine resources of Passamaquoddy Bay. This brief paper will summarize the archaeological research in the Passamaquoddy area, and touch upon some of the events of the prehistoric period.
One of the first to call attention to the numerous sites in the Passamaquoddy Bay area was Baird (1881). He was followed by a group of naturalists from the New Brunswick Natural History Society who excavated Phil’s Beach, near Bocabec, in 1883. The project was described in detail by Mathew (1884) whose perception and grasp of the problems of archaeology was outstanding for the time. A little later, the historian Ganong (1899) published a work on the historic resources of the province of New Brunswick with a section on known archaeological sites, both historic and prehistoric.
Nearly fifty years elapsed before any further work was undertaken. During the 1950’s the R.S. Peabody Foundation sponsored survey and excavation in New Brunswick under the direction of Douglas Byers. The Passamaquoddy Bay area was examined and one of the larger sites, Holt’s Point, was excavated. A brief note on etched pebbles from the site has appeared (Fowler 1966) but no account of the overall work. Several years later, R. Pearson, then employed by the National Museums of Canada, excavated three sites in the Bay. A brief summary statement of his testing has recently been published (Pearson 1971). In addition, there have been the sporadic diggings of amateurs and occasional sorties by professionals who have left us no record of their activities.
In 1967 a large-scale program of excavation was initiated. Backed by ample funding from the National Museums of Canada and the Province of New Brunswick, the most recent Passamaquoddy Bay Archaeological program has been able to systematically survey and test all the known sites in the Bay, and to conduct substantial excavation at others. Survey and excavation from 1967 to 1970 resulted in the location of more than fifty sites, the excavation of eight, and the recovery of over 4,500 artifacts, not including unused flakes, small pottery shards, etc. Some of the analysis has been completed but a great deal of integration and interpretation remains. The discussion to follow outlines the extent of knowledge arranged chronologically by periods of time.
The Early period, which would include paleo-Indian, is not represented in the area and plays no part in the current discussion. The land was available to Indians of this H. Borns (1971) has indicated.
The Middle period maybe said to begin around 6,000 years ago with the presence of Laurentian Tradition (Ritchie 1965) people in the interior lakes on the St. Croix drainage system. Characteristics of the Laurentian Tradition in this area are large, side-notched and stemmed projectile points, ground stone adze blades of both and flat bit varieties, ground slate points, plummets, red-ochre smeared burials of the Moorehead complex, and an adaptation to the interior lake resources. A variant, perhaps only seasonal, may have made its livelihood on the coast hunting seas mammals (Tuck 1971). So far as we now know, these people did not place the reliance on the shellfish which characterizes the later inhabitants. Unfortunately, no traces of coastal marine mammal hunters have turned up in the Bay area. Possibly, the increasing sea levels (Grant 1970) have obliterated the older sites and we will never find them. On the other hand, site survey to date has not been oriented towards locating their living areas due to the emphasis on the location of shell midden sites.
The Late period starts around 3000 years ago and continues to the early 17th century when the Historic period begins. It is dominated by shell midden sites along the coast and an impression of de-population of the interior lakes. The dependence on shellfish as a protein base represents a reorientation to the local resources. Soft shell clam (Mya arenaria) is by far the dominant species, with only inconsequential amounts of mussel (Mytilus edulis), and other shell fish. Deer and beaver are the most prominent mammal remains. In lesser amounts are moose, caribou, bear, and seals. Limited qualities of bird and fish remains are found.
It is not possible to be precise about the starting date for this coastal adaptation pattern, but I doubt that it came about slowly thorough a long trial and error procedure. More likely, it was introduced full blown from areas to the south where the initial experimentation took place. Ritchie (1969) has demonstrated the presence of the shell fish utilization pattern by 4,000 years ago in Massachusetts, and there are sufficient similarities in artifact forms, mainly projectile points, to suspect the introduction of this way of life to Passamaquoddy Bay by at least 3000 years ago. At this time we do not have sufficient data to speculate on whether the new concepts arrived via the movement of new people into the area, or whether indigenous populations adopted the techniques transmitted by diffusion of ideas. It is possible that both occurred.
From about 2000 years ago to the Historic period we have relatively far more information concerning the life ways of the Passamaquoddy Bay inhabitants. About this time ceramics are introduced. The earliest examples share many attributes with the Point Penninsula wares such as dentate and rockered dentate designs, some psuedo scallop motifs, and later, cord wrapped stick impressed pottery. In contrast with areas to the west where the Iroquois Traditions developed, pottery seems to assume less emphasis and has degenerated both in quality and in quantity by the Historic period.
Projectile points change through time from the stemmed forms to those with wide corner notches, to specimens with narrow corner and side-notching. A large array of cutting and scraping tools is found but surprising few stone piercing or drilling implements.
Among the organic tools it is the beaver incisor which heads the list in numbers. These ubiquitous artifacts can be grouped according to the way in which they are hafted. Some were left in the lower jaw which was snapped at the ‘chin’; others were removed and hafted in handles of wood or antler. Harpoons, bone points, awls, and needles are among the organic artifacts.
From sites dated between 2000 years and about 800 years we have evidence of semi-subterranean houses, a dwelling type in which some of the house is below ground surface level. These are oval to round pits averaging three meters on the long axis by about 2.5 meters across. A conical structure resembling the Historic wigwam was pitched over the depression which averaged 50 cm. We have no information concerning the covering of the structure. Inside, one or more hearths are noted. The houses are situated behind the middle areas unless later occupants have filled the depressions with shells and other garbage from their activities. By plotting the distributions of artifacts recovered in sites with houses of this type it can be seent that a great deal of the manufacturing occurred within, and little took place in the midden regions. In those later sites, where semi-subterranean houses are not present, the artifact distribution is more random, although there is still some patterning in evidence.
The semi-subterranean house form maybe associated with a practice of wintering on the coast. Analysis of the faunal remains suggests the possibility of year around habitation. Birds, which can be sensitive seasonal reflections, indicate some fall through spring occupation. More research is needed to adequately document the correlation of the houses and winter residence.
Towards the termination of the Late period there are indications of a scarcity of deer in the Passamaquoddy Bay region, perhaps an anticipation of the Historic period when deer were very scarce until the mid 19th century. This shortage, which may be linked with a worsening of the climate at that time, may have influenced the dual coastal-inland pattern noted in Historic times.
An interesting observation resulting from our work is the apparent abandonment of the New Brunswick side (east) of the St. Croix River by AD 800 and a movement eastward to the Digdequash Harbor area. Grant (1970) has documented the rather substantial rise in sea levels in the Bay of Fundy, and has arrived at an average rate of rise of one foot per century. Not only is this washing out older sites, but it results in relatively brief occupancy of any one clam gathering area. Clams require silty-sandy beaches in an inter-tidal area to thrive. When sea levels rise and erosion of the land occurs, beach slopes may increase in pitch until the slope is too great to allow the deposition of the fine sands required for clam survival. Coarse sand and gravel replaces the muddy bottoms and other shell fish species, such as mussels and whelks, replace the clams. With the diminishing of the clams the Indians abandoned their nearby site and moved to new clam beds. Thus at sites like Sand Point and Hidlitz, which are located on the St. Croix River as it debouched into the Bay, one would have difficulty today in obtaining a good feed of clams. These sites are radiocarbon dated at around AD 50 and AD 650 respectively.
Examining our knowledge of the Passamaquoddy Bay area, we can claim to have some idea of the culture between about 2000 years ago and the Historic period. Prior to that there are some large gaps in our knowledge. Most critical is a better understanding of the first intensive shell fish exploitation patterns. It seems unlikely that we will find our evidence in Passamaquoddy Bay, and so attention will be focused on nearby Cobscook Bay where sea levels change and erosion may have been less destructive. Further work needs to be done, also, on the question of the presence of Marine mammal hunters. Were these people representative of a widespread “Maritime Archaic Tradition”, stretching from Blue Hill to Newfoundland as Tuck suggests (1971)? Or were they primarily inland oriented Indians who made infrequent, or perhaps seasonal, trips to the salt water to hunt seals? In either event, what was the relationship between these people and those who had a primary adaptation to the marine resources – the shell fish gatherers?
These are important questions. At this time the answers can only be put forward as hypotheses to be verified or refuted. These hypotheses serve as guides to future research. As further work in easternmost Maine begins to produce answers, we can anticipate the formulation of new, equally challenging hypotheses.
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Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. IV, Washington, D.C.
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Maine Archaeological Society, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 33-39.
Fowler, W., 1966, “Cache of Engraved Pebbles from New Brunswick”, Bulletin of the
Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Vol 28, No. 1, pp. 15-17, Attleboro.
Ganong, W., 1899, “A Monograph of Historic Sites in the Province of New Brunswick”,
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the Natural History Society of New Brunswick, No. III pp. 6-29, St. John.
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