© Courtesy of: Dr. Arthur SpiessThe darker cod vertebra, left, was excavated from a shell midden site in Acadia National Park and is estimated to be 2,000 years old. It is shown in comparison to vertebra from a more recently caught cod, right.
An archaeological research project focusing on the food remnants left by pre-Columbian inhabitants of coastal Maine is shedding new light on the diet and habits of some of Maine's earliest citizens. The big find: indigenous people in Maine held to the coast during the winter until the arrival of Europeans changed their long established migratory patterns.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Arthur Spiess - who is both the lead archaeologist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and a board member with Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor - have since the summer of 2010 been examining items recovered from a coastal shell midden within Acadia National Park. The project was funded by the L.L. Bean Acadia Research Fellowship and was facilitated by Acadia National Park staff.

A shell midden is essentially an ancient dump site where the leftovers of the meals of native Maine inhabitants were discarded. According to Spiess, the discovery of clam and mussel shells mixed with bones of other food animals at such sites is a great boon to archaeologists. Typically, the acidic soil common to Maine will cause most discarded bones to completely decompose within 100 years. The presence of shells at midden sites has the effect of neutralizing the soil, allowing fish, bird and mammal bones to remain intact for millennia. There reportedly exist thousands of shell middens worth excavating along the coast of Maine, three quarters of which are located around Frenchman Bay.

The items Spiess and his team have been studying recently are estimated to be around 2,500 years old - a period of time known as the ceramic period - and were excavated from a site within Acadia National Park in the late 1970s by University of Maine archaeologist Dr. David Sanger. For Spiess, the research of items from the Acadia shell midden site is one small part of a larger study.

"This is a puzzle piece that goes into a much larger picture," said Spiess, who has been studying coastal shell midden sites found around Frenchman Bay for the last four years and other Maine coastal middens for the last 30 years. "What we're trying to do is figure out how people made a living on the coast of Maine over the last 2,000 to 3,000 years."

© Courtesy of: Dr. Arthur SpiessA 2,000-year-old sculpin cheek bone, left, excavated from an Acadia shell midden is shown in comparison to a modern sculpin cheek bone, right.
By examining the bones left over from the meals of the region's pre-Columbian people - who were the ancestors of such modern Native American tribes as the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot - researchers were able to deduce a great deal about the lives of such individuals.

"There's a real element of reconstructing the pre-Columbian, pre-European life of these peoples on the coast," said Spiess. "We have a complete record of all of the hunting and fishing they did."

In the case of the Acadia midden, researchers determined that 90 percent or more of the bones found were from small fish, largely consisting of flounder and sculpin. Some of the bones were also from large, 20- to 40-pound cod, various bird species, seals, moose, deer, and bear.

"One of the questions archaeologists have been asking about the coast [of Maine] is: did people live here year-round, and specifically during the winter time?" said Spiess.

By using bones to determine what migratory bird species were being hunted for food by pre-Columbian inhabitants and examining the growth layers in recovered clam shells, researchers were able to determine that a majority of Maine's coastal shell middens were the result of winter camp sites, and that ancient people lived on the coast year-round. According to Spiess, this finding runs contrary to conventional wisdom, which asserts that indigenous people retired from the coast during the winter. Spiess also said that native people did not migrate inland during winters until after the arrival of Europeans in Maine, and that the new migratory trend was the result of native people capitalizing on the European fur trade.

The project's findings may also be of use in Acadia National Park's attempts to restore a number of island streams and other fish passages that have been blocked since colonial times.

The findings of the project relate to this restoration effort because they paint a picture of the kinds of species that were here prior to the stream alterations, said Rebecca Cole-Will, who is the cultural resources manager at Acadia and was responsible for managing the archaeological project on behalf of the park. The findings inform on a long range look at the effects of climate and stream change, and act as an ecological record of the fish species present in the area prior to the arrival of European settlers.

Spiess also pointed out that the size of the cod bones found in the shell midden indicate an ancient fishery that stands in stark contrast to the current one.

"There were some very large codfish in Frenchman Bay 2,000 years ago. Much larger individuals than in the present inshore cod populations," said Spiess.

Spiess' research of the items excavated from the Acadia National Park shell midden is expected to conclude later this year.