Skip Maine state header navigation

Agencies | Online Services | Help

Skip First Level Navigation | Skip All Navigation

Home > Archaeology > Historical Archaeology

Historical Archaeology

Photo of excavation of Fort Halifax

Excavation of northeast blockhouse cellar, Fort Halifax, Winslow, 1989

In 1976, having hired an historical archaeologist, the Commission began to address archaeological sites of the historic period, complementing survey programs for prehistoric sites and architectural resources.  One of the first actions in 1976 was to establish survey priorities for the new science of historical archaeology in Maine.  The cornerstone of this initiative was the decision that sites of the early colonial period should be the primary focus for identification, evaluation, and protection.  This period is subdivided into three phases: Early Settlement (1604-1675), Indian Wars (1676 to early 18th  century), and Resettlement Period (early to mid-18th-century).  Simply stated, these sites were recognized as the scarcest, least well documented, and most prone to destruction by vandalism, development, and erosion in that they are almost exclusively found on navigable water, either estuarine or marine.

On a secondary level, other sites were also recognized as deserving attention.  The Commission determined that sites representing the earliest penetration of Euro-Americans into a given area, regardless of period, are worthy of attention, given their poor documentation, their vulnerability to subsequent expansion of communities, and their data regarding adaptation of new populations to wilderness areas.  In addition, sites relating to important Maine events or industries are recognized, hence the surveys of sites such as Fort Edgecomb and Fort Sullivan, as well as reconnaissance-level projects in the areas of Baxter State park and the White Mountain National Forest respectively focusing on 19th-century logging industry sites and extinct agricultural neighborhoods.  Other sites of interest that are just beginning to be looked at are those sites that can shed light on such topics as ethnicity, race, gender, and religious diversity in Maine.

Photo of chinese porcelain Fort Halifax

Chinese export porcelain saucer and matching shard from Fort Halifax privy, Winslow, excavated 1995

But by and large the Commission’s principal efforts, both in-house and via grants to other agencies/institutions, have addressed the traces of earliest European impact on our landscape.  This structural framework breaks down into eight coastal/estuarine regions as follows:
Region I: York County, Region II: Portland Area, Region III: Northern Casco Bay, Region IV: Upper Kennebec River Valley, Region V: Mid-Coast, Region VI: Penobscot Valley, Region VII: Penobscot Bay, and Region VIII: Machias Are

Underwater Archaeology

An ancillary, but important, class of historic archaeological sites is that of the countless shipwrecks which litter the Maine coast.  The Commission early made a start at addressing this resource.  In 1975 co-sponsorship of underwater survey in Stockton Springs harbor confirmed the presence of the “Defence” (1779), which was subsequently excavated.  In 1999, with Commission support, the University of Maine and the U. S. Navy began a survey to study several shipwrecks in the Penobscot River which were lost in the disastrous 1779 expedition to dislodge the British from their Fort George in Castine.  Since forty or more Massachusetts and U. S. Navy vessels were lost in this operation, this research is probably only a small-scale continuation of a long-term priority.

Meanwhile, recognizing the need to have at least a minimal data base for reviewing proposed dredging and related activities, in 1981 the Commission began to develop the Maine Shipwrecks Inventory.  Most of the entries (numbering over 1,300 at this time) are based solely on primary or secondary references to ship losses, although some are supplemented by on-site observations of sport divers, reported in the press or directly to the Commission