Dragging For Archaeology

by Bruce J. Bourgue


There is at least one
ancient village just off
Deer Isle where 5,000-year-old artifacts have regularly been snagged by scallop draggers.


Over the years, as an archaeologist and museum curator, I’ve seen a great many ancient and interesting objects, from artifacts made by humans to the fossilized teeth of elephants – mammoths and mastodons – who lived in the Gulf of Maine region at the end of the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Most came from excavations by archaeologists or from construction sites. But some were actually “caught” by fishermen.

Early in the twentieth century, sailing vessels that fished with hook and line were replaced by engine-powered vessels that dragged large nets, called trawls, along the bottom. Since then these trawlers, along with scallop draggers, have been bringing up more than just fish in their nets, occasionally including examples of these ancient objects. Most of the time they go back over the side unrecognized, but occasionally a sharp-eyed fisherman will spot how different they look from the usual pieces of bottom debris. Occasionally, their curiosity is enough that they will contact a museum curator like me, seeking information about their finds.

But how did these ancient objects wind up on the bottom of the sea? There are a few different ways. Around 14,000 years ago, sea levels were much lower that they are now and as the glaciers if the last ice age began to melt away, they exposed broad areas of land along the seacoast where mammoths, mastodons and other now-extinct ice-age animals could thrive. These animals had all become extinct by around 13,000 years ago, but the humans that replaced them still had some of these broad areas to live on. Eventually, as sea level rose, these areas were submerged, covering up prehistoric village sites and the remains of mammoths and mastodons. We know of at least one ancient village just off Deer Isle where 5,000-year-old artifacts have regularly been snagged by scallop draggers, and elephant teeth have often been dragged up from the Maine coast to Georges Bank.

But actual such submerged sites and well-preserved fossils are rare because with sea level rise comes coastal erosion which pretty thoroughly destroys these ojects as they wind up on beaches that are then pounded by winter storms.

Understanding how the most of the human-made onjects that are fished-up requires understanding Indian navigation. We have no discoveries of prehistoric watercraft in the Gulf of Maine region. One does hear of dugout canoes made from large logs that have eroded out of Maine beaches, or found on the bottoms of lakes, but so far all of these dugouts turn out to have been made by local farmers a century or more ago.

We may eventually discover a prehistoric dugout canoe, for they must certainly have been used by prehistoric people, and indeed some were seen in use by early explorers in the region. But sometime around 3,000 years ago, a new kind of vessel began to replace dugouts. The light, agile birch bark canoe was an ingenious new kind of watercraft that greatly impressed early explorers and colonists. These pretty much took over from dugouts where the paper birch used to make them was common, which means approximately north and east of Casco Bay. Farther to the south, explorers in the early 1600s encountered dugouts still being made. But whether a dugout or bark canoe, these were tippy craft, and it must be that most artifacts caught in fishing gear were lost when canoes were upset.

What should fishermen who make such finds do with them? They should contact a museum curator, particularly at the Maine State Museum, which has by far the largest collection of comparative prehistoric materials in Maine. The museum is eager to keep track of such finds, as they reveal the kinds of animals that lived in the region during the ice age as well as the navigational habits of its prehistoric populations.