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NRCS helps preserve and identify prehistoric site in Maine

Dr. Gary Shaffer of NRCS-Maine points out the areas where he discovered evidence of prehistoric habitation at the Vassalboro dig site in Vassalboro, Maine, July 24, 2015. Photo by Thomas Kielbasa


VASSALBORO, Maine (Aug. 4, 2015) – The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently set a benchmark in historic preservation in central Maine by helping protect an archeological site eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The project also helped gather new data on prehistoric subsistence and vegetation, and provided baseline data for planning proposed fish passages in the area.

The project began in 2014 when the Cates family of Vassalboro, Maine, sought NRCS assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to install a seasonal high tunnel on their farm. The high tunnel would be used to help prolong the growing season on the family farm near China Lake.

From prior work on the farm, NRCS Cultural Resources Specialist Dr. Gary Shaffer knew the high tunnel would be set upon a significant archaeological site adjacent to China Lake’s outlet stream.  Research at the site over the years had recovered prehistoric artifacts primarily from the Middle and Late Archaic periods; especially from about 6,000 to 4,500 years ago.

Shaffer believed that the installation or use of the high tunnel at the farm would only minimally disturb the archaeological site (the setting of stakes to anchor the structure to the ground), but future usage could impact the site.

“NRCS iThe high tunnel at the Cates Farm is located near a prehistoric fishing site in Vassalboro, Maine. Photo by Thomas Kielbasas a steward of the natural resources,” Shaffer, who is based in NRCS-Maine’s State Office in Bangor, said. “We want to protect the soil, water, air, and plants in the natural environment. And as an extension of that we want to protect the cultural resources that might be damaged through conservation practices. It is federal law that federal agencies need to take into account the effects of their projects and activities on significant archeological sites.”

With archaeologist’s tools in hand, Shaffer carefully and systematically traversed the project area and then dug into the soil at three shovel test pits at the farm, working though the uppermost soil layer and into the underlying subsoil. The 50-by-50 centimeter shovel test pits recovered several ceramic sherds and metal artifacts from the 18th to 20th centuries, as well as a flake of Kineo rhyolite from prehistoric tool manufacture.  Importantly, troweling of the B horizon soils in one test pit revealed the dark soil of a prehistoric fire pit.  After removal of the black, greasy silt loam from the pit, Shaffer carefully screened the soil to collect even the smallest of artifacts and biological items.  As a result, he found a calcined (burned) bone and several pieces of charcoal.

“Even though there was just one bone it helps to characterize the economy or subsistence of the people who lived here,” Shaffer said. “This probably would have been a camp, and people living here knew that they could get alewives and other fish periodically.”

The bone was later identified by Senior Archaeologist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission Dr. Arthur Spiess as the mouth apparatus of an alewife, an anadromous fish. The charcoal was identified by Archaeobotanist Nancy Asch Sidell as being from cherry, red oak and white pine trees. Later, a radiocarbon test on the pit’s charcoal concluded it was about 4,000 years old.

According to Shaffer, the testing was conducted in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Officer and Penobscot Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and the findings “confirmed the presence of significant prehistoric archaeological resources in the footprint of the high tunnel” at the Cates’ farm.

“The biological materials we recovered provide important information on the prehistoric site’s economy and the setting,” Shaffer said. “We believe there was seasonal fishing at the lake outlet and a lot more trees at the site.”

Despite this new archaeological data, the NRCS concluded that the high tunnel would minimally impact the site as long as no digging occurred below the plowzone. Contract documents ensured that no such sub-plowzone impacts would occur in the future.

The information from the archaeological survey at the farm also could assist in another proposed NRCS project in the area: restoration of an alewife fishery by creating an aquatic organism passage at two dams along a nearby stream.

Shaffer, who has conducted extensive field work across the U.S. and western Europe since he became an archaeologist in 1976, noted the findings at the Vassalboro site may not look like much to the untrained eye but they are truly important from a historical perspective.

Work at this site confirms its eligibility for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), a list with more than 90,000 properties of historical significance across the nation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's NRHP is part of a program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources. The NRCS is also working with the Vassalboro Historical Society to possibly promote the findings at the site next year as part of the 50th Anniversary of the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act.