ArtAsk Art

Arthur Spiess received a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University in 1978.  Since 1978 he has been employed by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission as an archaeologist.   The Commission job involves locating, identifying and protecting significant archaeological sites, including nomination of sites to the National Register of Historic Places.  Review of development projects and requiring archaeological survey, legislation and regulations, and land conservation and land planning are all major parts of his job.

For about 25 years Spiess has been on the Board of The Maine Archaeological Society, and he serves as the Editor of Archaeology of Eastern North America for the Eastern States Archaeological Federation.

My grandfather and father collected several hundred Indian arrowheads from our family farm next to the Penobscot River. I have no interest in the collection. What should be done with it?

Indian artifact collections from a single location provide valuable information to archaeologists. The collection should be offered as a donation to a Museum such as the Maine State Museum in Augusta (Maine.Museum@Maine.gov), the Nylander Museum in Caribou (nylander@maine.rr.com), or the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor (info@abbemuseum.org) where they will be kept with the record of location of the finds and any other records. The artifacts may or may not be put on display, but they will be available in the future for study.  If a Museum is not interested in the collection, perhaps because of lack of space, then donation to the University of Maine or University of Southern Maine or a local historical society is another good idea.

Last spring my son and I discovered a long cylindrical stone with a groove in it. How do I determine if it is an artifact?

The easiest way to find out whether a stone or other object is an artifact is to send a few good photographs (in focus, please) to an archaeologist and ask for an opinion.  Be sure to include information on where and how the object was found, and a return address.  Email and digital cameras make sending artifact photos relatively easy.  Please make sure that the photographs are small digital files (500 kb or 1 mb maximum) for your initial email.   For possible Native American artifacts, such as arrowheads, email inquiries can be sent to the Maine State Museum (Maine.Museum@Maine.gov) or the Abbe Museum (info@abbemuseum.org), or to Dr. Arthur Spiess at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission (arthur.spiess@maine.gov), or to some members of the Maine Archaeological Society Board (www.mainearchsociety.org)

Other archaeologists, called historic archaeologists, specialize in articles manufactured by Europeans or Euro-Americans, such as metal, glassware, and ceramics.  For help locating an appropriate historic archaeologist contact Maine Archaeological Society (info@mainearchsociety.org).

When an artifact is found, how is ownership of that item determined?

In the United States, the landowner owns artifacts.  There are fairly serious legal penalties for taking artifacts from Federal land (for example, National Park or Wildlife Refuge land) and from State lands (State Parks and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway).  On private property, artifact collecting should be done with the permission of the landowner.  On some private property and town property, the ownership of the artifacts has been transferred (in advance) to the State of Maine by a legal document called a conservation easement or preservation agreement.  In such cases, artifacts should not be collected because they belong to the town or State.

Unless you are on Federal property or in a State Park, picking up on an artifact exposed on a water shoreline by erosion is usually acceptable behavior.  Turning that artifact over to the landowner or an archaeologist with a note about the location of the find actually alerts the landowner or archaeologist to the presence of a potentially important site. Digging without permission or a permit (if necessary) is never legal and violators may be prosecuted.  It is important to understand that picking up artifacts can damage important sites due to loss of part of the site and thus loss of knowledge about the people who lived there.

It appears there was an old mill on a stream that runs through my family’s property. Is it legal/ethical to pull out some of the metal objects that are embedded in the bank to examine them? I’m curious as to what type of milling operation was there.

If it is your property, then it is legal to pull up or pick up artifacts.  But you may be destroying the context of those artifacts.  If you must pull up an artifact, draw a plan first showing its location.   It is probably ethical if you first get in touch with an archaeologist or local historian about the site. Often historic maps and records can help identify a mill or other historic archaeological site.  Not all archaeological sites are Asignificant@ or well enough preserved to be of future value to archaeologists.

I would like to get involved in a dig but have no training or experience. Are there opportunities for novices to participate in such an experience?

Yes, there are two basic types of training experiences.  An archaeological field school provides a dig experience and other academic training (lectures, readings). Sometimes these schools provide academic credit, in exchange for a fee.  Field schools often require a commitment of a week, or longer.  Museums and colleges often sponsor Field schools.  Usually field schools are available to high school, college age or older individuals.  Some field school opportunities are available through schools, historical societies, or land trusts for younger (middle school) students.  The annual Bay Day archaeological dig run by Friends of Merrymeeting Bay (www.friendsofmerrymeetingbay.org) is such an example.

More informal archaeological fieldwork experiences are called volunteer digs.  They often require the volunteer to sign a liability release form, and may require a minimum commitment of a half-day or full day on site.  The reason for this minimum commitment of time by the volunteer is that it takes a half a day to learn the basics of helping to dig and screen for artifacts.

A museum, contract archaeology company, government agency, historical society, or archaeological society usually run archaeological volunteer digs for members, with a professional archaeological team in charge of the dig.  The volunteers are often contributing to the real work of the dig and making it less expensive, and they are paired up with professional crewmembers.  Sometimes volunteer opportunities are advertised but they may be short notice events that draw recruits from a list of volunteer members maintained by a museum or archaeological society.

What type of training does it take to become an archaeologist? I’ve never seen a help wanted ad for that job. Are there jobs in Maine for archaeologists?

Professional archaeologists (people who get paid to do field work or laboratory work, even on a seasonal basis) almost always have a college degree (Bachelor’s degree), usually in history, anthropology, or geology.  People who supervise archaeological work, run digs, and make decisions about archaeological site protection have graduate degrees (2 years or more after college), including Master’s degrees and Ph.D. degrees.

Professional archaeologists work for the Maine university system, some museums, and some State agencies, and also work for companies that do legally required environmental work in advance of development or construction (called Cultural Resources Management).  During the digging season (spring, summer, early fall), there are about 40 digging jobs (Bachelor’s degree level) in Maine in an average year.  There are about 20 archaeologists with Master’s or Ph.D. degrees employed year-round in Maine by museums, universities, State agencies, and Cultural Resources Management firms.

If I want to see Native American artifacts that were found in Maine where can I go?

There are two Museums that have excellent exhibits of Maine artifacts on display: the Maine State Museum in Augusta in the 12,000 Years in Maine Exhibit, and the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. The Abbe Museum has two locations with permanent Maine archaeology exhibits.  The Hudson Museum at the University of Maine at Orono, and some local historical societies also have Maine Native American artifacts on display periodically or permanently.

How old does a place have to be before it is considered an important archaeological site?

The question of archaeological site importance is not just one of age, often not one of age at all.   More often archaeological site importance (what professional archaeologists call site significance) is measured by how well preserved the site is, and what it contains. Technically, any building or site older than 50 years could be important.

Pre-European (prehistoric) Native American archaeological sites range in age from about 13,000 years to European arrival about 500 years ago in Maine. These sites are generally important unless they have been heavily disturbed or damaged by erosion or construction. For further understanding go to: http://www.maine.gov/mhpc/archaeology/professional/contexts.html.

European settlement sites of the 1600s and 1700s A.D. are often important if they are well preserved, because there are few of them. Some archaeological sites of farms from the Civil War era are also significant, especially when archaeologists have access to written records about the farm family and can learn something about farming and the larger work economy.  Blacksmith shop sites, schoolhouse sites, and mill sites from the 1800s may be significant if they are exceptionally well preserved.  An archaeological site from the mid-20th century, such as the remains of a German prisoner of war camp from WW II, may be significant if it is well preserved enough to learn something of the prisoners’ lives.

Where can I go to learn more about Maine archaeology?

If you are on the Maine Archaeological Society web site, then you have made a good start.  Visiting an exhibit at the Maine State Museum and the Abbe Museum would help you by seeing artifacts on display.  A number of well written publications regarding archaeological discoveries in Maine are available in libraries and bookstores. Lectures, sponsored by the Maine Archaeological Society (www.mainearchsociety.org) and various museums, land trusts, or historical societies will provide some inspiring background.

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