Protecting prehistoric sites in the Lakes Region

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton’s Comprehensive Plan Committee faces a conundrum as it looks at updating the section on the town’s seven identified prehistoric archeological sites.

If the town wants to protect and preserve the sites — one of which uncovered 9,000-year-old stone artifacts, some of the earliest found anywhere in Maine so far — the town needs to know precisely where they are located. But if the Maine Historic Preservation Commission releases that information to the town, it becomes a public document — accessible to anyone who requests that information from the town.

Stated another way, the State’s Right to Know law grants the MHPC the right to confidentiality about the location of archeological sites, unless the information is to be used for research purposes. The MHPC won’t tell just anybody, even town government officials, because once the town knows, the public has the right to know.

But if the town doesn’t know, how can it plan to protect its archeological heritage?

The Catch-22 was discussed at some length at the last selectmen’s meeting, when CPC member Glen “Bear” Zaidman told the board about the problems he was encountering getting clear answers regarding the identified prehistoric sites from the MHPC.

A long, long time gone by

The first people known to inhabit Maine, called Paleoindians by archaeologists, moved here about 11,000 years ago when the glaciers receded. Between 10,000 and 3,000 years ago, as tree covers took over, these inhabitants mostly lived and traveled along lakes, waterways and coastal areas until 500 years ago, when the arrival of the first European settlers, with their written language, marked the end of the “prehistoric” archeological era.

Nearly 99% of the identified prehistoric archeological sites in Maine are located along river or stream banks. There are about 6,000 sites in Maine’s prehistoric archaeological survey inventory, the majority of which are sites that are shallowly buried on till, sand, gravel or silt soils within 1.5 feet of the surface.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said some towns take the position that the best protection against vandalism or destruction of prehistoric archeological sites is to simply stay silent about them, at least in an official sense. Listing their location with any specificity in the comprehensive plan invites potential relic hunters to dig for stone tools, arrowheads, pottery, skeletal or other evidence of human habitation predating written history. The cautious, silent approach is also often favored by towns, when it comes to disclosing more recent archeological sites dating back to the first settlers. The conundrum is summed up this way, in Bridgton’s 2004 Comprehensive Plan: “One threat to historic and archaeological resources is simply that their significance, and sometimes even their existence, is unknown. Development, redevelopment, or the failure to maintain these sites can diminish or destroy these resources. On the other hand, widespread public knowledge of archaeological sites can increase the likelihood that they will be disturbed or vandalized. The appearance of development adjacent to an historic building or site has a significant impact. Incompatible design can destroy the visual effect of a nearby historic building and greatly reduce its value.”

Law says: keep it confidential

Maine’s Right to Know Law handbook, available online, states that MHPC-identified sites are exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosure, “In order to protect the site from unlawful excavation or harm.” It goes on to say that, “Such data is available for the purpose of archaeological research, but reasonable requirements on its use, including requirements of confidentiality, may be imposed.”

Bridgton’s 2004 Comprehensive Plan gives only a site number, on file at the MHPC, for its seven prehistoric sites, along with the general description stating, “These are on the Peabody Pond shoreline, on Stevens Brook, and the Long Lake Shoreline, within one kilometer of Stevens Brook.”

The plan states further, “The precise location of number 22.5 is not noted here, in order to protect it, however town officials may receive information on its location from the MHPC at the time protection measures are proposed. Sites that need further survey, inventory, and analysis are Bear River, the shorelines of Moose Pond, Highland Lake, and Long Lake, as well as other smaller brooks and ponds. With the exception of some of site 12.63 on Peabody Pond, the town has not been surveyed by a prehistoric archaeologist.”

Zaidman said it’s not as easy as calling the MHPC and asking exactly where site 12.63 is located on Peabody Pond, despite the fact that the site number is contained in a public town document. He could not get an answer. Selectmen asked Berkowitz to speak to a MHPC representative, who could perhaps be invited to come meet with the CPC to provide some guidance and direction.

One such site is Highland Lake Beach

Because there’s been no survey done of the town’s prehistoric archeological sites, the possibility exists that there are some important sites out there that could be lost forever to development. One site was described by archeologist Craig Norman in the Fall 1998 Maine Archaeological Society Bulletin, in an article entitled “Controlled Surface Collection And Artifact Analysis Of The Stevens Brook Site, Presumpscot Watershed.”

In a 2010 column he wrote for his online blog, columnist Tom McLaughlin, a former history teacher and amateur archeologist, said Norman’s research came after he “was alerted by reports of local amateurs collecting artifacts.” McLaughlin said Norman wrote that both stone and ceramics were recovered “on the shore of Long Lake, where Stevens Brook enters and forms a sand bar.”

Where Bridgton’s families now play, relax and swim, it’s been documented that 7,000 years ago there were humans there chipping stone into tools on the beach, who were much more concerned about simple survival. McLaughlin’s blog also talks about a man who found 9,000-year-old “abrasive stones,” likely polished slate tools, at a site where Mill Pond meets Bear Pond in nearby Waterford.

In terms of Bridgton’s early settlement and explorer “archeological sites” of the 18th and 19th Century, the town also lacks a survey by a professional historic archaeologist on which to base historic preservation planning efforts. The MHPC has identified four historic archeological sites — the Kittson Pottery Site (circa 1815–1890) the Keene Machine Shop (20th Century), the American Legion Hall (20th Century) and “Narramissic,” the Peabody-Fitch Farm (18th-19th Century), according to the 2004 Comprehensive Plan. Yet there are certainly other sites dating back to the earliest European settlement of Bridgton, beginning in the 1760s, that could be identified through a professional survey, the plan notes. Not to mention the 10 industrial mill sites along Stevens Brook between Highland Lake and Long Lake that once powered Bridgton’s economy.

Prehistory lacking, too, in nearby towns

Officials in Bridgton’s neighboring towns face similar challenges in terms of identifying — and knowing how to deal with — their own prehistoric archeological sites.

In Raymond, the MHRC has identified a whopping 16 prehistoric archeological sites, all located along the shoreline of Sebago Lake and related drainage areas. The later archeological sites, such as Frye’s Leap and Hawthorne’s Cave, are relatively well known through local sources. But even so, states Raymond’s Comprehensive Plan, “Unfortunately, the importance and location of these sites are unknown by many Raymond residents. One negative consequence of this situation might be the accidental demolition or irreversible alteration of one of the town’s historic and archaeological resources.”

With its extensive Saco River frontage, it’s no surprise that in Fryeburg, 25 prehistoric sites have been identified along that well-travelled route for Native Americans in birch-bark canoes. Professional archaeologists, however, have examined only a few of these Saco River sites, according to Fryeburg’s Comprehensive Plan.

In the town of Sebago, no prehistoric archeological sites have been identified for certain, despite all of the Sebago Lake shoreline it contains. Sebago’s Comprehensive Plan states that the MHPC has identified the Northwest River, the shores of Peabody Pond, and the shores and islands of Sebago Lake as areas that “may be sensitive for encountering prehistoric archaeological sites.”

Sebago’s plan states that “Under both state and federal law, the exact location of archaeological sites is kept confidential, to limit potential vandalism and looting. However, the state is willing to review development plans in order to advise municipal authorities if a significant or potentially significant site might be affected by the proposal.”

The Harrison Comprehensive Plan states that the MHPC “knows of no prehistoric archaeological sites in Harrison,” despite its long Crooked River frontage, as well as inlets and outlets of three lakes.

In Lovell, the 1992 Comprehensive Plan states, “The town has one known area of archeological significance. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission is looking into the origins of paintings and other possible artifacts on the north shore of Kezar Lake.” McLaughlin wrote in a May 2010 blog that artifacts found along the lake’s shore date back 4,000 years. He credits the work of the late local amateur archaeologist Helen Leadbetter with doing much to add to the knowledge base of prehistoric archeology not only in Lovell but also in Bridgton and Fryeburg.

McLaughlin himself said he found a Labrador chert arrowhead at the Kezar LakeOutlet Bridge that was verified by a MHPC archeologist. He goes on to say, “A lot of archaeological research in this area is confidential. I’ve had to promise to keep it that way in order to learn several things, and that constrains what I can write here, so I’ll only refer to them obliquely. That goes against my nature, but a promise is a promise.”

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