KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — In Cape Porpoise Harbor on June 1, a team of scientists and archaeologists expertly excavated what is believed to be the oldest dugout canoe ever found in Maine.
The canoe was first identified late last fall by archaeologist Tim Spahr, principal investigator for the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance.
While conducting a surface survey of the intertidal zone, Spahr located the remains of the dugout canoe, made from a hollowed tree trunk, which was revealed due to a significant sand shift. Carbon testing dates the canoe between 1280 and 1380.
Spahr assembled a team of expert archaeologists, including Dr. Gemma Hudgell and Dr. Arthur Anderson with the University of New England and Dr. Gabe Hrynick of the University of New Brunswick, to excavate the 10-foot birch canoe.
Volunteer students in Anderson and Hrynick’s field school assisted in the painstaking work, Spahr said.
“We started a few days before, building a custom crate to carry the canoe,” Spahr said. On the morning of June 1, while they waited for the tide, the team conducted training and practiced how they would move the canoe.
“A few of us went in with wetsuits and snorkeling gear to move the sand before the tide subsided,” he said.
At around 2 p.m. the tide was low enough for crews to get handmade straps under the canoe, and they were able to lift it out and into the crate.
“It was incredibly volatile. It did suffer a few cracks in the wood, but we were able to get it into the crate in one piece,” Spahr said.
Spahr said the sand preserved the wood, and now the conservation and preservation process will take place in an effort to preserve it for study and display.
The Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance was formed in 2017 to conduct scientific archaeological research on the islands and intertidal zone of Cape Porpoise Harbor. The partnership is a collaboration between the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and the Brick Store Museum, with Spahr serving as the principal archaeologist and investigator.
Spahr, a game warden who gained notoriety on the Animal Planet show “North Woods Law,” earned a degree in museum studies from Harvard University in 2016, where he focused on Maine archaeology.
Conservation Trust Director Tom Bradbury said having Spahr, a resident of Kennebunk, involved in the research of the Cape Porpoise islands brings a local connection to the work.
“Tim has a passion for this work and a fabulous eye for finding things,” Bradbury said.
“We’ve been working for some time on trying to find out the history of the islands. We started out looking for and finding evidence of the contact period between Europeans and Indians, and learning where that happened and what was that like,” Bradybury said. “We have since located artifacts that suggest occupation back as far as 7,000 years ago, so it has broadened the scope of the work.”
Bradbury said the discovery of the canoe and what can be learned from it will be fed into Kennebunkport Conservation Trust’s Trust in our Children Program, which is designed to give kids a sense of place, form a bond with the lands and expose them to the natural wonders of the world.
“This story will be a great addition to our children’s programs. It was exciting when the canoe was being dug out. It’s fascinating to think about what life was like here at that time and how it may have been used,” he said.
The canoe was taken to the Clement Clark Boathouse where it has to be immersed in fresh water for about a year, Spahr said.
Bradbury said they will have to make provisions for it, and move it somewhere where it won’t freeze in the winter.
Spahr said it’s important that the work to discover and preserve the history of the Kennebunkport islands is left to experts, and discourages others from what he called “picking.”
He said that academically the canoe is an important discovery.
“Archaeology is about the people that used the object that’s discovered and learning about the people. Preserving it is understanding past cultures. Interpreting past cultures,” he said.
Spahr and Bradbury said they hope to create a citizen organization made up of volunteers to aid in the location of artifacts.
Spahr said artifacts like the canoe show that there were communities with activities such as fishing, farms and trading thousands of years ago. As part of his ongoing research he published a paper on an Algonquin fishing weir complex off Cape Porpoise’s Redin Island and believes those who used the canoe may have been from the Algonquin tribe.
“As stewards of the land, we want to find out more about those who once lived here. I’m hoping that this excites people’s imagination to continue that discovery,” Bradbury said. “There’s a time element to this as well. There’s an erosion factor and things are being washed away, so we have to discover these things and record them while we still can.”