BRISTOL – Tom Desjardin stopped dead in his tracks Thursday evening as he walked across the Colonial Pemaquid Historic Site. Pointing down to an ever-so-slight depression in the grass, he smiled.
“This is the spot that has all of our attention this year,” said Desjardin, a historian with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. “We think there’s something going on here.”
Correction: They think something went on there — somewhere between 300 and 400 years ago.
That’s why starting Monday, Desjardin, a trio of archaeologists and a cadre of highly motivated volunteers will break out their shovels, trowels, dustpans, buckets and screens and, dig this, spend a week knee-deep in the 1600s.
There are easier ways to learn about this hallowed spot on Maine’s mid-coast, where 400 years ago some of North America’s very first European settlers sailed over from Bristol, England, to fish for cod.
Click on the nonprofit Friends of Colonial Pemaquid website (www.friends ofcolonialpemaquid.org), for example, and you’ll see a sampling of the artifacts, from ancient American Indian arrowheads to 17th-century wine jugs, that have been extracted from the soil here since the digging began in earnest back in the mid-1960s.
Thus Desjardin got a bit of a surprise earlier this month when, for the first time, the state put out a call for volunteers to help out with its annual archaeological dig on the grassy knoll overlooking picturesque Pemaquid Harbor.
“We thought if we got maybe a dozen people, we’d be doing good,” he said.
“My phone didn’t stop ringing.”
In all, more than 50 people from all over Maine heard about the dig and said, “Sign me up!” So many that the dig was postponed a week while Desjardin drew up schedules for the volunteers and cleared other last-minute logistical hurdles.
A few volunteers have backgrounds in this sort of thing, Desjardin said. But many more are drawn by … what?
“It’s just like magic,” said Cindy Hook of Augusta, who helped out with last year’s dig along with her 16-year-old daughter, Rebecca. Both will be back at it this week — if only for the one day being allotted to each volunteer so all can get their fingernails dirty.
“You’re holding onto something that someone 200 years ago or more held onto or used,” explained Hook, who works as director of publications for the University of Maine at Augusta. “I’m not sure I can put into words why that’s so exciting — except you feel connected to the past. I do anyway.”
What’s more, there’s a lot of past with which to connect.
No one knows exactly what year the first English fishermen put ashore here to land their bountiful catches of cod, salt them on drying racks and pack them for shipment back across the North Atlantic. But most estimates, Desjardin said, place their arrival at just after the turn of the 17th century.
The seasonal fishing station led to a year-round fishing village, which led to three successive forts — the French and their American Indian allies didn’t take too kindly to what they saw as encroachment on their territory to the north, destroying the Pemaquid settlement twice during the mid-17th century.
But between the hostilities, life went on. And then as now, stuff — lots of stuff — got left behind.
“You can’t put a hole in the ground here without finding something,” Desjardin said.
So imagine the commotion back in 1964 when Gordon Van Buskirk, who owned the property at the time, took his bulldozer to what by then was an open field, with an eye toward erecting a few harborside tourist cabins.
“He opened up all the foundations” of the long-gone fishing village, Desjardin said. “And with it came up all these artifacts.”
Enter Helen Camp, a self-taught archaeologist who at the time was nearby exploring the soil around state-owned Fort William Henry, a replica of the last colonial fort, built under the supervision of Maine Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain in 1908.
Camp, seeing what Van Buskirk’s bulldozer was unearthing, came running and persuaded him to stop.
“Everyone had known there was a village somewhere — they just didn’t know where,” said Desjardin. “And obviously they’d found it.”
The site, now owned by the state in partnership with Friends of Colonial Pemaquid, has since surrendered some 130,000 artifacts over a half-century of careful excavation.
Most are mere glimpses of centuries gone by — a piece of a German-made Bellarmine wine jug once used to keep spirits high on a cold winter night, the stem or bowl of a clay pipe once smoked by a weary fisherman, a mouth harp once played by a child, a wig curler once used by a British military officer … even an arrowhead once crafted by an American Indian ancestor an astonishing 7,000 years ago.
But taken together — every piece is cataloged and stored in the nearby Fort House — this ever-growing collection helps reconstruct the story of exactly what went on here back when Maine was but a wilderness and survival from one year to the next was anything but certain.
It’s tedious work, to be sure. While the archaeologists oversee the actual digging of the 2½-foot-square holes, the volunteers will trowel the soil into the dustpans, empty the dustpans into the buckets, carefully tip the buckets over the hand-held screens … and then do it all over again.
Boring, you say?
“Yeah,” acknowledged Desjardin. “But that next hole could have anything in it.” And most likely it will. Not something you can marvel at through the glass of a display case, or something you can Google, but something that, in that gritty moment of discovery, connects you and another human being across the passage of time.
Try doing that with a laptop.
“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Desjardin. “Only you know you’re going to find something.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: