The Hirundo Archaeology Project
The Environmental Context
Landscapes and climate are not static and it is within that ever-changing environment that we must live and adapt. When we consider sites of the past, we must also consider the environment in which those people would have lived and how that might have affected everyday choices. Earliest occupation in the Central Maine area began shortly after the Ice Age. After the massive glacier covering much of the continent melted, the Penobscot area was covered by sea until 12,400 years ago. At this time the land rose slowly upwards towards its present shape and the Penobscot River and Pushaw stream formed. Once the area became dry it was covered by woods much like it is today. The composition of the forest though has changed throughout the past 12,000 years and pollen studies in the area have allowed us to reconstruct the exact species present at different times. The efforts of the Hirundo Archaeological Project have allowed us to further understand and reconstruct how the environment looked in the local area and helped to explain how humans interacted within the changing landscape.
Changing Environment and Landscape at Hirundo (R. Sgouros, unpublished)
Life at Hirundo
Excavations at the Hirundo site revealed a long span of occupation ranging from the Middle Archaic Period (c. 5000 years before present) to the early Historic period (c. 250 years before present). Dating the many artifacts of the site was accomplished through radiocarbon dating of charcoal, and analyzing the shapes and styles (typology) of projectile points that correspond to specific time periods. Hirundo is particularly important to Maine's history because it is one of the largest and longest occupied sites in the inland region, having been used for over 4500 years.
The archaeological evidence discovered during the excavation provides key insights to how prehistoric people lived, ate, and used the many natural resources of central Maine. Artifacts recovered from the site include chipped and ground stone projectile points (evidence for hunting), plummets (possible fishing weights), ground celts (axes), and pottery. Because of the strong acidity of the soil, animal and plant remains were scarce. No structures were found at the site but hearth fires were identified. Its location along Pushaw stream, along with the wide variety of artifacts found, suggests that it was used primarily as a fishing camp. Another archaeological site, the Young Site, located directly across the stream from Hirundo presented similar fishing artifacts. When investigating the two sites, Dr. David Sanger suggested that their locations amongst rapids in the stream were strategically positioned to optimize fishing potential. This does not mean that fishing was the only subsistence activity at the Hirundo site, but it was undoubtedly a very important resource.
Future Work at Hirundo
While archaeological research at Hirundo has lain dormant for over 20 years, recent work at the refuge has begun to look for new archaeological sites and to use the earlier excavations for educational purposes. Over the next year keep an eye out for related events, including mock archaeological digs, presentations, and public lectures on the prehistory of the area.
Check back to here for updates on the outcome of new archaeological research at Hirundo.
The Hirundo Site was discovered in 1971 by an area resident walking through the refuge. The site is quite large, stretching 250 meters along the south bank of Pushaw Stream. Robert Mackay and David Sanger took interest in the Hirundo Site and taught field schools, in collaboration with the University of Maine. These field schools, which lasted from 1972-1975, taught University students detailed scientific techniques, including the process of systematic excavation. Experts in geological and paleoecological sciences also studied the site and its surrounding area. Funding for the project came from National Geographic Society, the Hazel Smith Fund and University of Maine, Orono.
Oliver Larouche and a UMaine student work together at the excavation site.
Robert Mackay reading next to the trenches.
Hirundo within Maine Archaeology
Prehistoric life in Maine can essentially be divided into two geographical categories: Coastal and Inland. Most of Maine’s past archaeological research has focused on sites near the coast because, quite simply, they are easier to find. Coastal archaeological sites in Maine are often characterized by conspicuous middens: trash piles made from shells. Inland archaeological sites, however, rarely have large features and are often covered by meters of soil in addition to thick vegetation. This makes them very difficult to locate and as such, are less frequently studied.
Water screening for stone and ceramic artifacts,bone, and plant remains