UNE students unearth Biddeford’s history


BIDDEFORD — At the University of New England, a group of students is getting the “dirt” on Biddeford’s history as a Native American trading hub through their work in a course on archeological field methods.

Three students, supervised by Visiting Assistant Lecturer Arthur Anderson, have taken residence along a strip of land at Freddy Beach, at the mouth of the Saco River, as part of an archeological exploration of land once occupied by the Almouchiquois people at the time it was visited by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1605.

The goal of the dig, Anderson said, is to unearth Biddeford Pool’s long history as an international Native trading post while educating students about archeology.

“We’re trying to return to the area, get a little more information about that, get some students trained up in archeology and see what else can find out,” Anderson said on a breezy Wednesday, after days of 90-degree temperatures. “This was part of a vast trading network of prehistoric times.”

Over the past two weeks — they finish their work on Friday — the group has uncovered hundreds of stone, bone and ceramic fragments left behind by the Almouchiquois, whose land was mostly destroyed in 1607 by local warfare. Later, in the 1620s, disease epidemics virtually wiped out the local population after what Anderson said could be more than 1,000 years of occupation.

Among the pieces found include stone tools used for cutting and scraping flesh from sea animals; bones left behind that offer clues into the Almouchiquois diet; and stones from up and down the eastern seaboard.

Anderson said he’s been able to identify stones from what is now Pennsylvania, northern Maine and the Labrador Peninsula in Canada.

Records indicate this summer’s excavation is not the first the site has seen. Anderson said small excavations took place in the 1950s and 1960s and, prior to construction of the Arthur P. Girard Marine Science Center in the early 2000s, other artifacts were unearthed at the site.

Despite last week’s rain, this week’s scorching heat and the rise of many a black fly, the students working with Anderson say the experience has been worth it — and some have even changed their career goals.

“Based on doing this, I actually changed my career path,” said sophomore Jessica Brewer, who studies marine biology. “I want to become a marine archeologist … it’s (about) going through and seeing how (ancient peoples) interacted with the ocean and how they were able to survive back then.”

Senior Mary Hollandbeck, who opted to sign up for the archeological dig as an elective, said the “sunburns and mosquito bites have really been worth it.”

“Archeology has a way of putting you in the past; you see what it was like. The different artifacts show you how they hunted, how they made containers, how they ate, so it’s just really interesting to see what everyday people went through,” she said.

That, Anderson said, is his mission: to inspire students to take a hands-on approach with their learning, and have some fun, too.

“It’s a lot of fun for me to introduce young people to archeology. I think it’s exciting to open students’ eyes to a new, slightly different way of looking at the world,” he said.

“Even for students that aren’t going to go to grad school and become archeologists, it’s (about) creative critical thinking,” he added. “It’s being out in the field as a team and solving the problems that come up when they come up. It’s really valuable experience in that sense.”

Kyle Brennan, a rising sophomore at UNE, said he’s not sure what he wants to do with his studies in marine biology, but is grateful for the field experience at such a young age stage in his college career.

“I feel like still being a freshman going into my sophomore year, one of the main things we’re all eager to do is go into the field and discover what we truly want,” Brennan said, shoveling layers of dirt into buckets to be screened for artifacts. “I don’t know for certain what I want to do so this is one of those things that, being out in the field, being hands-on, this is going to better-build my persona.”

And, yes, he said the sporadic weather has been worth it — in fact, it’s been welcome.

“Sometimes the worst days have produced the best finds,” he said. “(This is) something not everybody gets to do. Even despite the very humid conditions we’ve had the past two days, and all the sweat and exhaustion, it was worth it just to pull up the smallest fragment of history because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.


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