July 16, 2020

Archaeologist snubs riches for Maine dirt

When the average person thinks about archaeology — if he thinks about archaeology at all — it’s usually the glittering treasures of ancient civilizations that fire his imagination.

It might be photos of the luxurious riches adorning King Tut’s tomb that grab him, or the heaps of solid-gold bars and precious gems strewn on the floor of a tropical ocean near the wreck of a Spanish galleon. It might even be the skeletal remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex discovered in the American West, or the skull of one of our earliest ancestors dug up from the African plain.

Call it the archaeological “wow factor,” if you will, that wondrous, eye-popping, bigger-than-life stuff of antiquity that calls to us from the glossy pages of the National Geographic magazine and makes us dream.

Call it whatever you like, says Dr. Richard Will, just don’t call it the true measure of modern-day archaeology.

“The public perception of archaeology is about finding treasure, but it’s certainly not what archaeology is about,” said Will, who is leading the excavation of a 55-square-meter site along the Penobscot River in Eddington that may have been occupied by prehistoric wanderers as far back as 11,000 years ago. “That kind of archaeology doesn’t exist anymore.”

To explain what archaeology really is about these days, and how it compares with, say, the “museum-stuffing” activities of his more colorful colleagues from the past, Will holds out a handful of small, thin chips of rock.

They don’t look anything like the whole spear points found at this site. They bear no resemblance to the Stone Age axe unearthed here several years ago, the one with the chiseled cutting edge and clearly defined grooves that once held lashings for the handle.

Nondescript and woefully unsexy, these rock slivers are just the sort of rubble most of us would kick with our toes or skim across the water if we were to stroll along this riverbank. Yet they are, in fact, the rich clues that Will and his 8-person crew are after, the ancient tool-making debris they seek each time they sift a bucketful of sandy soil from the several rectangular pits cut into the sloping ground.

“These flakes are 6,000 or more years old,” Will says while sitting on a log and trying to talk over a booming thunderstorm. “This is evidence of what was going on for millennia before King Tut showed up. The baskets, sandals and worn-out clothes of these people would have disintegrated by now. And they didn’t build royal cities of gold. So these pieces of stone are all the evidence we’re going to find of the people who lived here. The challenge of scientists is not finding the stuff, but interpreting it, bringing it to life.”

That’s not to say, however, that Will wouldn’t love to scrape through some 8,000-year-old sediment one day and find a bowl, or an animal-hide sling once used to bring down ancient caribou, or even a fire ring encircling the remains of a prehistoric meal. The skeleton of a mammoth would almost certainly make this 46-year-old archaeologist’s heart race a bit.

“Oh, I truly enjoy that process of discovery,” he said as a big grin spread across his face. “I’m still out here doing this because I love finding artifacts. I always have.”

The evidence of his lifelong passion can be found in the archives of the local newspaper in Brunswick, where he grew up.

“I had my picture in the paper as a kid, proudly holding up the latest arrowheads I’d found,” Will says. “I don’t think there was a time when I wasn’t interested in this stuff. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Attempting to resurrect prehistoric people from bits of stone and bone, as he calls his work, keeps Will and his crews on the move. He’s lived with the Inuit people of Arctic Canada, digging for evidence of their ancestors in the tundra. With his own company, Archaeological Research Consultants Inc., of Ellsworth, he is now exploring several prehistoric Maine sites, including an Indian village in Biddeford that was first documented by Champlain in 1604.

And while the material from the Eddington site won’t yield its true archaeological significance until it can be analyzed for a year or two, Will can look across the Penobscot River and imagine the lost world he’s trying to recover after 11,000 years.

There, in the nearly treeless tundra, he sees families bundled up in animal-skin parkas against the cold winds. Children and dogs scamper around the crude shelters that form this village, while caribou drink from the river on the opposite shore. On the northern horizon, he spots some wooly mammoth moving across what is left of the retreating ice sheet that once covered this land.

And for Will, the whole dynamic story is embedded in those bits of stone and bone.

“I really do love being out in the dirt like this,” he said, “and my objective is to die in the field with a trowel in my hand. That would suit me just fine.”

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