Up from the depths: a stone axe and sea-level change in Maine

By Bill Haviland

From Maine Insights news

Back in the days when scallop-dragging was a common winter activity around the bay, fishermen from time to time came up with unexpected items. One such item is a grooved stone axe, 5.25 inches long, brought up in a drag many years ago by George Sylvester; it — can be seen today in the Indian exhibit at the historical society in Sunset.

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 12.04.15 PMPHOTO: Bill Haviland’s Book Indian People and Deer Isle Maine sheds insights on Indians too.

Grooved stone axes were made by Indians exclusively between 6,000 and 3,000 years ago. At the time, the sea level was far lower than today — about 32 to 33 feet lower 6,000 years ago. Over the next three millennia, it rose steadily, but was still 6.5 feet below today’s sea level. This axe was dragged up, west of Butter Island between Peak, Sugarloaf, and Western Barred Islands, where the waters today range between 5 and 19 feet in depth. Thus, this was dry land 6,000 years ago, and some of it still was 3,000 years later. Sometime in that interval, someone lost an axe, while camped out or cutting wood here.

Such axes must have been valued possessions, as they took many hours to make. To do this, a hard stone of volcanic origin was required, often a water-worn cobble close to the size and shape of the tool to be made. This was then worked to the proper shape by pecking and pounding away with a hammer stone, the groove being produced with a pointed pounding tool. The whole thing was finished by grinding and polishing with sand abrasive in a piece of animal skin. The axe bit was sharpened by rubbing it with a rough abrading stone. Once complete, the axe was hafted in a wooden handle made from a forked branch. Smoothed down, the two sides of the fork were set in the groove and then lashed with animal hide.

Grooved axes were one of a number of heavy-duty stone woodworking tools made at the time that also included a variety of adzes and gouges. The economy of the era was marine-oriented, with large cod and swordfish especially sought after. To be successful, people needed strong, seaworthy watercraft. Apparently, these took the form of large dugout canoes, and heavy-duty woodworking tools were required for their construction. Later on, when birch-bark canoes replaced dugouts, heavy-duty axes, adzes and gouges all but disappeared.

As the sea level rose, the ancient inhabitants of this region successfully adapted to the changed landscapes and resources around them. Eventually, the rate of sea-level rise tapered off, but in recent years, it has begun to accelerate, largely as a consequence of our own actions. It is sobering to note that we will have to cope with changes similar to ones faced by those who have gone before us. The question is, will we be able to do so as successfully as did they?

This article first appeared in Island Ad-Vantages, May 3, 2007

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