The Pintlowes Cove Projectile Point

David W. Black

Pintlowes photo 1I often justify studying the past, to my students and colleagues, by saying we can learn lessons from the past that apply to the present. I believe these lessons take two forms: historical and personal. This essay concerns one of the latter—a personal lesson —and, incidentally, describes a complete and unexpected prehistoric artifact I found during Phase III of the Bliss Islands Archaeology Project.

Imagine this... After a hazy beginning, it has become one of those crystal, breathless,electric blue days, precious in their rarity, that punctuate the invasive damp, the horizontal rain, and the sodden batting of fog that make up so much of summer weather in coastal Charlotte County. The tide was low early in the day—Pintlowes and Fishermans coves resembled a tub at the end of washday, with a ribbon of water and a few toy boats stranded along its midline—now, the basin has filled again and the tide ebbs. Surprisingly, the weather has not ‘breezed up’ after tide change. Hard, bright sunshine bombards the surface of the water, rays rebounding like shrapnel against the rocks and trees. The air is salty dry. In the angles of the rocks, shadows have knife-sharp edges, contrasting with gritty unfocussed surfaces awash in light. From the emerald backdrop of the forest, shade beckons with skeletal, resinous hands.

We traverse the northern edge of Pintlowes Cove, weaving among the rocks, squelching through the marshes, ducking branches along the trails, alternating between the cool of the forest and the salt of the shore. It is Canada Day, 1992, and we are on Bliss, celebrating the present, looking for the past.

Pintlowes photo 2This summer we are intent on historic archaeology—in fact, this afternoon we are looking for Euro-Canadian historic sites—but when time allows, I show my colleagues the Native American prehistoric sites that are a major focus of my research on the islands. An occasion presents itself. We arrive at the Pintlowes Cove site, a narrow strip of shell midden between a knoll and a salt marsh, visible as a scatter of clam shells eroding onto the beach below a fisherman’s camp.

Now, the Pintlowes Cove site has a place in the history of archaeology in New Brunswick: Spencer F. Baird (later Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and founder of the U.S. National Museum) visited the site during the summer of 1869 as part of what was, apparently, the first professional scientific examination of archaeological sites in New Brunswick. As one of six sites I discussed in my doctoral dissertation, it is of considerable interest to me. However, the Pintlowes Cove site also has been a disappointment to me, and a source of some considerable frustration.

When the site was officially recorded in 1981, it was assumed that the shell deposit represented a Native camp site, although no artifacts were found. The lack of surface artifacts was not surprising, since Baird had commented, more than 100 years earlier, that “the deposit is scanty and scarcely worth working”. In 1983, when I first worked on the Bliss Islands, I examined the eroding edge of the site, dug a couple of shovel tests, and likewise found nothing but broken shells. Almost all the shells are those of soft-shelled clams, and, since Native middens usually contain a diversity of shellfish species, I came away half-convinced the site was a historic shell deposit.

In 1986, when I conducted the field work for my doctoral project, I was determined to uncover the secrets of Pintlowes Cove. I had some field school students examine the eroding edge of the site, dig some shovel tests, and excavate two 1m2 units. They found three pieces of flaked stone, five pieces of animal bone, a fragment of beaver incisor (probably part of a prehistoric tool), and thousands of broken clam shells. So Pintlowes Cove was, after all, a Native camp site. However, without diagnostic artifacts, uncontaminated charcoal for dating, or obvious hearth and dwelling features, I had little to say about it in my dissertation.

So, on Canada Day, 1992, I have no expectations of the Pintlowes Cove site. This is a perfunctory visit: we will take a quick look, we will see some eroding clam shells, we will go back to camp and make dinner. The site will reveal nothing.

As my colleagues look over the surface, I crouch beside the eroding shoreline. I take out my trusty Marshalltown trowel and begin flipping over clam shells—the best way to examine an eroding shell deposit—amid the seaside plantain and wild flowers. The trowel rings faintly against the stones and shells, but I have little enthusiasm for this task. I am a little resentful of this site. In spite of the glorious day, I am just going through the motions.

I should know better: I flip a broken shell and something catches my eye. There, at the base of a clump of beach peas, embedded in the black midden soil among the bleached clam shells, is a piece of sharp-edged stone as green as the peel of a Granny Smith apple. A complete projectile point! Once again, the people of the past have left something to jolt me from my bad attitude, to remind me not to resent the natural world, and never to take the remnants of the past for granted.

‘Projectile point’ is a conventional term used by archaeologists to describe any bifacially flaked, pointed stone tool shaped for attachment to a shaft or a handle. This artifact class probably includes tools that Native people used as spear points, arrow points and knife blades. Corner-notched types, like the Pintlowes Cove projectile point, were made and used by the ancestors of Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik) and Passamaquoddy (Pestomukatiyik) people during the 1000 years before Europeans arrived in large numbers in New Brunswick and Maine.

Chastened, I gave the Pintlowes Cove site another chance. Later in the summer, a student and I excavated a 1m2 unit right where I found the projectile point. We trowelled down 40cm through organic muck to the base of the site. We finished the day in filthy clothes, our faces and fingers streaked and stained with black midden soil. What did we find? Thousands of broken clam shells.

Postscript: I submitted some of the clam shells for radiocarbon dating—the result is a date of 680+/-50 B.P. The Pintlowes Cove site and the projectile point date to the period just before European contact.