Saturday, July 30, 2011

All in a week's work...

Hi everyone,

To start off I suggest everyone take a look at this article in the Niles Daily Star. Thanks to Kate of the Star for coming out to the site last week to see what we are up to!

It certainly has been a busy week down at the site, but there are some excellent finds to show for it! This week was also the first week of Archaeology Campers, and we could not be more appreciative of the extra hands on site and hope the first group enjoyed the opportunity to work like a real archaeologist--digging, screening, paperwork, and all. Some of these campers decided to share their experience for the blog, so I will be posting one or two of these every so often so you all can hear about what is it like to join the staff and students in the pits. The following are the thoughts of one of these brave souls:

Some of our hard-working campers!
"We have learned much about the world of archaeology--from the lectures on the lives of those living in historic times to the eureka of discovery, granted it might be a bead, rock, or a not-so-old bottle...all are discoveries nonetheless.

We have also experienced the hard work of digging holes, sliding and sinking in mud, and washing artifacts in a dark basement. Still, what actually started out as a "bucket list" activity has turned into something I intend to do again."

I say the more future archaeologists the better! As for some of the great finds this week one of them may be the first feature of the year. A large stone, far too large to have been brought in by the river, has been uncovered in one of the units. At this time we are thinking that this may mark part of a foundation, and are eager to get back into the trenches to continue the investigation!

Other exciting finds include purple and white shell beads called wampum (please click the photo to the left for a close-up). Wampum were strung and woven together into belts by Native Americans to commemorate sacred and historic events like alliances and treaties. These belts were sometimes also used as currency, especially after the arrival of Europeans who began to produce the belts in greater quantities. This is such an exciting find because wampum is made from quahog or whelk shells that are only found along the northeast coast--these beads traveled quite a distance to get here, and likely mark some serious trade activities!

This is what it is "awl" about!
This week also marks the discovery of our first awl for this year. Awls made out of bone or antler were used by Native Americans to punch holes in hides in order to stitch them together. When Europeans entered the area they brought with them metal awls that could be used in trade negotiations. Awls are pointed tools that are much heavier than typical sewing needles, making them ideal for working with thick materials like leather. This type of tool has been around for thousands and thousands of years and has been made from many different materials including antler, bone, stone, and metal. Today many awl kits come with a wooden handle into which interchangable awl tips can be inserted.

Glass inset.
Two other eye-catching finds include a cufflink with green glass inset and a clear glass inset that also could have been part of a cufflink or some item of personal adornment. While these may be some of the most alluring finds, they are no more important than the bone and nails that we pull out of the dirt. For archaeologists every single type of artifact has the potential to tell a story. Nails can direct us towards the location of buildings, bones can tell us about what people were eating, and cufflinks can tell us about adornment styles. Each is a clue to understanding the past, and should not be overlooked.

I will check back in tomorrow with an update on our lead bale seal, tales from campers, and more (I have to leave some surprises!). Thank you to everyone who came out to the Wednesday lecture and our Friday 2:00 tour. Also, a big thanks to those following along with our blog--we really appreciate your support!


Photo credits Cathrine Davis

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Archaeology is a Battlefield

What’s happening, dedicated Fort St. Joseph followers,

Blogging tonight is your one and only FSJ resident funny man, The Lance Meister. Many of you may know me better as the hand holding projectile points and the beautifully preserved lead seal. This also could constitute me as the official hand model of the Fort, with a little luck that hand will keep popping up on the blog holding more of Nile’s great history.

Hanging by the lake at a volunteer's home.
Before getting into my finds and experiences working as a small cog in the FSJ machine, I would like to personally thank everyone involved in the project that goes unnoticed. A special thanks goes out to the sponsors for the amazing food and hospitality shown to our staff and students during our first weeks in Niles. We also appreciate the time and effort donated by our friends affiliated with Support the Fort, along with those hard working individuals there is you. Yes you…without you coming to our lectures, open house, site tours (Fridays at 2:00, if you’re not there you’re square) and following this blog, we wouldn’t have much of a reason to be here digging in the first place. The interest shown in the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Field School and the open house that coincides with it is amazing and will only get better with your word of mouth. So while we are toiling in the mud and muck of the Fort site, we need you to spread the word, so get excited Niles and greater West Michigan, this is your history.

Explaining the unit.

Alright on to my side of this romance novel we are living out involving the dirty sweaty ladies and gents of the field school. Our love affair with the alluvium layers that represent the first 20-30 centimeters of shovel skimming and hand toweling, seemed to melt away like our Popsicle during last week’s heat wave. The heavy hand of last week’s heat was not an enemy left at the side of the river after site clean up, but a shadowy figure following us back to the hot box also known as Niles High School. It seems the only weapon we had to fend off this dastardly creature was the excitement of putting our dirty hands on incredible artifacts.

Ear bob!
Our weapon of choice was unearthed last Friday, an unbelievably well preserved lead bale seal that seemed to breathe new life into our collective lungs. After a short weekend the weather decided that intense heat would not bring us to our knees; Mother Nature opened up the clouds and brought rain upon us students. Ericka and I would need to reveal an artifact that could squelch the storms that were brewing; our comrades in digging would not be disappointed. An elegant and interestingly decorated ear bob, used for native adornment, would come to our defense and strike the sense of despair from our hearts. For this artifact would inspire and continue to drive us students to press on and laugh in the face of a few rain drops. So as a group we say not this time weather, with your wet and rainy clouds and sweat sapping heat, you will not slow down the progress of our group of archaeologists. We are simply too strong, too dedicated, and too darn good at what we do to allow Mother Nature to muck with our affection of uncovering New France’s secrets.

Stay Classy Niles
The Lance Meister

Photo credits Cathrine Davis

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summer Lecture Series and Tinkling Cones

Hi everyone,

Join us tonight at 7:30 in the community room of the Niles District Library for a lecture by Dr. Dean Anderson, the Michigan State Archaeologist. His talk is titled "Trade Between Cultures: The French Period in the Western Great Lakes Region," and will focus on the relationship between Native Americans and  the French in the Great Lakes region. This connection between cultures was based on trade that went beyond monetary exchange by playing a part in politics and alliance. Dr. Anderson will focus on the Native American side of the trade relationship.

Support the Fort members will again be providing snacks. Hope to see you there!

Another shot of the tinkling cone from Fort St. Joseph.
Photo credit Cathrine Davis
In a continuation of yesterday's post I wanted to elaborate on tinkling cones for our readers that may be less familiar with the term. Trade with the French increased Native American access to sheets of metal who, prior to the French arrival, were skilled in working copper. By the 17th century Native peoples were taking tiny scraps of metal, such as brass and copper, and cutting them into trapezoid shapes. These were then rolled to create a small metal cone. These could then be affixed to clothing, moccasins, bags, and other items. Some were incorporated into more elaborate designs using quillwork, etching, and animal fur. The name comes from the sound the cones make when they hit one another.

Example of a jingle dress.
Image courtesy of
The use of tinkling cones was widespread, and several examples have been found at Fort St. Joseph. These cones are still made and used today, often for jingle dresses for Powwow events.

See you tonight!


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gettin Down and Dirty

“What on earth is that creature?!” “Was that bigfoot?” “Are they the muddied descendants of some lost tribe emerging from the forest?”

Visitors to the Fort St. Joseph archaeological site likely uttered similar musings amongst each other when they discovered mud covered students mucking out a trench Tuesday afternoon rather than pristine and professional looking excavators. Contrary to popular belief archaeology is not some romantic Indiana Jones movie complete with danger, drama, and romance. While there is the danger of stabbing yourself with sharp object in the wet screen, and the drama of uncovering a long hidden artifact is plenty to get your pulse pumping, archaeology is messy and hard work. In my personal opinion however, the sweat and the mud of real archaeology are BETTER than any silly Hollywood film (still many of us females wouldn’t say no to having Harrison Ford around at the site).

Just a little messy...
Some of you may be surprised to know that those of us who worked to muck out the trench belonging to the wet screens this past Tuesday afternoon jumped at the opportunity. What real archaeologist doesn’t love the feel of mud squishing between their toes and the opportunity to sling a wad or two at friends working nearby? Fun and games aside, the real reward in archaeology is emerging from the field, sweating, filthy, and knowing that you found something important that will help our generation better understand those generations past. In the unit I work in, N25W9, with my pit partner The Lance Meister, we have discovered numerous interesting artifacts that are helping us discover the lives of those who once resided at Fort St. Joseph.

Most notable are a lead seal, wonderfully preserved with French writing still legible on the surface, and the first tinkling cone of the season! The lead seal read “Graine de Lille”. Our resident seal expert happily informed us that this likely translates to seeds from Lille, Lille being a region in France. This was an important find because it says a lot about what kinds of supplies the fort residents were bringing in from France and clues us in to their ability to access materials from distant places. Remember guys these people did not have UPS!
First tinkling cone of the season!
Being the individual who holds a mud covered artifact for the first time in 100 years does not make you the sole winner in our game of hide and discover. Those who take care of all the jobs in between, like mucking out the trench, cooking dinner, supplying tarps for shade and saws for root cutting, share in the triumph of an archaeological discovery. That being said I’d like to give a special shout out to those community members who cook us dinner, kill poison ivy, help us dig, and most importantly give us the time of day when we are covered in filth and smelling not quite fresh. We would not be here without your support and so you should take the most pride in every muddy, rusted, or decaying artifact we pull from the ground.

Erika :)

Photo credits Cathrine Davis

Monday, July 25, 2011

Party Pit

Hey Hey,

It's Joe. You know...Joe...from the chainsaw picture. Anyhow, tree killing aside, I've been working all last week with my Party Pit Partners (henceforth abbreviated PPP) Abby and Cathrine. We've done it! We have finally pressed beyond the dastardly roots and are treading forth into the unknown abyss that is the Archaeological Record! It's been a long time coming, but soil change has finally come to the northernmost excavation unit for this year's installment of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project.

Yes, it's true. We may be rounding out the rear of the the group in terms of depth and recoveries. However, I will have you recall the tortoise, for lo!, our trowels strike true; we barely cross the 30 centimeter mark and we pull out a nail (kudos PPP Abby!), copious amounts of animal bone (huzzah PPP Cathrine!), and a beautiful flint gunspall of French origin (three cheers for Guest PPP Kelley!). As for this humble Party Pitter, I was able to uncover quite a few large rocks cluster in one area of the Pit that could be the beginning of a structural or hearth feature. Clearly, the party has just begun.

Student Theresa (right) with camper Heather!
Yet come lunchtime, mine eyes were greeted with the most jubilant site: our first crew of adult summer campers have arrived! They begin their tour of the site, they learn history behind the site, they begin excavation of the site - this (educational) party is swelling to epic proportions. We are excited for the help that ease our backs, for the help that will uncover the past, for getting people out there with us that want nothing more to be there at the wet screen, in the units, or even carting recycled kitty litter buckets of soil. Enthusiasm spreads quicker than the plague, and you don't even need rats!

Thus, I arrive to the most important part of my message to all you guys and gals out there in TV Land. We want to see you out here, whether it be as camper, as a Friday site tourer, or as an attendee of the Open House (August 13-14). Also, just take a look around town, ten to one you can pick us out. We've felt so welcome in your home, so please, come to our Archaeology Party down by the river. Do it as soon as possible, for this is a limited engagement...
The Party Pit Party Pic!

Until next time,
Joe Hearns

P.S. WHEN you come to the site, I'll be at N34 W16, most likely wearing a Baltimore Orioles hat; come hassle me!

Photo credits Cathrine Davis