Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Faience on the Frontier

Hello all! This is DJ and I’m a senior anthropology student at Western Michigan University. While participating in the 2016 field school I became fascinated by the French ceramics, commonly called faience, we unearthed. With Dr. Nassaney’s guidance I decided to research the ceramics further so I could conduct my own analysis of the sherds retrieved from Fort St. Joseph during my last semester at WMU.
Brittany style faience plate.
(Photo by George Avery)

My research began with a broad reading of pottery analysis in archaeology. I learned that it is primarily used for inferring chronological dates, food ways, and social status in societies. Ceramics, especially faience, are quite useful for finding dates. There are quite few records that indicate what years specific styles of faience were produced. With that knowledge we can deduce the earliest date that piece of pottery, and any other artifacts it was associated with, were deposited in the archaeological record. Even if we only find fragments of the pottery vessel we can know its form, like a plate, bowl, or jar. Once we know what kinds of vessel forms are associated with sites we can infer the types of foods that were eaten by the inhabitants. For example, if we find mostly bowls across a site we can infer that the people are eating more soups or gruels instead of fine cuts of meat that would normally be eaten on a plate. Knowing that information can also allow us to infer social status since meat, necessitating plates, is more often reserved for those of higher rank.
As my reading on the broader use of pottery analysis became redundant I narrowed my research to focus solely on the varieties of faience. While my understanding has become quite lengthy faience can be generalized as a French ceramic tradition beginning in the mid-17th century and ending in the late 18th century that consisted of a tin glazed earthenware with a white or light red body and white glaze. It is most often decorated with blue designs that range from simple lines to
floral arrangements. More rarely, it is adorned with other colors such as purple, brown, or green. Vessels in this style are referred to as polychrome faience whereas the others are aptly referred to as blue-on-white.
Faience sherds from St. Genevieve.
(Photo by George Avery)

As the semester is coming to a close now my excitement to begin my own analysis of the faience at Fort St. Joseph is mounting. My next step is to head back to Niles to view the collection of faience recovered over the years so I can begin designing proper research questions geared towards the goals of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project. I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I can’t wait to be back in Niles!

Saturday, November 5, 2016


Hello, it’s me Anne! I am once again completing an independent study this semester and here to tell you about our recent fun. On Thursday, October 20th, Genna and I ventured over to Lake Center Elementary School to spend some time with young students. The school hosted a family fun night that gave the students and their families an opportunity to learn more and spend time with one another. The event was titled “ I <3 STEM Night”. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Participants included engineers, MDOT, student clubs, the Kalamazoo Public Library, City of Portage and Home Depot among many others. Each participant group had a booth around the school at which they presented an interactive display involving their area of academia.

Explaining which artifacts belong in which soil layer to a young visitor.
(Photo credit: Genna Perry)
Genna and I represented the Western Michigan University anthropology department along with biological anthropology professor, Dr. Michelle Machicek and her graduate student, Anna Alioto. Dr. Machicek and Anna let the children look at casts of different bones of the human body and learn how to identify attributes such as sex, height, left versus right handed, and bone remodeling. Genna and I taught them about stratigraphy, or layers of soil in an archaeological context, and allowed them to color pictures of artifacts and place them in the layer that they thought it fit best. For example, we had a soda pop can as well as a Jesuit ring. We were able to explain how the Jesuit ring would have come from the 18th century and therefore, would have been in the occupation layer, deeper in the soil, whereas the soda pop can was a 21st century artifact and would have been in the alluvium or top layer of the soil. We also had our “recent artifacts” display case with us and it sparked interest among the kids as well as their parents. We got lots of questions about Fort St. Joseph, its location and its story. People were particularly curious about the artifacts, since many were foreign objects to them. For example, many people were unoamiliar with a broken crucifix and a mouth harp. I have come to realize that people of all ages confuse archaeology with paleontology. When we asked, “what do you know about archaeology?” various students would answer “you dig up dinosaur bones!” Having the recent artifact display case with us really helped to show them the difference. It was great to see parents getting involved with their kids and I hope they keep encouraging them to explore archaeology!

I had a blast getting to talk to kids about archaeology!
(Photo credit: Genna Perry)
We were able to meet and interact with a couple hundred kids and parents. It is always wonderful spending time with kids. I truly enjoy it and especially love their reactions to learning something they find interesting. Seeing a smile light up their face gives such a rewarding feeling. The night allowed for a memorable learning experience in so many aspects of science, technology, engineering, and math. Any opportunity to create a fun environment for students to learn is a successful one as well as the opportunity to spread knowledge about archaeology and Fort St. Joseph. We definitely hope to attend this event again next year!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Floating the Organic Material

My name is Austin George and I am one of the three lab interns this semester. I was a student in the field school in 2015 and I was also the lab supervisor this summer during the 2016 field school. I am currently a junior at Western Michigan majoring in anthropology and minoring in geography. This summer during the project, the students had many great experiences with archaeology while they learned how to dig, screen, and clean the artifacts. The one thing that had to wait until we got back to Western was doing our flotation samples. The point of a flotation sample is to float all of the organic material and find as much evidence as we can.
Dr. Nassaney shows Tommy and me how to use the flotation machine
(Photo by author)
When we use the flotation machine we float large bags of dirt that the students would have dug out of their units during the summer months. They start by measuring out a box in their unit to a size that best fits the shape and objects that they have found while digging. They then dig it out to get 10 liters of dirt that they place in a flotation bag that gets sent back to the university. At the university, we have a large metal machine called the float tech machine. When we use the machine, it gets filled with water and there are two screens. The dirt gets poured into one side of the machine and the water pump gets turned on which pumps air and water into the dirt. As the water rises the organic materials like burned seeds and pieces of charcoal float to the top of the water. It then pours over a small wall in the middle and onto another screen where all the materials are collected on another small screen. When all the dirt has been removed and all the organic material has been collected in the screen, we remove the light fraction (burnt seeds, roots, and charcoal) screen and set it out to dry. We then remove all of the heavy fraction materials like glass seed beads and bones. These samples are also set aside to dry for a week or so. The machine was really intricate but yet it was very simple at the same time. The hardest part was having to pump out the dirt by hand so the motor wasn’t damaged. The next step in the process is to sort through all the material with a large magnifying glass so that we can see all the tiny seeds and materials that can give us more information about the fort. So far just by looking with the bare eye we can see a lot of glass seed beads, bones, and a piece of a lead seal. Hopefully when we go through them we can find a lot of organic material that will help us answer questions we may have
The lead seal fragment we found while doing flotation samples
(Photo by author)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Michigan Archaeology Day

Hello, Tommy here with a blog from Michigan Archaeology day. 

Michigan Archaeology Day is a chance to meet professional archaeologists, to learn of their research and adventures, and to see one-day-only exhibits from their archaeological digs and underwater archaeological explorations. There are demonstrations, presentations, children's activities, exhibitors, and special displays. The event takes place at the Michigan History Center in Lansing. 

Attendees stop by our booth this past Saturday.
(Photo credit: Genna Perry)
I attended Archaeology Day along with other members of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project. We had a booth set up with an artifact case with findings from the 2016 field season. We were also showing the GoPro video that Austin made during the 2016 field season. If you are interested in viewing the video, check it out here and don’t forget to take the survey that goes along with it.

Archaeology day was a great experience! I really enjoyed seeing all of the different booths; my favorite booth was the flint knapping demonstration. Flint knapping is the process in which stone tools were made from. I also had a chance to use an atlatl, which is a spear thrower that would have been used for hunting. I like that archaeology day takes place in the Michigan History Center because it’s nice for people to have something to look at and interact with besides the booths.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rivers, Waterways, and a Good Downpour

Perhaps it’s a bit ironic that on our last day in the field—just as we were nearly finished backfilling our excavation units—it started pouring, reminding us of the importance of water in conducting archaeology at Fort St. Joseph. Given our theme “Rivers and Waterways in Historical and Archaeological Perspectives,” we were fortunate to work during one of the driest summers on record in the region along a river that behaved itself and never once threatened to flood its banks, unlike last season (2015) when the site was inaccessible to the public and the archaeologists!

Backfilling a unit before we head out of the field for the season (Photo Credit: Tommy Nagle)
The 2016 field season was truly memorable if not outright remarkable. Though we entered the field with a smaller than average crew (8 students and 7 staff), we more than made up for our size with a good dose of enthusiasm, energy, and an innate curiosity to unravel the mysteries of Fort St. Joseph. We collected more architectural data that will assist us as we reconstruct the location, size, orientation, and construction methods of buildings at the site. The identification of one building that may be oriented at a right angle to all the others suggests that we may have found a corner, though we are still uncertain if this is within or outside of the palisade. Excavation units to the south dug by campers indicate that 18th-century material extends closer to the landfill than originally suspected, providing data on the spatial extent of the occupation.

A wide range of recovered artifacts include the typical array of animal bones representing deer (of course), but also raccoon, porcupine, Canada goose, beaver, and black bear—all in a huge midden (trash deposit) that we call Feature 11. It seems to lie immediately southeast of one of the houses that we have identified. Countless glass beads and pieces of lead shot filled our screens, along with the occasional gunflint, musket ball, and copper alloy scrap pieces. More diagnostic artifacts include a butcher or case knife, a flintlock lock plate, several tinkling cones, a crucifix with glass insets, a lead whizzer (a child’s toy with toothed edges and two center holes through which a cord was passed), a fragment of a catlinite smoking pipe (likely from Minnesota), and a unique religious medallion depicting images of Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns and Mary with the Latin inscription “Mater Dei” (Mother of God). All of these objects testify to the commercial, domestic, and religious activities that took place at Fort St. Joseph in and around a series of European-style habitation structures, likely occupied by fur traders and their wives and children.

Students gather around for an afternoon pit tour (Photo Credit: Genna Perry)
Many of these finds were featured during our very successful open house (Aug. 6-7) that brought over 1,000 visitors of all ages to the site to witness archaeology, learn from informational panels, hear lectures by public scholars, and interact with living history re-enactors. This aspect of our public outreach complements our camp program that provided an opportunity for 22 middle school and high school students, life long learners, and teachers to practice archaeology at one of the most important French colonial sites in the western Great Lakes region. In addition, professional speakers lectured on our theme to some 200 campers, University students, and the public on Wednesday evenings at the Niles District Library.

Of course, all that we accomplished was only made possible by the many volunteers, sponsors, and supporters who provide us with meals, attend our events, and express interest in all our activities geared to the recovery of the material history of the fort. As we pack up to move back to campus, we’ll have fond memories of the 2016 field season and all the people who assisted us in fulfilling our goals. Analysis will begin in the fall, but in the meantime many of us will take a short break and enjoy what’s left of summer in southwest Michigan. We hope to be back in 2017 to continue our investigations of the site. Stay tuned for more blog postings in the offseason as we update you on the progress of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project.


Michael Nassaney, Ph.D.
Principal Investigator

Monday, August 15, 2016

Final Steps Before Closing the Units

Hey guys, Paul here again. After two successful days at the Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Open House, followed by two days of rest, the students spent the remainder of the week preparing to close up their excavation units.  This work consisted of cleaning up the floors and walls, cutting away roots and making sure the soil layers and color changes were clearly evident by carefully scraping the thinnest layer of dirt from each.  Drew and I even used a spray bottle of water to moisten the soil and make the rocks in our unit show their colors.  After both black and white film and digital color photos had been taken, we packed up for the evening.  The following day was spent painstakingly mapping the floor of our units onto a grid.  We measured the precise location of each stone and important feature for future reference.  We also mapped or “profiled” the walls of the unit, again, taking time to accurately portray the soil layers and changes, and anything still embedded in the walls. 
Coring Tool
            Friday was spent taking core soil samples at key locations in the unit.  Drew and I chose three spots that were interesting due to the soil differences apparent in the floor.  To take the sample, a coring tool, a partially open cu is pushed in 30 cm increments into the ground, rotated, and then pulled back out.  We can then look at the stratigraphy of the sample and get an idea of how the soil is layered under our unit. 
In the photo to the right, you can see the hole in the floor of our unit left by the coring tool. 
We chose that location specifically to see how much further the red oxidized soil went down.  From the sample we took, it appears to go down about 10 cm more.  Further below that, in the same sample site, we found what seemed to be a void, or empty space.  Maybe an animal burrow, or a vacancy caused by the de-watering operation?  In both of the other spots chosen to take samples from, we found chunks of charcoal at just over a meter below the ground level.  I found that surprising, and wonder what it could mean.  All this was annotated, and added to the rest of the documentation for our unit. 

            We will be writing up our final summaries, and then filling the units back in.  I will be a little sad to have to cover up the fire hearth, and I will wonder if we learned everything we could while working on it.
- Paul

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Exploring the Archaeology of the St. Johns River

Hi everybody!  This is Maureen, a student here at Fort St. Joseph, writing again to give you all a recap of our most recent lecture in our series hosted at the Niles District Library.   Those of you who visited our open house last weekend probably noticed that our 2016 theme was “Rivers and Waterways.” Our speaker, Dr. Kenneth Sassaman, an archaeologist from the University of Florida, had plenty to relate to this topic as his specialty is studying the hunter-gather groups along the St. Johns River in North-East Florida. This river differs from the St. Joseph River in that is it slow-moving and low gradient (carrying virtually no sediment). Yet, we can understand the ancient humans of the past in both areas by studying the environment.
From 9,000-7,000 years ago, the Indigenous peoples of the St. Johns area buried their dead in freshwater ponds and staked the bodies down to keep them fully submerged. To this day, the peat has preserved the ancient bodies so well that their brains are still intact. During this period, the shoreline extended much more into the Gulf of Mexico. As time wore on, the native peoples had their home transformed as the Clovis period dwindled and the shoreline shrank dramatically. In response, shell mounds were created 7,000 years ago.
These mounds are made up of shell, varied in shape (conical, loaf, ridges, etc.) and size (one was even as large as 3 football fields). The layers of shell vary by taxa and occasionally include artifacts as well as human remains. Not all shell mounds were used for burials, other proposed purposes include being used as a place of elevation or used as ritual gathering areas. Layers of pond muck were used in some shell mounds, as would have been a very difficult process, Dr. Sassaman believes that this task was done deliberately.
            We also learned that groups who lived in the St. Johns area expanded their social connections from 5,500 - 4,500 years ago. Shell beads from the area were manufactured for more than just local consumption and actually began showing up in Tennessee burials.  In addition, two individuals from this time period examined from the burial shell mounds at the St. Johns site were found (after having tested their molars) to have originated from Virginia. 
Jumping ahead to more recent history, the shell mounds faced a sadder fate in the 1920’s-70’s as many were decimated through mining. Luckily in 2001, Dr. Sassaman began working through the University of Florida at the St. Johns River site and later moved to the Silver Glen site in 2007. He plans to continue his work in the area for many years to come.
Dr. Sassaman Describes the Calm Waters of the St. Johns River
(Photo Credit: Genna Perry)
That’s all for now, stay tuned for updates as the 2016 field season comes to a close.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

It's All Worth It

Hello Fort St. Joseph friends, followers, and supporters, my name is Genna. I was a part of the 2015 FSJ field school and came back this year to tackle the position of Public Outreach Coordinator with my partner in crime, Liz. This past weekend, we were able to see all of our hard work from these past six weeks pay off, through our annual Open House.
Our knowledgeable blacksmith! (Photo Credit: Genna) 
Voyageur canoe rides provided by Sarett Nature Center
(Photo Credit: Genna)
This year’s Open House was an absolute hit! We had a distinguished group of interpreters all dressed in period clothing and presenting on everything from brewing, fishing, sailing, quill-writing, and textile making among others. Our faunal analyst, Dr. Terrance Martin, was present with his animal remains display which included an emphasis on the types of animals that were present at Fort St. Joseph. We had ongoing lectures both days related to this year’s theme of “Rivers and Waterways” presented by Dr. Michael Nassaney and Dr. José Brandão. Sarett Nature Center was giving rides in their 34-foot canoe out on the St. Joseph River. And if that wasn’t enough to keep you occupied, the field school students were able to show off their hard work by educating the public through tours of their excavation units.
Anne working the children's activities
(Photo Credit: Genna)
            All in all, we recorded over 1,000 visitors during the course of our two-day event and we could not be more thankful for those who participated. The field school students and staff are lucky to have this opportunity to bring a voice to the history of Fort St. Joseph, especially to the audience that showed up on Saturday and Sunday. Since the project’s start, we have continued to see the amount of support from the city and community of Niles grow year after year. As public outreach coordinator, I have learned more about the love this community has for its history than I ever imagined I would.

            Thank you to all of those who attended our 2016 Annual Open House and we hope to see you during the summer of 2017!

Friday, August 5, 2016

River Resources at Fort St. Joseph!

Hello everyone! This is Anne again and as I’m sure you all know, the 2016 field season has been quite eventful. Although our main focus in excavating this season is to recover information about the architecture of the fort, we have gained so much knowledge about French culture and the importance of the St. Joseph River to the people of the past. This previous semester at WMU, I took Dr. Nassaney’s class, Anthropology in the Community, and my classmates and I created panels that contained information about the fort in relation to the river. I was able to focus my research on river resources and was very interested by the use of aquatic plants and animals during the occupation of the fort (the panels will be exhibited at the open house this weekend, so make sure to come see!).
Beaver femur found in my and Tommy's unit. (Photo credit By author)
It just so happens that Dr. Terry Martin, Curator Emeritus of the Illinois State Museum, has been able to spend the past week with us! Terry has been a huge part of the project for several years and actually helped my partner and I with information that we included on our panel. As a faunal analyst, he studies animal remains and knows a great deal about the creatures that lived amongst and were consumed by the French. We attended his lecture this past Wednesday and he discussed river resources among archaeological sites, including lake sturgeon. These fish are truly incredible, and are even viewed as mythological creatures in certain native cultures. Although they were once plentiful in the area, dams have prevented them from accessing their normal spawning areas. Lake Sturgeon are potamodromous fish, meaning that they will migrate, but only from fresh water lakes to rivers. Often, small bones from their spine and skull will be recovered in the archaeological record from sites near rivers. Fort St. Joseph however, has so far expressed an under-representation in fish bones overall.

Maureen looking at the various animal bones. (Photo Credit: By author)
To further our understanding of the animals present at Fort St. Joseph, my fellow students and I were able to analyze faunal remains with Terry. We looked at bone fragments that were recovered this year and determined the type of bone found and which animal they were from. I think that this knowledge will be really beneficial to us in the field as we continue to come across animal remains! Speaking of which, my partner Tommy and I came across a beaver tooth and femur these past couple of weeks, which is evidence of the animal having been significant in the fur trade. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Flints, Locks and Who Knows What

Hello readers, this is Connor again with an update on my excavation unit. So far this week we’ve had some pretty amazing artifacts that showed up in the pit. Our unit is primarily a bone midden (or bone pile) but these artifacts aren’t quite what one would expect to find thrown out with the food scraps.

When we had reopened the excavated unit from last year that we are currently working with, we noticed an unnaturally shaped piece of stone in the bottom of the unit. We had a feeling that it was going to turn out to be French gun flints, but we couldn’t do anything about it until we got our unit cleaned up, photographed, and mapped. This week though, we were finally able to excavate the unit and came across not just one French gun flint, but three of them in just two days. These pieces of stone can be easily identified by their distinct honeycomb color and were used to ignite the gunpowder in muzzle loading weapons (flint lock guns). More interesting was the various degrees of which these flints had been used, as indicated by their patterns of wear. The first was about the size of a quarter and showed a good bit of usage while the second one we recovered was quite small from being repeatedly struck. The last one, however is stuck within the wall and there is no way of telling how big it is.
The iron lock recovered in our unit. (Photo Credit: Austin George)
The second, but maybe more fascinating of the two, we found lying on top of a flat rock in the bottom of the unit. It is just over 5 inches long and made entirely out of iron. We didn’t know precisely what we were looking at when it was recovered, but we figured that it was probably gun part based on the size. We really wanted to know more about the piece so we took it back to the lab, cleaned it up and opened up the reference books. Since we had hypothesized that the artifact was a gun part we looked immediately at examples of previously found gun parts in Michigan. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was a gun lock. This was the part of the flint lock firing mechanism that was on the side of the gun. It is the piece of metal that holds the entire flint lock mechanism together and fastens it to the wood of the gun.   

Finally we uncovered a couple bizarre items that have never been found on the Fort St. Joseph site before. These three items are between 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches long and appear to be made out of a copper alloy. They are coiled and resemble modern day springs but seem to be much too thin to have come from a gun. With that information we are left scratching our heads as to what these springs could have come from, though we do have some ideas. One hypothesis to their origin is that they were part of a clock, which could hold true as clocks were a popular piece of décor during the 18th century. But then again it is just a theory and we would like to know what you think of these might be! 
The mysterious springs.. What could they be? (Photo Credit: Austin George)