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

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