Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Smoking a deer hide over a smudge pit. Photo: Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 86, Plate 75.

Hello everybody. It’s Joe Hearns here. Some of you might remember me from past field seasons during which I worked as part of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project crew. In addition to spending time at the Fort site and in the lovely city of Niles, I have been working towards completing a Masters thesis at Western Michigan University. My topic is an exciting one: BONES!
            More specifically, I’ve been spending most of my days this past semester in the lab identifying the numerous animal bone remains recovered from the decade’s worth of excavation. Before I bore even myself describing the ins and outs of data collection, I’m going to take this opportunity to explain what we might possibly learn from this project, and how that might add to our knowledge of life during the fur trade.
            So why study animal bones in the first place? Granted, those of us who grew up in Michigan certainly have a relatively clear idea of what animals are around, whether it’s the pesky raccoons digging through our trash bins, the deer never looking both ways before crossing the road, the beaver that builds a secluded dam on a forgotten creek deep in the forest, or even the Canada geese honking over our heads and the wild turkeys spotted near the tree lines of our fields. However, odds are against running into a black bear, the ever diminishing and protected lake sturgeon, and the extinct passenger pigeon, all of which were visitors to Fort St. Joseph and its inhabitants. Identification of these species’ remains, and others like them, help uncover a history of animals found across our present landscape, giving us insight into an environmental past different from ours.
You can see by comparing to the size of the penicil, bones come in all 
shapes and sizes.  Even tiny bird bones (the three on the right)
 are preserved at Fort St. Joseph. Photo: Joe Hearns
            Everyone has to eat, and animal bones have long been seen as an excellent source of information regarding the diets of people in the past. The decisions made when preparing dinner is further evidence of daily life. As a modern example, consider our vegetarian friends and family; their daily choices in food reflect a specific attitude towards the consumption of meat. So, if we were to examine the animal remains to look at dietary patterns of the folks at Fort St. Joseph, we might find a reliance on certain animals over others. In 2004, Rory Becker did just that for his Masters work and found some interesting patterns in the collected bone data. Overall, the inhabitants of the site were found to be using mostly locally available, wild animals as a source for meat, especially white-tailed deer. The fact that their diet was more similar to the Potawatomis’ with whom they traded, lived, and married speaks volumes about the close relationships formed on the frontier.
            However, the use of animals does not end with a boiling pot of stew; this was the fur trade after all. Certain animals, especially the beaver, white-tailed deer, and raccoon, were targeted for their hides and pelts. This is where I began my work: How might we tell if animals recovered from the site were used for food or for their fur? Who was processing these animals and how did they do it? Where did this activity occur? These questions about hide production and others might be answered by looking at what are referred to as “site formation processes.”
            Site formation processes is a fancy term for asking, “How did all of this stuff get here?” We do different activities in different places. For example, my dad is a teacher and former high school administrator, but he is also an active gardener and does many household projects involving woodworking. Think of how the contents of a trash can in his home office looks compared to a much larger trash can by his work bench. Now, compare these two trash cans to the bin for yard waste, or even the compost heap by his garden. All of this waste disposal looks different and is different because of the activities my dad engaged in that produced this garbage. So, by looking at the Fort Site’s animal bones, we might be able to see different activities in the form of specific areas of activity, as cooking and hide production are very different activities that will produce distinct patterns of “production waste,” or, as I like to think of it, garbage.
Raccoon mandible, maxilla, and possible 
deer long bone. Photo: Joe Hearns
            The Gete Odena site on Lake Superior’s Grand Island might serve as a comparison for the Fort’s animal bone assemblage in regards to examining processing animal hides (see Skibo et al 2004). This site, dated to the period following European contact, yielded over 1400 animal remains throughout the two seasons of excavation. The overall species composition was dominated by large mammals, such as moose, white-tailed deer, and black bear. In addition, smaller fur-bearing mammals, especially beaver, marten, and muskrat, were also recovered. Although this would have been a prime spot for exploiting waterfowl and spawning fish in the warmer months, these species were not recovered to any large degree. The absence of seasonal animal visitors to the site in the archaeological record highlights a focus on the processing of mammals.
            The researchers at Gete Odena also noted the presence of five “smudge pits” at the site. Smudge pits were used in processing to smoke animal hides (Skibo et al 2006). Essentially, these small narrow pits were dug and filled with pinecones, small maize cobs, or other recently acquired, green plant material placed at the bottom. The narrow walls, which reduce the amount of oxygen available to the fire, and green material created a smokey, nearly flameless fire. Hides were then wrapped around cone-shaped wooden framework constructed above the smoldering pit. This process preserved the hide in a usable form, whether for personal use and later manufacturing of clothing or as tradable goods, and also added the golden color of processed hide.
            Between the species composition and the recovering of these smudge pit features, the authors argued the inhabitants of this site primarily focused on medium and large-sized mammals for the purpose of hide extraction and processing, although it is certainly reasonable to suggest these animals were used as a food source as well as a hide source.
White-tailed deer rib with multiple 
knife cut marks. Photo: Joe Hearns.
            On a recent trip to work with Dr. Terry Martin at the Illinois State museum, I was able to collect data from three excavation units at the Fort St. Joseph Site. Similar to Gete Odena, the animal remains were, by and large, medium and large-sized mammals, especially white-tailed deer. Although some remains enhanced the known diversity at the site in regards to the presence of fish and waterfowl, the emphasis was mostly on these mammal species. Similarly, past field seasons uncovered several possible smudge pits on the Lyne Site terrace to the south of the Fort Site. More data needs to be collected and more work needs to be done to draw connections between these pits and the animal remains recovered at Fort St. Joseph, but these preliminary results suggest that hide processing may very well have been taking place around the Fort St. Joseph community.
            These preliminary data only begin to scratch the surface of my faunal analysis and have only posed more questions. Once I start to discern patterns resulting from daily activities, broader questions can be asked. Did production change over time as prices shifted in the global fur market? Did it shift due to over-hunting of species? Through these and similar questions, importantly, we could begin to understand how the people living at the Fort used animal resources to organize their lives in relation to one another within the larger structure of the fur trade. -Joe Hearns