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