Great Lakes

Day of Archaeology at a Great Lakes Lumber Camp

As an associate professor of Anthropology at Central Michigan University, I run an Archaeological Field School every other summer.  This summer, field school students studied and documented the ruins of lumber camp in north-central Michigan. In Michigan’s northern woods, the remnants of a once extensive lumbering industry can be found in the form of lumber camp ruins, defunct railroad grades, and mill ghost towns.  The Anthropology program at CMU has a strong focus on public and community-engaged archaeology, so as a part of the field school experience I opened the site to the public on our Day of Archaeology (which was actually on June 8th).  Students in the field school shared with the visiting public about the process of site documentation from start to finish.

Michigan’s lumbering history is a complex part of industrial and colonial expansion of the rural landscape of the state.  Timber cutting expanded in predictable patterns, linked to the technological means for transporting timber from the wilderness to mills and on to the industrial centers of Chicago and Detroit.  The industrial expansion moved swiftly and methodically into places like Clare County, where between roughly 1870-1900 the entire county saw the development of cities, railroads, and mills as timber was cut.

   Historic Photograph of unnamed lumber camp with railroad near Farwell, Clare County.

Lumber camps were short-lived neighborhoods in the lumber extraction process, but also integral to the industry as dynamic labor communities.  These self-sufficient communities were often comprised of ethnically and cultural diverse populations.  As archaeological sites, they represent short, but intensive, occupations that are spatially organized into recognizable task areas: barracks for workers, blacksmith and farrier sheds, cook’s kitchen and mess hall, foremen’s office, and more.

Historic industrial archaeology may not seem like an important topic, especially when the sites you are studying are only about 100 years old.  I mean, how much can you learn from the recent past that has photos and documents associated with it?  The reality is that there is much to be gained from studying the small residues of everyday life from even the recent past.  This is especially the case when it comes to lumber camps, which often have little to no historic documentation.  Think about it.  Before cell phone selfies, how many people documented their daily lives with photographs?  Before social media, how many average people had their stories told in official historic documents?  This is where archaeology can fill in the gaps.  By excavating lumber camp sites, we can see how everyday people lived, worked, ate, played, and slept about 100 years ago.

We started fieldwork by conducting survey (identifying any visible structural foundations) and geophysical prospection with a magnetic susceptibility meter.  Students learned how to navigate through the woods and identify building berms and cellar pits.  Magnetic susceptibility is a useful geoprospection technique that senses enrichments to the soil that increase magnetic properties.  This results in “hot-spots” that are organic or iron rich thanks to stuff left behind by people – in other words, places we might like to dig. These steps helped us identify former structures and chose locations for excavation.

Magnetic Susceptibility Geoprospection in action, with Teaching Assistant, Greg Swallow, supervising graduate students Kara McDonald (using meter) and Jeremy Cunningham (recording data). Greg is standing on the berm remnant of a building, these were earthen foundations for the temporary buildings of the lumber camp.

This lumber camp had at least seven distinct buildings (identified by foundation berms or cellars) and the remnants of a road.  Our primary goal was to identify what activities were conducted in each building, so excavation units were placed in several buildings to provide a snapshot of what people were doing in these areas.

Site Plan Map made using a Total Data Station and GIS software.

On our Day of Archaeology, we had excavations at four buildings open.  At Building 1, students discovered a huge stockpile of cut and hand-wrought nails, as well as other metal tools. So far, this building is our best candidate for the blacksmith’s shop.

Student sketch map of Building 1 excavation unit, showing density of nail fragments.

At Building 2, students found part of the building itself – which appeared as burnt planks of wood with nails.  They also found a number of clay smoking pipe fragments.  Based on the size and placement of this building, as well as its contents, it may have been the foreman’s office.

Photograph of one of the many clay pipe fragments found in Building 2.

Just outside the door of Building 4, students were astonished to find a pile of saw cut beef bone. Based on the density of animal bone, this building was most likely the cook’s kitchen – it also has a large cellar and is located next to a second cellar (both would have been necessary for storing the camp’s food).  The presence of beef is surprising, because it represents the most expensive cuts of meat, compared to the more commonly purchased mutton or hunted venison.

Photograph of Building 4 excavation unit showing butchered beef bones in place.

Building 7 was only detected by the geoprospection methods and was not readily visible as a berm, so our excavations at this building were aimed at determining whether a berm wall once existed in the area detected by the magnetic susceptibility meter.  While we did not find many artifacts at this excavation unit, we did find soil changes indicative of the berm structure and also a wooden beam left in place.  Therefore, we now know that Building 7 was a structure. Based on its location adjacent to the kitchen, it might have been the mess hall.

Photograph of Level-3 plan at Building 7 excavation unit, showing soil staining and wood plank associated with structure foundation.

In addition to the excavations, we also set up a field lab so that visitors could see how artifacts were cleaned, documented, and prepared for curation. Laboratory work, while not as exciting as fieldwork, is extremely important to the process of archaeology.  Analysis of the artifacts often takes two to three times as long as the fieldwork.  But, it can be just as fun to “rediscover” the artifacts in the lab and begin to tell the story of the site.

Graduate student, Mandy Kramar, talking with site visitor, Mariane Eyer, about artifacts found at site and process of cleaning and curation.

 All in all, we had a very fruitful first field season at the lumber camp.  Our public Day of Archaeology was also a success, with a couple dozen visitors (pretty good numbers for a remote location in rural Michigan) stopping by.  Most visitors spent hour or more touring the site and asking questions. More investigations are planned in October of 2017, coinciding with Michigan’s Archaeology Month.

Dr. Sarah Surface-Evans is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Central Michigan University who specializes in community-based archaeology.

 

Archaeology is Anthropology

As a college student, the question of my major and future career ambition is one of those frequently asked questions that I contend with on a daily basis. Very few seemingly understand what it means to study cultural anthropology- that isn’t necessarily a value judgement, merely an assessment of my personal experiences. The FAQ takes various forms, but amounts to something like “What are you going to do with that?” or “Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher.”

One of the many docks that is part of the inventory of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

I must admit that I often ask myself the same question(s), which prompted me to participate in an internship rather than a field school this summer as part of my undergraduate degree requirements. I knew that I had to find something that interested me both as an anthropologist and as a historian.

I ended up working on a project that satisfies both of those requirements. So far this summer, I have participated in a NAS fieldschool that was held in Traverse City, Michigan and helped other underwater archaeology students with their individual projects. I have attended various organizational events as a representative of my site supervisor/mentor. But for me, one of the coolest things about this internship is my participation in a complete inventory of the historic docks and piers of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Last summer at this time, I was spending the day conducting research on a shipwreck that washed ashore in the same area in late 2010. This summer, I spent the day (once again) doing research. And while the area of historic research is not really in my scope of interest, the information that I found on one of the historic sites is rather fascinating (which for me was rather unexpected). The dock that I am researching is called Aral Dock and is one of many century old docks in the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore that has all but disintegrated into just pilings. The dock itself was rather homogeneous for the area in both build and use. Cargo such as lumber and agricultural items was loaded and unloaded at the dock and was sent on its way to various ports around the Great Lakes. Aral Dock is not interesting (for me) because of it’s construction, or materials, or rate of decay; Aral dock is interesting because of the scandal that surrounds it.

Research through local and regional newspapers as well as oral history from residents shows that there was a double homicide on this particular dock, earning it the nickname “Murder Dock”. The reason was money related- taxes, specifically- and the murder touched the small agricultural port town in a way that was unexpected for that community.  As a student of anthropology and history, this salacious history of an area that is currently considered to be quiet and relaxing for residents and tourists alike is an interesting study in local anthropology.

The area itself was a combination of industrial and agricultural, with the docks acting as a material reminder of how these people once lived and worked. What remains of the historic docks in the area is submerged in varying depths of water, ranging from shoreline depths to fifteen feet. Position fixing has been a chore, especially because of the wave action that is common in this specific bay on Lake Michigan. That is not to say that this experience hasn’t been enlightening or enjoyable. I can now say with confidence that I know what it is that I can do with my degree in Anthropology: I want to take what I have learned and apply it the field of historic archaeology, specifically sites that are underwater. Yes, I will likely spend more time in a library, museum, or historical society than I will in the field. I will likely be spending large amounts of time sifting through innumerable amounts of historic photos and oral histories as I did on the Day of Archaeology. But I have come to realize that there is no better way for me to combine my interests in history and human culture than by studying the physical material remains of the people that once occupied the most beautiful place in America.

Plus, my office will have one heck of a view. So, there’s that, too.

 

Day in the Life of an Adjunct Professor

By training, I’m an archaeologist, but currently I teach cultural anthropology for a community college in the Northeastern section of the United States.  I leave my archaeology work for volunteer archaeology workshops for middle school students, writing pieces for a science advocacy’s publication, and for whenever I can incorporate my knowledge of the discipline to my students (to give them a preview of what else is included within anthropological research). This summer, my work included items like lesson and syllabus planning, previewing videos and DVDs for classtime discussions, and adapting to the different textbooks selected for the fall semester. I also worked on writing book reviews, columns, and articles for submission to anthropological and science-based publications.

However, this week, I’m partaking in a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks workshop geared toward community college faculty, where my days are chockful of archaeological work. Earlier this week, I got to see a ROV (remotely operated vehicle) device in action and also ever so briefly use it to scan over a shipwreck site in one of the Great Lakes. We also watched others use sonar devices under the lake and bay waters. We’ve gone further up the coast to see the remains of a wreck washed ashore and worked on practicing mapping the pieces which remain. Although I have never formally studied the Great Lakes or maritime/nautical archaeology beyond archaeobotanical coursework, my summer included days of reading articles and books on the subject matter.

You see no matter what you do as an archaeologist, constantly learning subject matter is essential work and involves a level of professional development. I came here to upstate Michigan this week to learn, explore, but most of all, to find new materials, approaches and activities to spark a new level of teaching from within. My students are my primary focus, although a lot of what went into my decision to apply this spring for this particular workshop series included the chance to spend a week somewhere I had never travelled, with facilitators and colleagues I never met before this week. Of course, maritime history and archaeology are topics I never explored before as well.

Today, we will be coming together as 25 students who teach across the United States (and within different academic departments and disciplines) to learn from experienced archaeologists, historians, doctoral students and governmental employees for a final day of workshops. While it is hard to imagine surpassing snorkeling over a wreck, and surveying a wreck on the shoreline yesterday, the same speculation could have been made earlier in the week. I mean, how do you top using and watching others use an ROV over a wreck? Or, seeing sonar being used to map shapes and features on the bottom of the water? The life of an archaeologist or an aficionado of the field can be quite eclectic, but no matter what your age, pathway, or deviations throughout the course of life, no matter what, you can always find your way to or back to, archaeology and enjoy the experiences.

For now, I plan on working on my final assignment then heading off to the marine sanctuary for a day of presentations, a boat ride, a few more research and photography hours, and then closing events. I should have some photos on my webspace at some point, so do feel free to take a look and also to write me an email with any questions. Likewise, if you are a community college instructor in the United States, I highly encourage you to check the NEH website for more on all the professional development opportunities which could be awaiting you as well next summer!

 

NPS Fort Vancouver Public Archaeology Field School 2011

This is the last day at the 10th National Parks Service (NPS) Fort Vancouver Public Archaeology Field School  based in Vancouver, Washington. Over the past 7 weeks the 18 students from Washington State University Vancouver, Portland State University and a few graduate students from all over the United States have come together to excavate a multicultural village, called Kanaka Village by the Americans due to the large Hawaiian population brought in by the English traders, that served to support the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post on the Columbia River in the 1830s and 40s.  We have been well trained in field techniques and methodology while investigating the purpose of a fenced-in open area in the middle of the village. We have also been interacting with the public on a daily basis. Interpretative training is a part of our curriculum and an essential part of our mission to raise awareness and foster public involvement in the history of the Columbia River and the Oregon-Washington coast. In addition to all this we have been attending regular lectures from visiting archaeologists on topics ranging from Saloon Archaeology to Fur Trade Archaeology in the Great Lakes region, and race and ethnicity in a constructed landscape in the American South.

The Hudson’s Bay Company Village was built along side the fort in the late 1820s as a place for non-officers or ranking company officials to live. The population dwarfed the fort population at its smallest with around 250 inhabitants and could swell into the thousands during the brigade season. It was the most culturally diverse area of the Western coast of North America for a significant portion of the 19th century with workers being brought in from across the globe by the Hudson’s Bay Company trading and interacting with over 30 distinct Native American  tribes at a major trading hub along the Columbia River. Most of the historic record of this era concerns itself with the lives and dealings of the officers and officials of the company and their perspectives of the villagers. Almost nothing is known about the daily lives of the villagers that is not revealed to us through archaeology.

Each of our trenches were investigating a different aspect of the open area in the village and students were rotated from trench to trench and would hone their interpretive skills informing any visitors who came to see what we were finding. Many times we would learn more from the public than they did from us but this is part of the beauty of Public Archaeology, each party walks away with a new outlook on the site.

This last week in our field school has been spent working on survey techniques. We have been camping at the Yeon Property, a new Parks Service acquisition by the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park on the Oregon Coast. New properties must be first archaeologically surveyed in order to identify any sites of significance in the area and to set up an archaeological baseline to protect and preserve any cultural resources on the property. We have been split into three groups of 5 or 6 each and over the past few days have rotated between digging 1m deep shovel probes at regular 30m intervals, conducting pedestrian surveys through the woods and sea grass to the ocean, and mapping the property with hand held GPS devices and today is no different.  It will be sad to say goodbye to all of our new friends and the Fort and its Village which we’ve all come to know and love but this will be tempered by the knowledge that we got to participate in something special – a uniquely designed Public Archaeology endeavor that involves and educates the public and trains all of us students to enter the field as well-rounded professionals and future leaders in archaeology.

 

If you’re ever in the Vancouver/Portland area please come and visit the Fort and experience part of the rich colonial and frontier history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and US Army eras on the West coast of the Oregon Territory, you won’t be disappointed. For more information about the field school, Fort Vancouver, or Kanaka Village, please visit our website.