lake michigan

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.


Indiana Jones was Right.

I’m not sure how many of us would admit this, but I decided to become an archaeologist because of Indiana Jones. He had it all: action, adventure, the whip and fedora. And the theme song. Man, that theme song! When I was a kid, I used to spend my summers on the boat at Elephant Butte Lake in southern New Mexico, begging my dad to take me to Hospital Canyon so that I could see the building that were lurking just below the surface of the water. Each time we went, I would look down into the water, see the wooden buildings and tell myself that one day, I would go down there. Afterall, Indy would want me to.
Fast forward twenty years. I no longer live in southern New Mexico but in Northern Michigan. I never did get to go and check out the buildings of Hospital Canyon, but I did decide to follow in Indiana Jones’s footsteps. Kind of. I am a student of archeology, you see- nautical archaeology. Not something I would have expected from myself having grown up in the deserts of New Mexico, but there you are. I am not a diver, which some might think would hinder my ability to participate in field work. When I started studying the subject, I honestly thought the same thing. As it turns out, Lake Michigan is the place to be this summer.
I teamed up with a couple of NASII students this summer to do a project at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Michigan. We were lucky enough to have this amazing speciman wash ashore this past fall after what amounted to an inland hurricane. The structure was magnificent! We worked with an amazing archaeologist who helped guide us in our work, encouraging us in every way. I can’t speak for the rest of the team, but it was my Indiana Jones “moment” and the coolest day of my life. When the survey was over, we divided up the what needed to be done to get the monograph complete and went home.
Which brings me to today. Today, I am reminded of something that Dr. Jones told his students before he went off to find action and glory. He said that “Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library; research, reading.” That is what I am doing today: research and reading. It’s nothing glamorous, or sexy. And I am certainly not getting dirty digging in the dirt, or in this case knocked around by waves. But there is certainly a lot of work that goes into historical research of an unidentified vessel, the region it was found in, the circumstances under which it was found, and how it might possibly fit into the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, I spent most of my time in the library when the project plan was developed so today is dedicated to internet research: images mostly- period maps, lighthouse logs, meterological reports. This is something I can do comfortably in my pajamas at my kitchen table.
Today isn’t the most glamorous day of my archaeological career, and I’m sure it won’t be the last day like it. But I know that I can say that with each bit of research I uncover, I am that much closer to uncovering the mystery identity of this unknown shipwreck. And as I sit here at the kitchen table, coffee in hand, I know that the fictional archaeologist was right. Archaeology is a lot of research. But the day that I go back out into the field, I will most definitely be humming my own theme song.