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What do archaeologists do in the winter?

By Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology – Mackinac State Historic Parks

Archaeological excavation has taken place at Michilimackinac, in Mackinaw City, every summer since 1959, making it one of the longest on-going projects of its kind in North America. The excavation takes place within the palisade walls of Colonial Michilimackinac State Historic Park, in full view of visitors to the fort. One of their most common questions, after “What are you looking for?” is “What happens in the winter?”

Late in August, after the last dirt is excavated and sifted, and the last map is drawn, the archaeological team packs the site for winter. Exposed charred wood timbers from the house are sprayed with preservative and covered with plastic tubs. The entire site is lined with plastic sheeting and filled with bales of straw. This protects it from rain and snow until the site is re-opened in late May.

The summer archaeology crew goes back to the rest of their lives, graduate school, teaching and other jobs, and family. Mackinac State Historic Parks [MSHP] Curator of Archaeology Dr. Lynn Evans and lab assistant Erin Meekhof Sturgill turn to the seldom-seen indoor part of archaeology. All season, as artifacts are excavated, they are placed in bags marked with what square, level, and soil type they come from. These are taken to the archaeology lab in the Service Center on the park grounds.

The first step is to clean the artifacts. Glass, ceramic, and animal bone can be carefully washed. Metal artifacts are gently brushed. The artifacts are packaged in archivally-stable containers and put back in their context bag. Each context (square, level, soil type) is assigned a catalog number.

Once the numbers are assigned, the artifacts and/or artifact containers, depending on artifact size, are marked with the catalog number. A catalog sheet is created for each context bag. Artifacts are identified and described in as much detail as possible, and counted or weighed. This information is entered into MSHP’s computerized collections database.

The artifacts are then stored by type, that is, ceramics with other ceramics from the fort, beads with beads, and so on. They are always connected back to their original context, or provenience, by their catalog number. All of the MSHP archaeology collections are stored at the Petersen Archaeology and History Center in Mackinaw City. By the time all of these steps are complete, it is early spring and time to plan a new excavation season. The artifacts remain safe in their secure, climate-controlled facility until they are needed for exhibits or study by researchers.

For the past ten seasons, the archaeology team has been excavating a fur traders’ house. This house was one unit in the southeast rowhouse at Michilimackinac. A rowhouse is like a townhouse or condominium, several independently owned houses in one larger structure. At Michilimackinac these were an efficient use of space and easier to heat in the winter.

In 1749 a French military engineer named Lotbiniere drew a map of Michilimackinac, and labeled each house. The house currently being excavated is labeled Gonneville for Charles Henri Desjardins de Rupallay de Gonneville, who traded at Michilimackinac from c1727 -1754. He owned this house as late as 1758. By 1765, according to a map drawn by British Lieutenant Perkins Magra, the house was occupied by an unnamed English trader.

The house site is incredibly rich, and every day we find small items that might have fallen through the cracks in the floorboards, such as bones from the trader’s meals, especially fish bones, seed beads and lead shot. We also find larger artifacts. This summer was particularly rich in trade goods. Notable artifacts included three pieces of trade silver, including a triangular pendant, a cone and a circular brooch. Trade silver is a good time marker for the British fur trade in the Great Lakes region, but has not been commonly found at Michilimackinac. Other adornment items included several buttons, a buckle frame, and two brass rings with glass or “paste” stones.

A more personal, rather than trade good, find was a small cast brass crucifix. It is 1.5” tall and 1” wide. The letters INRI appear above the crucified body of Christ, and a skull, signifying Golgotha, the place of the skull, as the site of the crucifixion, is at the bottom of the cross.

In addition to artifacts, we find evidence of the structure itself. Late in the season we found a row of burnt posts from a previously unknown interior house wall. They extend north into an unexcavated area. We are only a little over halfway done excavating this house.  Who knows what discoveries await in 2018 and beyond?

Lynn L.M. Evans is the Curator of Archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks, a position she has held since 1996.  She began excavating at Michilimackinac in 1989 while conducting research on craft industries.  A native of Cincinnati, Lynn holds a B.A. in anthropology and museum studies from Beloit College and a Ph.D. in American Civilization – Historical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.  She resides with her husband, Jim, in Mackinaw City.

NOTE: Mackinac State Historic Parks will reopen for the 2018 season in early May (please check for specific dates for individual parks).