2012-06-23 / News

Excitement Continues in Michilimackinac Excavation

By James Dau


At left: Archaeologists for Mackinac State Historic Parks excavate the fourth segment of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac, searching for artifacts left by the building’s occupants, as well as structural features of the building itself. With most of the fort was either dismantled or burned when its occupants moved to Mackinac Island, archaeology is the only way to really learn about what the fort was like in the 18th century. At left: Archaeologists for Mackinac State Historic Parks excavate the fourth segment of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac, searching for artifacts left by the building’s occupants, as well as structural features of the building itself. With most of the fort was either dismantled or burned when its occupants moved to Mackinac Island, archaeology is the only way to really learn about what the fort was like in the 18th century. Mackinac State Historic Parks archaeologists continue their excavations at Colonial Michilimackinac this season in what has become the longest-running archaeological project in North America. Their efforts this season will focus on the fourth segment of the Southeast Rowhouse, an area they have been studying for the last five years.

“We know this building was a lot bigger than the reconstruction we have standing here now,” said Dr. Lynn Evans, curator for archaeology and the lead archaeologist for the project.


At right: Mackinac State Historic Parks curator for archaeology and the head of the excavation Andrew Novack excavates the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. At right: Mackinac State Historic Parks curator for archaeology and the head of the excavation Andrew Novack excavates the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. “Our job now is to figure out just what was here so we can better know who they were and how they lived.”

Colonial Michilimackinac, the reconstructed fort in Mackinaw City, has been host to archaeologists since 1959, when they first began excavations of the site. When British and French-Canadian residents abandoned the mainland fort and community in 1781 in favor of Mackinac Island, they dismantled much of the existing construction and moved it over the lake with them, leaving little behind on the site of their old dwellings. Consequently, while several maps of the fort and community at various stages in time exist, little was left above the ground to illustrate what the buildings looked like or how the people living there would have interacted with them. Archaeology, then, became the primary recourse for understanding this part of northern United States history.

“We’ve been working here for 53 years,” Dr. Evans said, “and, according to our estimates, we’re only about two-thirds of the way through the site.”

The fort on the north shore of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula was built by French soldiers in 1715 to protect French interests in the fur trade at Michilimackinac. As the fur trade grew and became ever more lucrative throughout the 18th century, the fort expanded and a community of traders and craftsmen grew up around its wooden palisade. It passed into British hands after the French and Indian War in 1760. Three years later, the fort was briefly captured in a surprise attack by Indian warriors as part of Pontiac’s Uprising, one of the last great Native American wars in the east. The British reclaimed the fort and operated it until 1781, when they moved it to Mackinac Island, which provided better protection from revolutionary Colonial forces in the south and Spanish expansion from the west. They moved many of the buildings to their new settlement on Mackinac Island and burned the rest.

The fort and community has a much more storied past than this, witnessing many historical moments in Great Lakes history and its residents participating in the larger wars and movements that would come to determine the course of the French, British, American, and Native American peoples of North America. Today, that story is still being recorded by the archaeological teams as they carefully peel back the layers of dirt and sediment to find what the fort’s occupants left behind of themselves.

“We’re dealing with such a rich site,” Dr. Evans said. “We’re fortunate there’s so much left behind that we can really learn a lot about what life was like here.”

Dr. Evans’s team this year is comprised of archaeologically trained students from Western Michigan and Michigan State Universities, as well as trained volunteers.

“We have a full crew of five people, myself included,” she explained, “and you’ll see us out here seven days a week, unless it’s really storming.”

Dr. Evans came to Michilimackinac in 1989 as a seasonal archaeologist, just like those working under her supervision today. In 1996, she became the park’s curator for archaeology and has been coordinating excavations at the fort since.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to participate in two complete projects here already,” she said, “and now I’m working on my third.”

This season her team is focusing on learning about life in the Southeast Rowhouse.

“According to the historical maps we have, we know it was home, first, to a French-Canadian trader, Charles Gonneville, and, later, to an English fur trader. We don’t have his name, though,” Dr. Evans explained. “Beyond that, though, the historical record doesn’t tell us much about who was here or even what the building, itself, was like. It’s very rare, we know, for an English trader to be living within the fort walls, so we’re very interested to see how his lifestyle and living conditions are different from those of his French neighbors.”

That task falls to her and her archaeologists. To answer their questions, they opened up an area of ground on the site of the rowhouse and have been working their way down through the layers of historical material, painstakingly scraping the earth with trowels and sifting the earth through a screen to separate any artifacts.

“We’ve been finding a lot of bones from their food, as well as nails, window glass, and broken pieces of ceramic,” Dr. Evans said. “We find something almost every time we throw dirt on the screen, which is great for us and great for the people passing by and watching. For a lot of them, this the first time they’ve ever seen an archaeological excavation, and it’s great to share with them the sense of discovery we get from this work.”

In addition to artifacts, the team is also looking to define the building.

“We’ve been working on defining the south wall,” Dr. Evans explained, pointing to a series of wooden lumps protruding from the floor of the excavated area, “and when we clean the excavation up, you see the stain where the rest of the wall was, even though the wood, itself, is long gone.”

Dr. Evans also hopes to find evidence of both a porch and a root cellar.

“Root cellars, which a lot of these buildings had, were essentially just holes in the ground under the buildings. They’re exciting for us because, when they tore down the buildings for the fort, they would have thrown a lot of their trash into those holes.”

And in this line of work, a historical man’s trash is certainly an archaeologist’s treasure, as the objects a person discarded can often shed tremendous light on their lifestyle.

With each new artifact or structural feature found, the picture of life at the rowhouse, a picture that has been in the making for almost 35 years, becomes clearer. The first segment of the rowhouse was excavated in the 1970s, the next in the 1990s, and, finally, work began in this latest section in 2007. This project is part of a long-term, systematic effort to archaeologically document the entire site, organized by a grid system devised in the late 1950s. Work was interrupted between the 1990s project and now by the more urgent need to excavate the Southwest Rowhouse, upon which site now stands Colonial Michilimackinac’s newest addition, a full reconstruction of that rowhouse which will open in June 2013 and will include one of the most substantial historical ruins on the property, a nearly 300-year-old, hand-built, stone fireplace.

“The past is a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Dr. Evans said, “and we’ll never have all the pieces, but the more pieces we have, the better the puzzle fits together.”

As she and her team continue their work this season, some of those blank spaces in the puzzle will be filled in.

“There’s a method to this,” Dr. Evans said, “a plan that we’ve been following for a long time, and that’s how we’ve been able to tell the story of this place so well.”

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