2017-07-20 / Front Page

Archaeology Dig Makes Two Finds

Long-buried Trade Silver Comes to Light In Busy Week at Colonial Michilimackinac
By Erich T. Doerr


Two pieces of trade silver were discovered during an archaeological dig inside Fort Michilimackinac last week. Archeologist Elizabeth Kerton-Schmit found the first piece Wednesday, July 12, in the form of a triangular piece of metal (left) that could have been an earring or pendent. Excavation field supervisor Alexandra Conell found the second piece, possibly a circular part of a pin, Friday, July 14. The two pieces, buried for more than 230 years, are pictured here with a quarter to show their approximate size. Two pieces of trade silver were discovered during an archaeological dig inside Fort Michilimackinac last week. Archeologist Elizabeth Kerton-Schmit found the first piece Wednesday, July 12, in the form of a triangular piece of metal (left) that could have been an earring or pendent. Excavation field supervisor Alexandra Conell found the second piece, possibly a circular part of a pin, Friday, July 14. The two pieces, buried for more than 230 years, are pictured here with a quarter to show their approximate size. Two pieces of trade silver jewelry were found at Fort Michilimackinac last week after spending more than 230 years underground. It was a big week for the archaeology project here, which painstakingly sifts through ancient dirt for clues to the lives of early settlers and indigenous people at this British outpost in the midst of a thriving fur trade. The focus this summer, and for the past several years, has been an area inside the stockade where the house of a fur trader once stood, and this place already has revealed several precious artifacts from a period between 1765 and 1780.


Mackinac State Historic Parks volunteer Katie Guttman of Indiana was one of several people working Monday, July 17, at the annual archeological dig site inside the Fort Michilimackinac. She holds out a tiny decorative metal flower rosette she had found moments earlier while shifting through soil she had dug up. The little rosette may have been part of a decorative pin more than 230 years ago, when a British fur trader’s home stood on the site now under excavation. The rosette is not likely connected to discovery of the remains of a trade silver pin discovered last week. Mackinac State Historic Parks volunteer Katie Guttman of Indiana was one of several people working Monday, July 17, at the annual archeological dig site inside the Fort Michilimackinac. She holds out a tiny decorative metal flower rosette she had found moments earlier while shifting through soil she had dug up. The little rosette may have been part of a decorative pin more than 230 years ago, when a British fur trader’s home stood on the site now under excavation. The rosette is not likely connected to discovery of the remains of a trade silver pin discovered last week. This summer, a small, triangular piece of trade silver, probably used as an earring or pendent, was found Wednesday, July 12, by archaeologist Elizabeth Kerton-Schmit. Two days later, the remains of what could have been a pin to be worn on a coat or garment was uncovered by excavation field supervisor Alexandra Conell. The triangular piece was found in the middle of where the house once stood and may have been lost by its owner beneath the floorboards. The pin was found in what was once the building’s root cellar, said Dr. Lynn Evans, Mackinac State Historic Parks curator of archaeology, who oversees the dig.


Two pieces of trade silver were uncovered in Mackinaw City last week during the archaeological dig at Fort Michilimackinac. The pieces are being held by the crewmembers who found them; staff member Elizabeth Kerton-Schmit (left) found a triangular piece of metal that could have been an earring or a pendant and excavation field supervisor Alexandra Conell found the circular piece that likely is the remains of a decorative pin. (Photograph courtesy of Lynn Evans) Two pieces of trade silver were uncovered in Mackinaw City last week during the archaeological dig at Fort Michilimackinac. The pieces are being held by the crewmembers who found them; staff member Elizabeth Kerton-Schmit (left) found a triangular piece of metal that could have been an earring or a pendant and excavation field supervisor Alexandra Conell found the circular piece that likely is the remains of a decorative pin. (Photograph courtesy of Lynn Evans) Trade silver was used commonly to barter with native people for animal furs or corn. Despite the name, the alloy contained only small amounts of silver and usually consisted mostly of nickel with silver mixed in. Despite its common use in trading, and the fort’s prominence in the area, trade silver has been an unusually rare find in the diggings at Fort Michilimackinac, Dr. Evans noted.


At left: Mackinac State Historic Parks staff member John Cardinal sorts through material he just shifted during the archaeological dig inside the walls of Fort Michilimackinac. He picks up what could be the remains of a seed he found Monday, July 17. The daily excavation is working on the site where the home of a British fur trader stood more than 230 years ago. At left: Mackinac State Historic Parks staff member John Cardinal sorts through material he just shifted during the archaeological dig inside the walls of Fort Michilimackinac. He picks up what could be the remains of a seed he found Monday, July 17. The daily excavation is working on the site where the home of a British fur trader stood more than 230 years ago. She uses four period maps depicting the interior layout of Fort Michilimackinac that confirm a house stood on the site of the current excavation site from the 1730s until much of the fort was moved to Mackinac Island during 1780 to 1781 and the rest was burned and left undisturbed for almost two centuries. The maps show a British fur trader had moved into the house by 1765, and this site has been the scene of an archaeological dig since 2008. Dr. Evans expects slow and deliberate work at the site will continue for at least another five years, and then the park hopes to reconstruct the house, in part with information and measurements uncovered by the archaeologists. The house will join other reconstructions atop their original foundations at the fort.

The exact identity of the trader that lived in this house isn’t known, but Dr. Evans said the findings there indicate he was very well off. Earlier this year, the team found a brass lock in the root cellar area, like that which would have been used on a piece of furniture. Past findings of note at the site included a rosary in 2015 and a child’s jaw harp, a rare artifact from the fort’s younger residents, in 2014.

Dr. Evans said many of the unearthed artifacts have been ceramics, an interesting find coming from the early years of the Industrial Revolution, as ceramic pieces became easier to make and much more available even to those living on the far edges of the British Empire like Fort Michilimackinac. Cufflinks have also been found. She added the artifacts discovered at the house help confirm that its occupants were traders, since all of them have been civilian and domestic in origin, compared to the military artifacts found in other parts of the fort where the soldiers lived.

The trade silver finds found last week will eventually be put on display, but, for now, efforts will focus on conserving them by stabilizing the metal in their new oxygen-rich environment and then studying them.

The annual archaeological dig at Fort Michilimackinac is one of the oldest in the United States. It began in 1959 and has continued every summer since. This year’s dig began Monday, June 5, and will continue, seven days a week, weather permitting, through Saturday, August 26. At the end of the season, the whole site will be lined with plastic and covered with bales of hay to preserve the work area for next year.

The digging process is careful work conducted with hand trowels only. Dr. Evans said investigators dig down one-tenth of a foot at a time. Once the soil is dug up it is screened to reveal any possible findings. When something is found, the artifact is cataloged by its location within the house, the day it was found, and the person who discovered it. Artifacts, even when large enough to become visible quickly, are never removed until all of the dirt around them is dug out.

The public is invited to watch the work going on at the fort, and an interpreter is often on site to explain the process to guests.

As the excavation proceeds this year, archaeologists will continue to focus on the interior of the house. In the future, Dr. Evans said, it will shift north to the exterior. There is a theory this house had a porch and, if it did, they may be able to find evidence of it deep in the dirt.

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