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Digging Up Controversy: The Michigan Relics

A Michigan Historical Museum Exhibit

 The Role of Archaeology

What is archaeology?

The goal of archaeology is to learn about people, especially people who lived in the past. Archaeologists study the places where people lived and worked to learn about what their lives were like.

People sometimes think that the goal of archaeology is to find spectacular artifacts, the way Indiana Jones did. But artifacts—things that people make and use—don't tell the story by themselves. Archaeologists also need the information they get from each artifact's position and from the soil around it.

Why do archaeologists dig?

Two archaeologists at workPeople leave things behind. Things they have lost, things they have thrown away, and even traces of buildings may remain at a site long after they are gone.

As time passes, these clues about people who used to live in a place become buried as organic materials decompose, and wind and water deposit soil on the ground surface. Archaeologists dig, or excavate, to find information that will help answer questions about people who lived there.

How do archaeologists know where to dig?

Part of being an archaeologist is knowing how to look for clues that identify sites. In fact, archaeologists usually spend more time looking for sites and recording them than they do digging sites.

As they search, archaeologists use information from other sites to help them guess where people might have lived or worked. They think about things like the types of soils that are in an area, the distance to the nearest lakes and rivers, and how hilly the terrain is.

They may also look at old maps and atlases for information about where a more recent site like a lumber camp may be located. Then they go out into the field and do a systematic search and record any archaeological evidence that they find.

Why do archaeologists dig such tidy, square holes?

Digging square holes makes it easier to map the locations of artifacts accurately. Deeper artifacts are usually older than shallower ones and artifacts that are close together usually were used together. The straight sides of square holes also make it easier to see different soil layers and to recognize where soil has been disturbed. Careful digging makes it easier to notice marks or stains in the soil that may indicate the site of a trash pit or a building.

Recording a dig thoroughly is important because you can't go back to double-check your work. Once you have dug, that part of the site is destroyed. Archaeologists usually leave part of a site intact, so that others can learn from it in the future, when they may have better tools or different questions. Standardized recording techniques also make it easier to compare one site with another.

What kinds of things do archaeologists find?

  • Artifacts, which are objects made and/or used by people Usually, only artifacts made of hard materials, such as stone, metal or glass, survive in the ground. Soft materials like wood, paper or cloth, tend to rot away.
  • Bones of animals that were killed and eaten Sometimes archaeologists find human bones, too, but modern archaeologists usually do not excavate human bones unless they are in danger of being destroyed.
  • Seeds left from plant foods The seeds that archaeologists find are usually those that were burned during cooking, which helps to preserve them.
  • Features, which are marks or stains in the soil. Some activities leave marks or stains in the soil. The wooden posts of a stockade rot away, but the rotted wood leaves dark stains in the soil that can be seen and identified by the archaeologist.

Plexicase-sided case holds artifacts from archaeological digs arranged in layers.Archaeologists typically find pieces of things, not whole objects. Some artifacts are broken at the time they are lost or discarded. Others are broken when they are in the ground, either by natural forces like freezing and thawing, or by human activities like plowing.

This exhibit case represents an archaeological excavation unit. It has clear sides to show how archaeologists find things at different depths as they dig. While the artifacts in the case are not all from one dig, they are layered as an archaeologist might encounter them during an excavation. More recent objects are found nearer the surface, and older objects are generally found deeper in the ground.

What Do Archaeologists Do With The Things They Dig Up?

When archaeologists finish an excavation, they take all of the things they found, along with all of the records they made back to the lab. Typically, for every day archaeologists spend digging, they will spend about three days in the lab.

  • Cleaning the artifacts reveals new details or makers' marks. Sometimes even the dirt contains information, like bits of charred food, so lab workers have to be careful.
  • Cataloguing involves numbering the artifact to connect it with the records and photos that identify it and tell exactly where it was found.
  • Some artifacts need further identification. For example, specialists can tell whether the bones from a site are turkey or goose bones.
  • Artifacts can be tested in the lab to learn more about them. Even dirt from privy (toilet) sites can be tested to look for evidence of bacterial diseases!
  • Research helps archaeologists learn how their findings compare to what other archaeologists have found at similar sites. Each excavation helps to build a more complete picture of the history of the people who lived in that area.
  • Finally, the archaeologist puts all the bits of information together and interprets (tells) the story of the site. Sometimes there are gaps or pieces that don't seem to fit. New information can change how the pieces fit together. So the story always ends, "To be continued . . ."

What can archaeologists learn from the things they dig up?

A surprising amount of information about people can be gained from the archaeological sites.

  • The style of the artifacts found—the shapes of the arrowheads or the type of decoration on the pottery—can tell the archaeologist how old a site is.
  • Artifacts from far away reveal that people participated in trade networks. Archaeologists find shells from the Gulf of Mexico and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains here in Michigan, and Michigan copper appears at prehistoric sites in those places.
  • Seeds can help archaeologists decide whether the people they are studying moved about frequently, gathering wild plants for food, or stayed in one place for longer periods, growing crops like corn and squash.

Archaeology and the Michigan Relics

Many times in the archaeological record, we have a hole, a missing piece of the puzzle. In the case of the Michigan Relic collections, it seems that we are not missing anything but instead have extra pieces that do not fit.

Richard Stamps
"Tools Leave Marks," 2001

When the Michigan Relics first appeared, most archaeologists labeled them fakes, based on their knowledge of Old World cultures like Egypt and Assyria. Today archaeologists also know a great deal about thousands of Michigan sites. The Michigan Relics don't fit with artifacts from those sites, either.

In addition, these relics have never been found in context with evidence of daily life, like houses, cooking vessels or trash. Nor have there been accidental finds, something one would expect from a culture with so many ceremonial objects.

The Office of the State Archaeologist

There are more than 20,000 recorded archaeological sites in Michigan! About 19,000 are land sites, and about 1,500 are underwater-mostly shipwrecks. They include 10,000-year-old campsites occupied by Paleo Indians, French missions, 19th-century logging camp sites, and farmsteads that were abandoned in the early 20th century.

The Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA), which is part of Michigan's state government, keeps the state's official archaeological site file. When people find sites, whether they are professional archaeologists or someone who finds an arrowhead while planting their garden, they notify the Office of the State Archaeologist. The site is given a number and plotted on a topographic map; information about the site is entered into the site file database.

The information in the site file is used for archaeological research projects in Michigan, and to help prevent sites from being destroyed by construction projects like highways or pipelines. In order to protect archaeological sites from looting and vandalism, the Office of the State Archaeologist does not give out information about the exact locations of sites, unless the information is needed to help preserve them.

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