A HISTORY OF ARCHAEOLOGY AT CHIPPEWA NATURE CENTER
(Historical Interpreter, Chippewa Nature Center)
[This article is taken from the Oxbow Archaeologists’ publication: The Cater Site: The Archaeology, History, Artifacts and Activities at this Early 19th Century Midland County Site, edited by Dr. David J. Frurip. To find out what the Oxbow Archaeologists are currently doing, visit our home page - THE OXBOW ARCHAEOLOGISTS].
People have lived on the land that is now Chippewa Nature Center for thousands of years. Native groups hunted in fields and forests and fished in rivers here. By the mid-19th century, most of these people were forced out of this area and people of European descent began to clear trees. As forests gave way to farms, the ground quickly began to reveal evidence of ancient peoples here.
For decades, people walked the fields in this area and picked up pieces of broken pottery, arrowheads, and other stone tools. Local people took thousands of prehistoric artifacts from this land in the decades before the founding of Chippewa Nature Center in 1966. Only a few of these private assemblages were donated to the Nature Center and are now part of our collection.
Archaeology comes to Chippewa Nature Center (1968-1973)
Archaeology was first introduced to the membership of Chippewa Nature Center in May 1968, when volunteer Lois Wang wrote “Of Stones and Bones and Pieces of Flint” for CNC News. The newsletter article informed readers why prehistoric artifacts are important to preserve, and familiarized them with the types of stone tools commonly found in mid-Michigan.
With interest in archaeology already growing, the Nature Center hired Fel Brunett as its first full-time naturalist in May 1970. In addition to his skills as a naturalist, Brunett also had prior experience participating in archaeological excavations. Fel lost no time in using his archaeological skills at Chippewa Nature Center, and held the first archaeology field school here in the summer of 1970 (CNC News, July 1970).
The following year, the Nature Center decided to build a new interpretive building on the banks of the Chippewa River. In an effort to salvage any artifacts before construction, volunteers began excavations in earnest on the Sumac Bluff site. Under the direction of Fel Brunett and Michigan State University student Rod McCurdy a crew excavated throughout the summer. The project continued during the 1972 season (Ozker 1976).
In the spring of 1973, the Nature Center obtained additional property on the banks of the Pine River and decided to locate the planned interpretive building here. To accommodate this switch, volunteers began deep plowing the site, searching for concentrations of artifacts. Working ahead of bulldozers, excavators recovered three significant groupings of artifacts at the Naugle site that season (Wang, 1986).
Chippewa Nature Center also received special recognition in 1973 when a portion of its property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Officially known as the “Oxbow Archaeological District,” this recognition underscored the significance and importance of our archaeological resources and provided additional support for their continued protection (Kenaga, 1991).
Field Schools, the Cater Site and Volunteers (1974-1979)
Evidence of the Cater site was first discovered when artifacts were found in a plowed field, not far from the Chippewa River. Initial excavation of the site took place in the summer of 1974, during a six-week field school organized and led by Fel Brunett, in cooperation with Dr. Karen Chavez of Central Michigan University. The first two weeks of the course were spent at the Cater Site (originally name the Ponto site due to a mistaken identity of who actually owned the origianl site in the early nineteenth century), mainly uncovering artifacts from an 1830-1850 European occupation (Brunett, 1999).
Participants spent the second two weeks of the field school excavating at the Naugle site, close to construction going on at the new interpretive building. After the season ended, Dr. Doreen Ozker, of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropoogy, studied the materials recovered from the Naugle site. The Michigan Archaeological Society published her findings in the Michigan Archaeologist in December 1976. Her study of the Sumac Bluff site material appeared in the same issue (Ozker, 1976).
The 1974 field school concluded on an exciting note, with excavations at the Barnes site in western Midland County. The Barnes site dates from about 10,000 years ago, when Michigan’s first residents lived in this area. Due to the importance of the site, University of Michigan Professor Henry Wright provided Jerry Voss as director and interpreter of the excavation (Brunett, 1999). Recovered artifacts, as well as an additional donation of surface-collected materials from the site, now reside in Chippewa Nature Center’s collection.
In 1975, Chippewa Nature Center sponsored another archaeology field school in conjunction with Central Michigan University. The Cater Archaeological Project was set up not only to investigate the early historic occupation of the site, but also to provide an envronment in which instruction in archaeological method and theory could be presented. The field school lasted for five weeks in June and July, during which nearly 26,000 artifacts were recovered.
Chippewa Nature Center published analysis of the season’s work in a report written by Timothy Klinger, entitled, The Cater Site: A Nineteenth Century Homestead on the Chippewa River (Klinger, 1976). In 1976, Fel Brunett conducted another field school at the Cater site, concluding excavation in this area for the remainder of the decade. Although both historical and archaeological questions remained, there followed a period of inactivity at the Cater site that lasted almost twenty years.
TIM KLINGER AT THE CATER SITE (1975)
After Fel Brunett resigned his position in 1976, volunteers once again took over archaeology activities at Chippewa Nature Center. Lois Wang and Marian McClennan, both active in many digs here, taught a weeklong class for junior high students and conducted several salvage excavations. Archaeology also remained a tradition in the Natural History Day Camp program, as it had been for nearly a decade, and in the “Man in the Saginaw Valley” school program (CNC Annual Report, 1978).
Archaeology with Little Forks
Chippewa Nature Center hired Mark Thogerson as naturalist and archaeologist in early 1980. His principal responsibilities included identifying and cataloging artifacts, conducting workshops and working with volunteers. During his short tenure at CNC, Mark organized a chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society at the Nature Center. Officially named the Little Forks Chapter, this group consisted of about a dozen volunteers, most of whom had been active in the Nature Center’s archaeology program for some time. For their first major project, the group conducted an archaeological survey of the areas to be impacted during the construction of the “Tridge” in downtown Midland (CNC News, December 1980).
After Thogerson left in early 1981, the Nature Center abolished the position of naturalist/archaeologist in favor of an historical interpreter. Gary Skory filled this position in March 1982, and also became the Chapter President. The group excavated the future site of a reconstructed log schoolhouse near the Nature Center’s Homestead Farm that summer.
An active group, the Little Forks Chapter met regularly in the 1980’s, hosting guest speakers, giving tours, and offering special programs for the public. They also continued to provide annual demonstrations at the Fall Harvest Festival, maintaining a tradition started in the 1970’s.
Beginning in 1983, the Chapter focused on excavating the Pine Knoll site (originally called the River Bluff and Pine Bluff site). During this time, the group was fortunate to obtain the assistance of professional archaeologist James Payne, then Staff Archaeologist for the Saginaw Archaeological Commission. In 1988, Payne participated in “Archaeological Artifacts Identification Day” where he examined and identified artifacts brought in by visitors to the program. Participants also had the opportunity to tour the Pine Knoll site excavation (CNC News, May 1988).
After Gary Skory resigned in 1988, Jon Cowan joined the Nature Center staff as Historical Interpreter. In addition to his connections with the Little Forks Chapter, Jon developed a new archaeology school program in 1989. Designed for upper elementary students, the program included excavations at the Mapes site, an early 20th century farmstead on Nature Center land.
In the early 1990’s, the Little Forks Chapter continued to sponsor guest speakers and to increase their contact with professional archaeologists. In addition to their traditional winter lecture series, the group held another “Artifacts Identification Day” in December 1990 with archaeologist Scott Beld from Alma College (CNC News, December 1990).
The spring of 1991 brought excitement and change to the archaeology program at the Nature Center. In March, a grant from The Dow Chemical Company made possible the paleoecological study of a bog on the southern part of Nature Center property. Radiocarbon dates for peat samples dated back 8,750 years ago, at which time this area was covered by spruce, birch, willow, sedges and cattails (Kenaga, 1991).
The Little Forks Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society officially disbanded in May 1991. This change occurred for many reasons, including waning attendance at meetings. The remaining volunteers decided to form a more informal group that would be an affiliate member of the Chippewa Nature Center, but not an official part of the statewide organization. In response, the group renamed themselves the Oxbow Archaeologists.
The Oxbow Archaeologists and the Cater Site (1991-1999)
For their first project, the Oxbow Archaeologists explored a site on Nature Center property they believed to be the location of an historic Native American village. Volunteers excavated the Badour Gate site in the spring of 1991 and examined artifacts that winter. Although the group conducted more tests and excavations during the 1992 season, the artifacts recovered did not support the existence of a Native American village in that location.
In 1993, under the co-direction of Dave Frurip and Jeff Graham, members of the Oxbow Archaeologists started researching the historical records and artifacts of the Cater site collected in the 1970’s. While over 26,000 artifacts had been uncovered in previous years, many questions as to the early occupants of the site remained unanswered. The group presented an update of their work at the Nature Center’s Annual Meeting in February 1994.
When Jon Cowan resigned his position as Historical Interpreter in the fall of 1993, dedicated volunteers once again took control of archaeology at the Nature Center, with help from professional archaeologists. On December 8th of that year, the Oxbow Archaeologists surprised longtime volunteer Lois Wang in a special ceremony where she was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award. The honor recognized her longtime contributions to the archaeology program at Chippewa Nature Center (CNC News February 1994).
In 1994, the Oxbow Archaeologists decided to return to the field to excavate an area at the Cater site thought to be the most likely location of a cabin. Due to the inexperience of the group, they invited James Payne, then Adjunct Professor of Archaeology at Saginaw Valley State University, to teach a field school in archaeological techniques before excavations began. After two intensive weekends of instruction, fieldwork started under Payne’s direction in June.
Since the area they were excavating had been a plowed field and artifacts were already disturbed from their original locations, volunteers started digging mainly with shovels and sieves. After removing the disturbed area or “plow zone,” careful excavation continued with trowels while recorders carefully noted the location of each item. During this time, Scott Beld, an archaeology instructor (then at Alma College), joined James Payne to assist in directing archaeological work. Beld took over as director when Payne left Michigan later that year.
In the spring of 1995, Chippewa Nature Center added Kyle Bagnall to its staff as Historical Interpreter. In addition to other duties, Kyle became a member of the Oxbow Archaeologists. Unlike past staff historians, however, he served only as a liaison between the group and the Nature Center, and did not become the official group leader. This was largely a reflection of the progressing professionalism of the volunteer group, and their regular association with professional archaeologists.
As the 1995 season began, the Oxbow Archaeologists returned to the Cater site to excavate a dark stain in the soil they found at the end of the previous season. As they suspected, the stain turned out to be the remains of a cellar from an 1840’s cabin, no doubt one of the earliest Euro-American occupations in Midland County.
At the end of the season, members of the Oxbow Archaeologists assisted Dr. Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist from the University of Michigan, in recovering the remains of a mastodon from a farmer’s field in nearby Sanford. After several hours of searching in cold mud, the group located a skull fragment, the atlas vertebra, part of a rib and a leg bone (CNC News, January 1996). The Oxbow Archaeologists once again became an official Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society (MAS) early in 1996 and quickly proved themselves to be one of the most active and professional chapters in the state. In 1997, the group showcased their Cater site work when they hosted the annual MAS Fall Workshop at the Nature Center, drawing speakers and participants from throughout Michigan.
The Oxbow Archaeologists got assistance with the ever-expanding archaeology collection in 1997 when the Nature Center hired its first Curator of Collections, Dennis Pilaske. Since his arrival, Dennis has authored a collections management policy that sets strict, professional guidelines for all Nature Center collections. He also developed a database to inventory the thousands of artifacts in the general archaeology collection and made significant improvements in collections storage, retrieval, and inventory control.
The Oxbow Archaeologists spent the seasons of 1996-1999 excavating at the Cater site and analyzing the artifacts they found there. Much of this time was focused on a large “midden” or trash layer that extended over an extensive area north of the cabin cellar. The midden contained artifacts from both historic and prehistoric Native American occupations.
The Oxbow Archaeologists Today
Today, the Oxbow Chapter is made up of an active group of avocational archaeologists who meet regularly throughout the year at Chippewa Nature Center. Scott Beld continues to provide the archaeological leadership and directs the group’s activities. Membership is open to anyone over 18 years of age interested in archaeology. Older children (ages 13-17) may also participate if accompanied by an adult.
There are two seasons in archaeology; the digging season (when the weather is suitable in late spring, summer and fall) and the laboratory work. These two activities are equally important, as every hour in the field requires at least one hour of cleaning, sorting and cataloguing the artifacts that are uncovered. The final stage, that of interpretation and documentation, is ongoing throughout the year as new artifacts are found and examined in more detail. Oxbow members may participate in one or all of these activities depending on their interests, knowledge and available time.
Besides their archaeological activities at the dig or in the laboratory, the Oxbow Archaeologists also play a role in informing and educating the public in all aspects of archaeology. For the winter lecture series, which is open to the public, university professors, professional archaeologists, and expert amateurs are invited to speak at the Nature Center. Talks in the past have included a variety of subjects, from the history of Fort Michilimackinac to mastodons in Michigan. Other educational activities include the Fall Festival, an annual Nature Center event where all ages learn how people interact with the environment today and how they have in the past. At this event, the Oxbow Archaeologists share their knowledge of the earliest years in Michigan with exhibits of artifacts and tours of their current excavation site. The group also participates in other community activities such as Riverdays festival in downtown Midland.
For those interested in “hands-on” archaeology, the Oxbow Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society provides a wonderful opportunity to both learn and participate. Field schools and workshops at the Nature Center educate new members and anyone interested in taking part in an archaeological dig. More information on the Oxbow Archaeologists can be obtained through the Chippewa Nature Center by calling (989) 631-0830.
The Michigan Archaeological Society
The Great Lakes region has enjoyed a long, rich and varied history. Much of this history is known, but a great deal of information still lies hidden and waits to be discovered. The Michigan Archaeological Society (MAS) was formed over 30 years ago for people dedicated to unearthing the past. The MAS holds among its primary goals the education of the public toward understanding the importance of preserving our cultural resources.
Members gain access to the MAS through the network of local chapters. These chapters hold monthly meetings during most of the year and often feature speakers from professional, academic and advanced amateur circles. The organization now has hundreds of members in chapters throughout Michigan, including the Oxbow Chapter. In addition to local chapter meetings, the MAS hosts two yearly statewide meetings. The fall workshop includes practical experience with archaeological methods, and the spring annual meeting offers a chance to conduct Society business and features many excellent speakers.
MAS members include professional archaeologists, amateur archaeologists and many people from various backgrounds who are interested in preserving our links to the past. Through the MAS, professionals are offered a chance to report on and present research and new ideas. Amateurs can acquire knowledge from both professionals and their peers, as well as learn about new opportunities for fieldwork. All members receive a subscription to the Michigan Archaeologist, a scholarly journal published by the MAS about 4 times a year, covering archaeological and ethnographic topics in the Great Lakes region. The Michigan Arcahaeologist is alos available to institutions on a subscription-only basis, without membership in the MAS. For more information about the MAS write to: Treasurer, Michigan Archaeological Society, P.O. Box 359, Saginaw, MI 48606.
Michigan Archaeological Society Homepage
“Some Recollections and Observations Concerning 20MD36, the Cater Site, at Chippewa Nature Center, Midland County, Michigan,” September 1999 (unpublished).
Chippewa Nature Center: The First Twenty-Five Years, 1991.
Klinger, Timothy C.
The Cater Site: A Nineteenth Century Homestead on the Chippewa River, December 1975.
The Michigan Archaeologist, December, Vol. 22, 1976.
“The History of CNC’s Archaeology Program,” September 1986. (Appeared in CNC News, October 1986).
Also consulted various issues of Chippewa Nature Center News 1968
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