Digging in a Sandbox

A class, under the direction of Anthropology Professor Dr. Kenneth Mohney, is participating in what might be considered the best field course ever. They are students from Monroe Co. Community College and, thanks to the Adams family of Temperance, they have the opportunity to dig an actual site. This is the kind of hands-on stuff that trumps book learning any day. Of course you need the book learning in order to perform the field work properly, but there is nothing like getting your hands dirty to drive a point home.

It was through the prompting of a friend that I became involved in this dig as a volunteer. I say that  I’m “helping out”  but there is some guilt because I probably get more out of it than actually contributed. So far the urge to squeal like a small child at some of the discoveries has been avoided, but the season is young.

The dig season just began last week and will continue through late June, so there will be more to report in the future (and more incidents of squeal suppression, I am sure). For now I can summarize some initial findings and lay out some background. Normally the background stuff is not especially compelling, but in this case it is crucial to the whole thing. It was the gracious invitation of the Adams’ to open their property to the project. On the land since the 1830’s, the family has long held in interest in their own history as well as the prehistoric past. Both Craig and his father Don are regulars at the dig site – peering in with excitement as the layers of soil are uncovered.  Last year Craig put on a big cook out for the crew at the end of operations.

Don, a youthful man of 83 and quite a scholar in his own right, is able to point out which areas have been previously plowed and which have not (important info. for archaeologists). He pointed to the row of stately Red Pines that border the site and recalled when they planted them some seven decades earlier. Craig brought out a small paper bag and proudly revealed its contents. It contained carefully wrapped examples of “arrowheads” picked from the ground over the years. This humble, yet significant, collection tells a 10,000 year story of occupation.

Only one of the items was a true arrowhead. The rest represented spear points, dart points, and knives – or in the parlance of archaeology: “projectile points.” Included in the collection was a sizable pile of flint flakes – left-overs from the manufacture of stone points. There are hundreds of flakes cast off during the process of making one piece and each can tell a tale if asked. For instance, the black flakes represent a flint source called Upper Mercer in Ohio, while the dirty white ones represent local material from Stony Creek. One large shiny flake – an edible looking shade of caramel – is likely from a location on Lake Huron called Kettle Point.  All this flint reached this location through trade networks.

Among the more complete artifacts (see below), a pair of black Mercer flint spear heads hail from the Early Archaic period and date to around 8-9,000 years ago. Two square based points are of the style popular in the late Archaic around 3,000 years ago and the only arrowhead of the bunch, a triangular thing, is the baby of the bunch at around  1,000 years of age.   A large knife, made of marbled Ohio flint, had an edge that still could slice through sinew or leather.

Early Archaic Point

Late Archaic Point

Woodland Period Arrow Point

The promise of the dig is to uncover the background history that goes with these artifacts. More flakes and a partial projectile point have been found. To date, a few post-hole molds have been discovered which indicate that at one time a wigwam type structure might have been in place.

Late Woodland Pottery (ca. 1,200 years ago) comes up in nearly every square. The pieces range from small to tiny but reveal details of a decoration style known as cord marking. A small paddle, wrapped in a basswood twine, was used to pat the exterior of the pot as it was being formed from moist clay. These marks are distinctive. The pots of the period were often massive in size but there is no hope of gluing all these un-matched pieces together anytime soon.

Woodland Period Pottery (and a few flint flakes)

My naturalist instincts are continually called into play as the dig uncovers various soil insects – of very recent vintage I might add. One especially interesting find (see below) was a soil cocoon of some small species of moth – possibly a cutworm?  Last fall a caterpillar dug into the sandy soil and excavated an earthen chamber about the size of a grape and lined it with silk. There it pupated and awaited the rising soil temperature as a signal to emerge as an adult. Instead, the archaeologists trowel prematurely opened the door. The shiny chestnut brown pupae wiggled in protest as I placed it back in some undisturbed soil.

It is expected that the place will be forced to tell many more historical secrets before the month and the dig proceeds. There is a local story about some gold hidden somewhere on the property – prompted by a shiny cast coin found many years ago by Craig Adams. He pointed to the exact spot located only steps away from one of the open pits. I will return, if still welcomed, to find the true riches of the site  in the form of broken pottery, fragmented flint, and soil stains.


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