Mackinac State Historic Parks Celebrates 60 Years as America’s Longest-Running Archaeological Dig

Mackinac State Historic Parks archaeological program began its 60th consecutive season of work at Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City earlier this summer.

In 1959, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission contracted with Michigan State University to carry out a season of excavation, which has continued every summer since, turning into one of the longest ongoing archaeological digs in North America.

Today, Dr. Lynn Evans serves as the Curator of Archaeology for MSHP, a position she has had since 1996. She has been a part of the Michilimackinac team since 1989.

“It is truly amazing to be part of something so big,” Evans said. “When I learned about Michilimackinac in college, I never imagined I would run the project one day. I feel a great responsibility to maintain the tradition and pass it along some day.”

The commission hired its first staff archaeologist, Dr. Lyle Stone, in 1969, once it became apparent that archaeology at Michilimackinac was a full-time job. This was after the majority of the west half of the fort was excavated throughout the 1960s. Work moved outside the palisade walls in the early 1970s with the construction of the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center, and resumed inside the fort in 1974. Work has been done inside Colonial Michilimackinac ever since.

The most notable building excavated in the 1970s was the most intact building at Colonial Michilimackinac, the powder magazine. In the 1980s, the home of Ezekiel Solomon, Michigan’s first Jewish settler, was excavated. Work continued in the southeast corner of the fort throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s. In 1998, archaeologists returned to the southwest corner of the fort to tie together current results with excavations done in the 1960s.This project resulted in the reconstruction of the South Southwest Row House in 2013.

Current work inside Colonial Michilimackinac is at House E in the Southeast Rowhouse, a project that enters its 11th season in 2018. Evans guesses that there are at least six more seasons worth of work at the site, depending on various things, such as the depth of the root cellar at the site.

More than 1,000,000 artifacts have been unearthed at Colonial Michilimackinac, with more added each season. The sheer quantity and relatively short time frame the fort was occupied are a big part of what makes the collection notable. Beyond that it mostly depends on a given persons particular interests. Michilimackinac has yielded excellent examples of military items, trade goods, and religious objects. The best artifacts are on display in Treasures from the Sand, the archaeology exhibit at Colonial Michilimackinac, and in the book Keys to the Past: Archaeological Treasures of Mackinac, written by Evans.

Work has not been confined to Colonial Michilimackinac, though. The British water well, located near the Post Commissary at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, was definitively located in 1965 and excavated in 1980-81. The most recent archaeological project at Fort Mackinac was the testing and excavation associated with the repair of the Fort Mackinac wall, done in 2000-01. Other projects on Mackinac Island include an archaeological survey of the Wawashkamo Golf Course, site of the 1814 battle for Mackinac Island, by a team from the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology in 2002. Additionally, excavation of the Biddle House privy in the 1970s took place and the excavation of a pre-contact site during the conversion of the Indian Dormitory into The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.

The most extensive archaeological work done outside Colonial Michilimackinac occurred at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, where archaeology played a key role in the development of the site. After the site was re-discovered in 1972, excavations carried out in 1973, 1974, and 1975 revealed the remains of the dam, a ca. 1790-1810 house and separate workshop, and a ca.1820-1840 house and forge combined in one building.

Additional excavations carried out in 1979 and 1980 completely exposed the dam. Between 1984 and 1994, the excavation of the ca. 1820-1840 Millwright’s House was completed and additional work was done on the Campbell House and two unidentified structures in the historic area. Work has also been done at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse that uncovered a privy where the barn had been located, as well as a free-standing privy site near the reconstructed warehouse.

Work will continue at Colonial Michilimackinac and the various MSHP sites as it provides a clearer look at the historic residents of the Straits of Mackinac. “We are still learning from it,” Evans said. “It gives us a glimpse into the fascinating details of daily life that weren’t written down, and insight into those who didn’t leave written records.

“We’ve (also) learned a lot about diet,” Evans continued. “We’ve learned, in a very tangible way, about the variety and quality of objects the people before us used, and how well-connected Michilimackinac was to the wider world. We’ve learned how creative they were in answering the challenges of the Great Lakes environment, including adopting Odawa and Ojibwa technology.”

Dr. Evans and the archaeology crew are out at Colonial Michilimackinac every day until August 25, weather depending, and the archaeology dig is part of daily programming at the site.

Mackinac State Historic Parks, a family of living history museums and parks in northern Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, is an agency within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Its sites—which are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums—include Fort Mackinac, Historic Downtown Mackinac, The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, and Mackinac Island State Park on Mackinac Island, and Colonial Michilimackinac, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park in Mackinaw City. Mackinac State Historic Parks is governed by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, established in 1895 to protect, preserve and present the parks’ rich historic and natural resources for the education and recreation of future generations. 

What do archaeologists do in the winter?


By Dr. Lynn Evans, Curator of Archaeology – Mackinac State Historic Parks

Archaeological excavation has taken place at Michilimackinac, in Mackinaw City, every summer since 1959, making it one of the longest on-going projects of its kind in North America. The excavation takes place within the palisade walls of Colonial Michilimackinac State Historic Park, in full view of visitors to the fort. One of their most common questions, after “What are you looking for?” is “What happens in the winter?”

Late in August, after the last dirt is excavated and sifted, and the last map is drawn, the archaeological team packs the site for winter. Exposed charred wood timbers from the house are sprayed with preservative and covered with plastic tubs. The entire site is lined with plastic sheeting and filled with bales of straw. This protects it from rain and snow until the site is re-opened in late May.

The summer archaeology crew goes back to the rest of their lives, graduate school, teaching and other jobs, and family. Mackinac State Historic Parks [MSHP] Curator of Archaeology Dr. Lynn Evans and lab assistant Erin Meekhof Sturgill turn to the seldom-seen indoor part of archaeology. All season, as artifacts are excavated, they are placed in bags marked with what square, level, and soil type they come from. These are taken to the archaeology lab in the Service Center on the park grounds.

The first step is to clean the artifacts. Glass, ceramic, and animal bone can be carefully washed. Metal artifacts are gently brushed. The artifacts are packaged in archivally-stable containers and put back in their context bag. Each context (square, level, soil type) is assigned a catalog number.

Once the numbers are assigned, the artifacts and/or artifact containers, depending on artifact size, are marked with the catalog number. A catalog sheet is created for each context bag. Artifacts are identified and described in as much detail as possible, and counted or weighed. This information is entered into MSHP’s computerized collections database.

The artifacts are then stored by type, that is, ceramics with other ceramics from the fort, beads with beads, and so on. They are always connected back to their original context, or provenience, by their catalog number. All of the MSHP archaeology collections are stored at the Petersen Archaeology and History Center in Mackinaw City. By the time all of these steps are complete, it is early spring and time to plan a new excavation season. The artifacts remain safe in their secure, climate-controlled facility until they are needed for exhibits or study by researchers.

For the past ten seasons, the archaeology team has been excavating a fur traders’ house. This house was one unit in the southeast rowhouse at Michilimackinac. A rowhouse is like a townhouse or condominium, several independently owned houses in one larger structure. At Michilimackinac these were an efficient use of space and easier to heat in the winter.

In 1749 a French military engineer named Lotbiniere drew a map of Michilimackinac, and labeled each house. The house currently being excavated is labeled Gonneville for Charles Henri Desjardins de Rupallay de Gonneville, who traded at Michilimackinac from c1727 -1754. He owned this house as late as 1758. By 1765, according to a map drawn by British Lieutenant Perkins Magra, the house was occupied by an unnamed English trader.

The house site is incredibly rich, and every day we find small items that might have fallen through the cracks in the floorboards, such as bones from the trader’s meals, especially fish bones, seed beads and lead shot. We also find larger artifacts. This summer was particularly rich in trade goods. Notable artifacts included three pieces of trade silver, including a triangular pendant, a cone and a circular brooch. Trade silver is a good time marker for the British fur trade in the Great Lakes region, but has not been commonly found at Michilimackinac. Other adornment items included several buttons, a buckle frame, and two brass rings with glass or “paste” stones.

A more personal, rather than trade good, find was a small cast brass crucifix. It is 1.5” tall and 1” wide. The letters INRI appear above the crucified body of Christ, and a skull, signifying Golgotha, the place of the skull, as the site of the crucifixion, is at the bottom of the cross.

In addition to artifacts, we find evidence of the structure itself. Late in the season we found a row of burnt posts from a previously unknown interior house wall. They extend north into an unexcavated area. We are only a little over halfway done excavating this house.  Who knows what discoveries await in 2018 and beyond?

Lynn L.M. Evans is the Curator of Archaeology for Mackinac State Historic Parks, a position she has held since 1996.  She began excavating at Michilimackinac in 1989 while conducting research on craft industries.  A native of Cincinnati, Lynn holds a B.A. in anthropology and museum studies from Beloit College and a Ph.D. in American Civilization – Historical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.  She resides with her husband, Jim, in Mackinaw City.

NOTE: Mackinac State Historic Parks will reopen for the 2018 season in early May (please check for specific dates for individual parks).