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Smart Archaeology in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks Panorama4609Res
Pictured Rocks Panorama4609Res by Mike Hainstock

Former NMU student Tyler Weesen getting a GPS point on an ancient shoreline feature
Former NMU student Tyler Weesen getting a
GPS point on an ancient shoreline feature

Researchers from the Northern Michigan University geography department have completed a three-year project at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore that uncovered 23 new archaeological sites and reconstructed the Nipissing shoreline as it looked about 4,500 years ago. NMU Geography Department Head John Anderton said the National Park Service supported the effort to locate cultural resources so they remain protected in future plans for road improvements and other developments.

In the first year of the project, satellite imagery was used to identify distinct land forms—notches, ridges and barriers—created by wave action to map the older shorelines. They found that the water was 30-40 feet higher than it is today.

“Today, Pictured Rocks is seen as a barrier with the cliffs and long stretches of beach,” Anderton said. “It’s not very habitable. But if you go back a while, there were nice places for people to live. There were embayments, or shallow water lagoons that had a variety of fish and plants; everything a hunter-gatherer would need.”

NMU student Claire Kitzman shovel-testing in the park
NMU student Claire Kitzman
shovel-testing in the park

In year two the satellite imagery was combined with GIS modeling archaeological sites from Robert Legg, who documented the GPS locations of established sites and made comparisons across the area to find similar sites. In the final phase final phase of the project, the model was tested by shovel testing for artifacts, mainly rock material such as quartzite flakes or shatter left behind from making tools. NMU professor Robert Regis created digital elevation models which allowed Anderton and students to key in on spots around the Miner’s, Mosquito and Chapel areas and Beaver Lake.

“In the past, you might do a hundred tests and find nothing. But one out of four of ours unearthed artifacts,” Anderton said. “That’s called smart archaeology. The big surprise is there were six brand new sites in Miner’s and another six at Mosquito. Radiocarbon dating put them at over 2,000 years old. They were most likely small, short-term campsites where individual families stayed; it wasn’t the full-blown villages that have been found on Grand Island. The implication is that springtime fishing drew people in.

“The park benefits from this study because they know where artifacts are and they can avoid, for example, putting a group campsite on an archaeological location. They can’t do that legally, but they didn’t know what to preserve because it had been hard to find evidence of ancient people’s activities at Pictured Rocks; it’s so heavily wooded. Interpreters will also be able to describe Native American use of the park. Before, they thought it ended about 2,000 years ago. Now we know it was used during the Archaic period. It would take more extensive reconstruction factoring in glaciers to explore whether human activities at the park date back to the Paleo-Indian era.”

Very cool to see the latest in computer science having a significant impact in old-school fieldwork!

UPDATE: Thanks to John Anderton for the cool photos from NMU’s field work!