WMU professor guides students in Fort St. Joseph archaeological digPublished 1:01pm Tuesday, December 15, 2009
By AARON MUELLER
Niles Daily Star
Since 1998, dozens of Western Michigan University students and faculty members have been unearthing pieces of the past at the Fort St. Joseph archaeological dig in Niles.
Although the people getting their hands dirty at the site get most of the credit for the success of the project, there are others behind the scenes that help shed light on the discoveries.
One of those people is Jose Brandao, the associate chairman of the history department at WMU and the colonial historical consultant for the Fort St. Joseph Project.
Brandao has been involved with the project nearly from the beginning. He started in 1999 just a year after the site was discovered.
He took over for the late Joseph Peyser as the historical consultant in 2003 and his passion for the project has been increasing ever since.
Brandao does the research to be able to understand the significance of the artifacts found at the dig.
“I work with the printed primary sources,” Brandao said. “Most of the students’ background wasn’t on colonial New France, so I help educate them. I interpret what they find and look for things in the documentary record to help interpret what they find.”
Significant discoveries about the fort, which was built by the French in 1691, have been made in the past year.
One of the more interesting finds to Brandao was a cilice, an undergarment the religious used for self-mortification.
“The cilice was one of our most important (discoveries),” Brandao said. “Only the devout would use it in emulating Christ’s suffering. It was a private thing between you and your God. It revealed the devoutness of the community.”
Brandao and his colleague Michael Nassaney went on to publish an article in the July 2008 edition of the Catholic Historical Review about the discovery of the cilice and its significance in our understanding of religious life in New France.
“What’s fascinating about the religious paraphernalia is that this was supposed to be a period where the significance of religion was in decline,” Brandao said. “It seems by the number of artifacts that we have found, we have been too quick to discount the significance of religion in daily life.”
Brandao said working on the project is a nice change of pace from teaching.
“I enjoy the concreteness of it all,” Brandao said. “As historians, we often get big picture stuff. But we’re also fascinated by the minutia of daily life, which is difficult to recover in written record. (With this project), we can reconstruct daily life. It fills in blanks and makes it a much more richer picture of history.”
Brandao said the archaeological work WMU is doing at the site is important to the community.
“Sometimes people forget that these little places were essential to a larger picture,” he said. “New France was a huge span of territory. These outposts helped secure the empire for France. It’s important for us to know the historic past and recognize the strands that created what the community is today.”