An education in digging in the dirtPublished 8:59pm Thursday, August 12, 2010
By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star
At the entrance to the site of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project, an active dig site just off the St. Joseph River in Niles, there are two very distinct sounds.
First is that of the river rushing past, brushing up against the shore, moving toward the dam at the south end of Riverfront Park.
The second is the sound of a running motor, which is pumping water from the river to the site, where archaeological students sift through the earth for clues into the fort’s history.
Since 2002, Michael Nassaney has been bringing his students to Niles for ongoing excavation of the area. He had been working with the City of Niles, the Fort St. Joseph Museum and Support the Fort since 1998 in the hope of making the project a reality.
“He’s been a great guy to work with,” Niles City Administrator Terry Eull said of Nassaney, addressing a sizable crowd who got a preview of the site, which will hold an open house to the public this weekend. “I attribute a lot of the success down here to him.”
Eull was just one of many who took part in the first look Thursday morning, including county Commissioner John LaMore and state Rep. Sharon Tyler.
“It’s education, to know your history,” Tyler said of the value of the fort to the city. “To have this here as an asset is unbelievable.”
Students have recovered from the site a multitude of artifacts including glass beads and decorative crosses, animal bones and evidence of living quarters.
Tyler said the site also speaks to the way business was done in the 18th century as well as “why we’re the ‘City of Four Flags.’”
“It’s what Michigan is,” she said. “You lose the past history, you have nothing.”
Inside a roped off and carefully dug section of the site, Emily Powell, a graduate student at Western Michigan University, is slowly and carefully combing at the earth as Nassaney educates onlookers.
Before her is a gathering of stones, which Nassaney said were most likely pulled from the river bank.
“We’re really excited about this,” he said.
The stones are evidence that the ground Powell is standing on is the former site of an old hearth.
“What we’re looking for is changes in soil color,” Powell explained.
“These haven’t been moved since they were laid down,” Nassaney added.
The oxidation in the soil, shows evidence of fire and Powell is able to point out the remnants of ash.
“So someone was sitting in front of this on a February night in the 18th century,” Nassaney said. “In front of the light of a fireplace and embroidering.”
As the group moves on to learn more about what the group has discovered during this year’s dig, Powell reflects on the evolution of the site since she began working with the project at its start in 2002.
She is now laboratory coordinator in charge of other students at the dig.
Through all of the group’s discoveries, the biggest change Powell said she’s noticed over the last eight years has been the increase in community involvement and interest.
“The level of involvement with the community has just grown exponentially,” she said.
The Fort St. Joseph site is hosting an open house Saturday and Sunday.
“We’re answering more and more questions all the time,” Powell said of the group’s work. And the community seems to fuel them even more.
“It’s so much fun,” she said. “It’s like you build it and they’ll come and it just justifies what we’re doing here.”