Digging history

James Schwaderer, right, places an artifact believed to be a piece of pottery in the hand of Patience DeRoo of Paw Paw Thursday as Marcia Taylor, bottom, looks over an item Thursday at the Fort St. Joseph Archeology dig going on in Niles. All are taking part for graduate credit as Western Michigan University students. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ (August 9, 2013)

NILES

Little by little, Fort St. Joseph, the outpost built by French soldiers and their Indian allies that stood for 90 years and pre-dated modern-day Niles by roughly half a century, continues to give up its secrets.

In doing so, it also sheds light on what life was like in the area in the 18th century. Certainly, it wasn’t easy, but it appears those who lived at the fort may have had it easier than many.

Summer field school archaeological studies by students from Kalamazoo’s Western Michigan University have turned up over the last 15 years such artifacts as gun parts, ceramics, copper kettles, animal bones, beads, pipe stems and bowls, mouth harps and arrow heads. The blending of cultures is obvious, said Michael Nassaney, a WMU professor of anthropology and the principal investigator of the fort site on the east bank of the St. Joseph River, a little south of the French Paper Company dam on Bond Street.

At a so-called Media Day event Thursday that served as a preview to this weekend’s open house at the site of the 1691 fort ruled by four countries, Nassaney commented on the ongoing project that has drawn attention both inside and outside the United States.

“This is arguably one of the most important archaeological sites in Michigan,’’ he said.

The biggest revelation of this summer’s six-week dig was a wooden beam that extends from one excavation pit into another. Discovered about three feet beneath the surface of the de-watered site, the beam is believed to have once served as part of a building, most likely a house.

Just above the beam is the stump of a tree that sprung up at some point after the fort was burned by Spanish raiders in 1781. Students speculated that because of the tree, farmers that grew crops on the site years after the fort disappeared plowed around that specific area, helping preserve what was underneath.

Uncovered also near the beam were large stones that once made up part of a wall. Also turned up were nails, a gun part, ceramics, a bear claw, animal bones and daub, or a baked clay substance once used to plug openings in chimneys. The hearth from a fireplace that one likely heated the building also was discovered nearby.

Stephen Staten, 18, a sophomore at WMU who resides in Burton, Mich., said he was working in the pit with fellow student archaeologist Seth Allard, 27, of Kalamazoo, when their trowels revealed the outline of the beam. Initially, he said, neither he nor Allard knew what they’d found.

“It was very, very exciting,’’ he said.

Hayden McKee, 18, a junior at Western and a resident of Lambertville, Mich., said it wasn’t clear to her either what Staten and Allard had unearthed.

“We thought it was a (tree) root ... but then we saw where it had been squared off,’’ she said.

Working in the pit earlier was Mary Ellen Drolet, a Niles volunteer and veteran of such fort digs known for uncovering a religious medallion that’s arguably the fort’s most noteworthy artifact. Her discoveries in the pit where the beam was unearthed, she said, included a large amount of “lead shot,’’ or the type of ammunition commonly used in 18th century hunting weapons.

“Maybe they were making them (lead shot) or someone dropped a bag ... or they were cooking food over here and spitting it out (lead shot) over there,’’ she said.

Pieces of ceramic were discovered in the same pit, Drolet said, indicating the building may have been occupied by “somebody who had some pretty fancy stuff.’’

In yet another pit, students turned up a shoe buckle that at one time was attached to a shoe manufactured in France.

“I thought it was a piece of wire,’’ said Chehallis Robinson, 20, a Howell, Mich., resident and junior at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids who made the discovery. It was left for Anna Gerechka, 20, of Kalamazoo, a junior at WMU, to research the item and determine what it actually was.

Still another pit explored by Aaron Howard, 27, of Traverse City, Mich., turned out to be nothing more than a trash pit. The WMU senior pointed to the outline of a discarded pelvic bone from a deer.

“We think they had pits behind their houses where trash would go,’’ he said.

Apparently, convenience is something that will never go out of style.