False move blows up history: Industrial sites often have complicated archaeologies

MTU Archives photo Once a thriving, profitable mine, the Cliff contained very few physical remains by the time this photograph was taken in 1905, presenting a challenge to archaeologists wanting to create an accurate map of the former surface plant.

HOUGHTON — Conducting an archaeological project is not a cheap proposition, as Tim Scarlett, associate professor in Michigan Tech’s Industrial Archaeology Program knows. Even before the initial planning for a potential site begins, the IA program staff seeks financial help.

“Our typical approach has always been to find collaborating partners who need help with a problem related to historical or heritage resources in agencies (like the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, or Michigan Department of Natural Resources), community organizations (heritage organizations like historical societies) or private landowners and/or patrons,” Scarlett said.

In addition to covering a project’s expenses, the program also helps the field school students.

“We try to find projects where we can use budget funds to support graduate student researchers, since they already have a bachelor degree and usually also have student debt from their undergraduate studies,” Scarlett said. “We don’t want to use them as slave laborers on work. Our partner generally provides some funds that we use to cover direct costs of the project and create student scholarship money, then the faculty chase down matching funds from other sources to stretch the money as far as we can. We often must get very creative. While high-tech researchers can win big grants for their work, archaeology and history generally works with very small budgets and gifts.”

When the Cliff Mine archaeology aroject began in 2010, Scarlett said, it began with no funding. IA graduate student Sean Gohman searched for a local site on which to conduct a project.

“Sean’s interest started the whole ball rolling. Sam Sweitz and I helped him by running a series of field schools,” Scarlett said, “and we built a group of supporters for the project, through generous grants from the Kweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission and private donors. The Keweenaw County Road Commission was a great partner, allowing us access to do our work.”

Selecting a site and trying to find funding is just the beginning of the long, complex process.

“We spent a year mapping before we even started to think about shovel testing or excavation,” Scarlett said. “The Cliff is a complicated site, and we needed to know where we were in space before we started any digging. Digging is slow, expensive and labor-intensive.

“We also destroy the site as we dig it up. You can never re-excavate a site. If you make a major mistake, you’ve blown away history. Therefore we try never to dig before we are as prepared as possible, armed with historic information.”