Industrial Archaeology: Field goes beyond record to find escaped history

Photo MTU Archives 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 — Michigan Technological University’s Industrial Archaeology (IA) Program trains students to go beyond the written record in studying the past. There is much to history that escaped the written record, and archaeology’s task is to capture it.

“Industrial archaeologists record, interpret, and preserve industrial and engineering-related artifacts, sites, and systems in their cultural and historical contexts,” Michigan Tech’s IA website states. “Industrial archaeology generally applies to the study of industry since the Industrial Revolution, and it can include sites as old as 17th-century iron forges or as recent as 20th-century steel mills.”

The Michigan Tech IA Program has conducted field schools in places like West Point Foundry, New York; Anchorage, Alaska; the Island of Nevis, and many other locations since the program began. The program has also conducted field schools locally, adding to the historical record that had previously been unknown. One such site is the Cliff Mine in Keweenaw County.

Photo MTU Archives The Peters obelisk found in the Protestant cemetery at the Cliff Mine in Keweenaw County provides several leads on what life was like in the mining community that existed there during the mine’s operation.

The Cliff Mine Archaeology Project began during the 2009-10 academic year, according to Tim Scarlett, associate professor of Archaeology and Anthropology at Michigan Tech.

“That year was a real crisis in Michigan and the entire nation,” Scarlett said. “Nobody had funds to support fieldwork or research. Sean Gohman (who at the time was a graduate student) was looking around for projects and he essentially decided that if he was going to do a project with no financial support, he wanted to work on what he considered the coolest and most interesting site in the Copper Country: the Cliff Mine.”

Archaeology is more than going out and digging a hole in the ground. It requires extensive historical research that can take months and even years to conduct.

“We almost always start with mapping. That was the case at Cliff,” Scarlett said. “Sean Gohman spent time before the field (school) poring over the historic maps in the archives. He built a geographic information system database of the maps. Then we spent the entire summer mapping the site with different surveying tools, and then Sean spent another year in the archives studying the primary documents about the Cliff. It took him a year working to get the field maps we made to match the historic maps. After months of work, he could finally point to spots on the ground and say, ‘You Are Here!'”