Can you dig it?

Prehistoric mining focus of field study at Delaware

Graham Jaehnig/Daily Mining Gazette Students of Michigan Tech’s Archaeology Field School carefully work in a trench that is exploring a 19th century test pit (lower right), while the darker color strip running the length of the trench through the middle, is what Carl Blair, project leader, believes is organic material that accumulated in a ditch created during a prehistoric-period of mining.



KEWEENAW COUNTY — The Delaware Mine has a long, confusing history of ownership dating back to 1847 — according to the historical record. Learning more about the original mining done on the property, however, requires archaeology. Near the location of the Delaware Mine is what used to be a deposit of pure copper that, at some point before European contact, was mined out.

In June, Michigan Technological University’s Social Science Department began an archeology field school at the mined-out vein, where a trench has been opened. The faculty and students aren’t looking for copper, though.

The field school was launched as a multiyear program exploring both Native American and European copper mining and life in the region. They are searching for clues and artifacts that hopefully will shed light on the people who originally mined the location and when they were there. The trench that has been opened is a continuation of the vein, said Carl Blair, Ph.D., teaching professor, history and anthropology, anthropology program adviser and one of the faculty leaders of the project. Currently, they are examining two trenches.

The main trench, Blair said, is a continuation of the copper vein that was mined out.

“This is, I’m told, the Kelly vein, named after ‘Somebody’ Kelly,” said Blair.

At some point in the early 1840s, when the property was being explored, the mined-out vein was first encountered. They dug one shaft and a number of test pits, then concluded that it had been mined out at some point in antiquity.

“Which is of course a bummer for them,” said Blair, ” and they worked their way up to what is now the current Delaware Mine, but for us, it’s great.”

It allows the project to explore pre-European, indigenous mining, along with European mining, he explained.

At the south end of the main trench, one of the 1840s exploratory trenches was uncovered.

“And being good mining engineers,” said Blair, “these were put every 15 feet from their test shaft. Between the shaft and their test pit is a distance of 120 feet.”

While the 19th century test pits run across the archaeology trench, there is a narrow, dark stain running through the center of it.

“That is, I believe, the organic material that accumulated in the ‘ditch’ that was left after the vein was mined out,” said Blair. “That’s not very wide. If you’re going to be mining by fire-cracking a rock, there’s no desire to move more than you have to.”

Ideally, he said, what is buried on the site is four meters (approximately 13 feet) of undisturbed, presumably, indigenous work. Part of the goal is to determine the age of the work.

“Whether it’s 300 hundred years old or 8,000 years old, I have no idea,” Blair said, “until we can get down (in depth) and get some carbon dating out. That will be analyzed at the end of this season.”

Blair said the project is slated to continue for 10 to 12 years.

The Michigan Tech Archaeology Field School website states that preliminary work will be done in 2023 to identify potential areas of Native American settlement that will be a focus of future year’s work.

The faculty leaders of the program will include professors Blair, a specialist in early metals, experimental archaeology and public archaeology; Tim Scarlett, a specialist in survey methods and instrumental documentation; and LouAnn Wurst, a specialist in excavation and public archaeology. Cooperating scholars and community members of the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community, Michigan Technological University and the Keweenaw National History Park will also lend their expertise.


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