Students excavate historic Port Huron site
Port Huron — Students are getting elbows deep digging up artifacts at two sites by the Fort Gratiot Light Station.
About a dozen undergraduate and graduate students from Central Michigan University’s archaeology field school recently began excavating two spots on the historic site.
The site also hosted a three-day, grant-funded archaeology camp for a few local middle-school students to learn from the CMU team, the Port Huron Times Herald reported.
Andrew Kercher, community engagement manager for the Port Huron Museum, said the collaborative effort is concentrating around the location of buildings that are now long gone — the former lighthouse keeper’s dwelling and 1800s privies.
While also beneficial to have the dig visible to the passing public, he said student archaeologists might also be able to answer questions local historians and museum officials are fuzzy on.
“There’s some question as to the fate of the original keeper’s quarters,” Kercher said. The former 19th century quarters were beside where the latest dwelling still stands. “There’s kind of like local lore or legend that it burned down. There’s at least one reference to it being torn down. But that’s not really the same thing. Or maybe they tore down what was left, it’s unclear. But fortunately, archaeology might be able to answer that question.”
A week into their excavation, Sarah Surface-Evans, an associate professor of anthropology at CMU, said they largely found the sort of artifacts that they’d expect to.
But, she said, that’s a good thing.
“So, it was actually really surprising in a good way, we found the privy foundation almost immediately when we started excavating and we found quite a few artifacts in the area of the privy,” Surface-Evans said. “A lot of children’s toys like marbles and part of a porcelain doll. We found a thimble and lots of fragments of bottles. At the area of the house, we have also exposed an area that looks like part of the foundation of the original house, and some of the artifacts we’ve found in that area include buttons, very early ceramics that date to the 1830s and 1850s. We also have found some bottles, medicine bottles, an early glass trade bead, things like that.”
Surface-Evans said they’ve already taken some artifacts they discovered back to CMU. But students also recently showcased several items that they excavated from the site.
At the privy site, they said they’d found a lot of nails, bricks and early building materials.
One student showed a pre-Civil War, 1850s penny; another showed off a small, fully-intact glass bottle. Both had been found by the old keeper’s quarters.
Julian Noyola, an undergraduate from Lansing, pulled out two small porcelain fragments – each with organ designs etched in.
“(The) 1800s were very ornate with their dishes and stuff,” he said. “They really liked to have cool-looking things, which is great for us to look at later. But finding these things helps show what was culturally kind of sought after in dishware. It shows what somebody would’ve wanted in their house. … It’s very interesting to get these things – they’re interesting finds.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the archaeology camp students had just finished up lunchtime activities and were waiting to get started with field students.
A few watched around the privy site, as markings were lined up to dig a second privy hole, and another helped sift through dirt at the side of the site.
Surface-Evans said their ongoing excavation comes in follow up to survey the school did in late 2016.
“In 2016, Dennis Delor contacted me and said that we interested in having some archaeology done at the site as part of their 20-year plan for restoring the site and developing the museum component of it,” she said.
Delor is a special events, marketing and volunteer coordinator for St. Clair County Parks and Recreation. The county owns the historic light station site, where the museum manages programs.
For the survey, Surface-Evans said the process involved shovel testing – digging little holes in a grid pattern – and ground-penetrating radar “based on some historic maps they sent us.”
“At that time, they were really excited about the results,” she said.
Kercher and Lauren Nelson, site manager at the lighthouse, said existing photographs and other documents helped to show where the current dig sites would be located.
CMU’s excavation is expected to wrap up June 29.
Afterward, the program will take back the discovered artifacts to be processed. Some materials like bricks or building debris will be logged but left in the site, Surface-Evans said, while the rest will be taken back to CMU.