Beads, rings and datable things

Pictured are the five brass French iconographic finger rings and a sample of the forty-six French glass trade beads that were recovered at the GLO#3 site in Marquette County. It was the analysis of these “diagnostic” artifacts that led archaeologists to the conclusion that the site was occupied by a Native American family during the 1630s. The GLO#3 bead assemblage itself is the oldest collection of trade beads ever discovered together at a documented site in the state of Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — How do archaeologists know how old something is when they find it?

It’s a great question! I know from past field experience that whenever I have uncovered a human artifact from the distant past, the number one question in my own mind is always, “How old is this?”

Of course, every archaeologist who has ever stuck a trowel in the ground will always ask that very same question. And, after having been a public speaker for the past thirty-three years presenting information on the numerous U.P. archaeological projects that I have worked on, the one question that I get over and over again is, “How do you know those artifacts are as old as you say?’

It surely seems like a simple question, but the reality is that there is usually no simple answer. As such, archaeologists quite often don’t know for sure “exactly” how old an artifact may actually be. That’s because pinning exact dates on the past human use of any object(s) or cultural site is usually a complicated process that requires extensive research and in depth follow-up analysis.

In some cases, we can use relative methods, such as stratigraphy, examining the layers of soil and debris laid down on top of one another over time. From this we can say that an artifact found towards the top of an archaeological site is newer than an artifact found at the bottom of a pit (assuming the layers have not been previously disturbed). We can also look at a newly discovered artifact and compare it to examples where the dates are already known. Examples of this could be finding a shard of pottery and matching it to a known manufacturer.

There are also methods of absolute dating using the scientific evaluation of archaeological remains, independent of their relationships with other artifacts. One of the best known methods is radiocarbon dating which measures the carbon 14 levels in organic remains. Since the carbon 14 decay rate is known, the items age can then be calculated. Another method of absolute dating is dendrochronology which examines the number, thickness and density of annual growth rings of ancient trees.

The good news is that such hard work usually pays off and although we may not be able to nail down an exact calendar year of usage or occupation, we usually can narrow down the timing of the suspected human use of most artifacts and sites to certain time periods that help us make sense of the past.

The early fur trade protohistoric era GLO#3 site that was recently excavated in Sands Township is a great example of the extensive follow-up work and analysis that is required to determine the exact time during human history that people were living at this locale. Thanks to that effort to “dig from the dirt” the dates of occupation of this important archaeological site, we can lay claim today that the oldest assemblage of early 17th century French colored glass trade beads ever found and documented in the state of Michigan has been found right here in Marquette County.

We can be proud that the oldest style of the beautifully engraved brass finger rings (known as iconographic/Jesuit rings) to ever to be brought from France to the Great Lakes region for distribution among the indigenous First Nation people, have been uncovered here! And thus, we can locally brag about the age of the GLO#3 site itself, which archaeologist agree dates back to a 1630s occupation!

How we came to make those claims–how we came to the historic conclusions of how old those long lost items really are–will be the subject of the program, “Beads, Rings, and Datable Things: The GLO#3 Site” that will be presented by yours truly Jim Paquette at the Marquette Regional History Center at 6 p.m. on Feb. 7.

I will update everyone on the still ongoing professional analysis of the cultural materials that were recovered at the site during the multi-year excavation project. We will present new information on the progress that has been made by noted regional archaeologists, botanists, and faunal experts in putting together the many pieces of the complex cultural puzzle that this incredible site presented to us.

And, I will answer the big question, “How do you know how old it is?”

I will summarize my own research and analysis of the GLO#3 glass trade beads and the iconographic rings, and in the process, introduce to everyone a family of People who once called this remote inland U.P. winter camp and hunting site their home over 350 years ago!