ISHPEMING - Twenty-five years ago, the Upper Peninsula was going through a warm spring. Much like this year, the snow had melted early, leaving the ground bare, allowing local amateur archaeologists Jim Paquette and John Gorto to make the most important finds in the history of the region.
Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the finding of the Gorto Site on the north shore of Deer Lake, the discovery of a cache of 10,000-year-old spear points that proved humans have lived in the U.P. since the end of the last ice age.
"It was utterly amazing," Paquette said
John Gorto, left, and Marla Buckmaster, members of the original Gorto Site excavation team, are shown working at the site in this 1987 photo. (Jim Paquette photo)
Spear points that were discovered at the Gorto Site on Deer Lake in 1987. (Jim Paquette photo)
Although he went on to discover many other archaeological sites, some older, Paquette said the Gorto Site remains the most important because it opened professional archaeologists up to the idea that Paleo Indians had hunted, lived and died in the area.
Inspired by his grandfather and his ancestry rooted in both the Native American and French Canadian inhabitants of the area, Paquette found his first arrowhead at the age of 9 and decided as an adult to find out more about not just his recent ancestry, but his ancient ancestors.
"Virtually nothing was known in the 1980s when I started this," he said. "Certainly nothing was known about the prehistory of Marquette County. "The only way to change it was to go out and locate historical sites and document them. I was as amateur as you could get."
Originally starting on the north shore of Teal Lake in 1984, Paquette found some copper artifacts, mainly using a metal detector. While he hunted, he began noticing a number of stone artifacts - stone tools - also lying on the ground, which dated further and further back in time.
With those stone tools in mind, Paquette set out to prove what the established archaeologic wisdom said was impossible - that Paleo Indians lived in Marquette County just after the last ice age.
But to do that, he would need to find what is called a diagnostic artifact an artifact specific to that group of people that was only made during that time period. Paquette needed to find a spear point made of Hixton Silicified Sandstone, the favored raw material of the Paleo Indians.
In the winter of 1985 and 1986, a friend showed Paquette exactly what he was looking for - an 11,000-year-old spear point that he had found while fishing on Silver Lake. The problem was, the find and its location hadn't been properly documented, so the state archaeologist wouldn't accept it as proof.
Undeterred, Paquette went back to work. Coincidentally, in the fall and winter of 1985, the Deer Lake Basin had been drained as part of an environmental project, reducing the lake from 900 acres to its original size of 100 acres, exposing land that had long been covered with water.
Paquette then began working with friend John Gorto of Ishpeming. In 1986, they found a variety of tools, but no spear points.
Then the warm spring of 1987 hit. The snow was gone and the lake water was still down, so the pair headed once again to the Deer Lake Basin. They had been looking in an area on the northeast shore of the lake when Gorto spotted something.
"He hollered to me, 'Jim, you've got to come see this,'" Paquette said. "He was kneeling down and was pointing down at the ground. I knew he had found something great."
At the end of Gorto's fingertips was a 10,000-year-old Hixton Silicified Sandstone spear point.
As they stood staring at the ground, they saw another and another - an entire collection of spear points concentrated in the area they were standing in.
"It was the find of a lifetime. It was going to rewrite everything we knew about our prehistory," Paquette said.
But the work had only just begun. Instead of picking up all the pieces they could find, Paquette and Gorto carefully left the site and called Marla Buckmaster, a friend who was then a professor of archaeology at Northern Michigan University. The next day, Gorto, Paquette and Buckmaster, along with Buckmaster's student John Anderton, returned to the site with tools, flags and cameras, ready to document the placement, orientation and appearance of each of the spear points.
Only after every piece of evidence at the site was photographed and noted on several graphs could they actually touch their find.
"It was like magic," Paquette said. "You think about the fact that you're the first person to pick this up in 10,000 years."
The site took a full day to document, with several other days devoted to excavating the site. A late spring snowstorm, however, delayed the work. And, as the basin had begun to be refilled, rising water turned the project into a rushed salvage operation before the site was once again covered in water.
In the end, the group found 36 spear points, some intact, some broken enough evidence to prove Paquette's theory that people had lived in the U.P. long before prior thinking had deemed possible. It was the largest collection of such spear points found in one place in North America.
"It had been the greatest day in Upper Peninsula archeology and we had experienced it," Paquette said. "The thing I remember is how quiet everybody was. Everybody was just immersed in their own thoughts. I just felt like we weren't alone."
Because of evidence of burning on the spear points and similarities to sites in Wisconsin, Paquette said he believes the Gorto Site is the location of a cremation, with the spear points serving as an offering or memento of the person who was laid to rest there.
That find, more than any other, changed the way archaeologists thought about the prehistory of the U.P.
"It opened everyone's eyes," Paquette said. "Even if it had only been one (spearhead) it would have been a great find. ... It's not the artifact. It's what you learn from the artifact."
That collection is now housed in Lansing, under the care of the state archaeologist, but for the team that worked to uncover it, Paquette in particular, it remains an important moment.
"It allowed that whole avenue of research to fly open," Paquette said.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.