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Digging in the Sands

History center, others involved in excavation project

These rare early French glass trade beads are some of the items found in a recent archaeological excavation project in Sands Township. The site has been the focus of a western Great Lakes regional study for many years. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — The Marquette Regional History Center, in cooperation with the Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., has completed a three-week archaeological excavation project at the circa 1630s GLO No. 3 site located in Sands Township.

This important Marquette County cultural site has been the focus of western Great Lakes regional study for the past two decades by numerous archaeologists and historians who research the early Native/Euro contact period here in north-east North America.

The period is known as the “protohistoric period,” a time when local resident aboriginal peoples were making their first contacts with early French explorers, traders and settlers from what is today Canada, or New France.

The 2021 excavation was headed up by Negaunee resident archaeologist and longtime MRHC member Jim Paquette. Paquette also participated in past onsite professional investigations at the GLO No. 3 site with Northern Michigan University archaeologists Dr. Marla Buckmaster (retired) and the late Dr. John Anderton in 1999, 2000, 2012 and 2013.

Although the identification of pre-contact cultural groups in the Great Lakes is difficult, these earlier excavations produced conclusive onsite evidence of a protohistoric “probable” local Anishinaabe family’s winter hunting encampment.

Thousands of fragments of processed/cooked/ burned animal bone from several moose, beaver, otter and other animals were found within the buried occupation features, along with stone arrow points and other stone tools.

Most notably, however, the excavations uncovered a small but incredible collection of early pre-1650 French trade/gift items.

Among the early French trade/gift items found on the past digs were 46 colored glass trade beads, five brass iconographic (Jesuit) finger rings, fragments of a glass hoop earring, a pair of iron scissors, an iron eyed-needle, the tip of an iron butcher knife and fragments of cut brass kettle fragments.

Based primarily upon the previous identification of the ages of the glass trade beads and the associated brass finger rings, Paquette and others were able to establish the probable chronological placement of the GLO No. 3 site’s protohistoric occupation, that being during the 1630s. As such, the excavated central Upper Peninsula GLO No. 3 site has been identified as being the earliest such early contact site in the state of Michigan.

The MRHC’s recent August excavation at the site allowed researchers to further map the extent of the habitation feature, and also what is believed to be an “outside” food processing and cooking area. Seven additional early 17th century glass trade beads were found, along with a large stone lined hearth and dozens of fragments of moose and other animal bone.

Besides Paquette, many other individuals volunteered to work at the site excavation, including a large contingent of Paquette’s family members. Paquette said, “What made this recent excavation even more special was that my wife Karen, brother Dave, cousin Sue Belanger and numerous grandchildren as well as two of my nieces worked at the site. As our Metis family is of French-Canadian and Anishinabek decent, this was a very special way for us as a family to recognize and honor our ancestors.”

In addition to the Paquette family members, staff members Betsy Rutz and Jessica Bays from the MRHC participated in the August dig, as well as Negaunee resident, avocational archaeologist Randy Champion.

Of great help to the dig were noted professional archaeologists Dr. Terry Martin of Springfield, Illinois, and Dr. Luc Litwinionek, who came from Connecticut to help. NMU provided archaeological excavation equipment for the dig.

All of the recovered cultural material has been brought to the Marquette Regional History Center for curation, cataloging and the required analysis. MRHC Executive Director Cris Osier said, “We are very excited and thankful for this opportunity to work once again with Cliffs and Jim. The GLO No. 3 dig gives incredible insight on the history of this region. Once processed, this new information will add to our current display on the GLO No. 3 dig. I encourage everyone to learn more here at the History Center.”

Paquette called it “a one-in-a-million western Great Lakes” early cultural site.

“We have, for the very first time, uncovered direct evidence of how a family of regional people toughed out the U.P. winter back at a time when there were no grocery stores and when it was totally up to everyone in that family to focus on their survival,” Paquette said. “Also, the discovery of these incredible early French trade/gift items at this isolated Marquette County site is of tremendous importance to anyone and everyone who studies that incredible but yet foggy time in our cultural history when two very different worlds were coming, for the very first time, face-to-face with one another.”

The MRHC is a private nonprofit organization established in 1918 with permanent and special exhibits, a research library and a gift store at 145 W. Spring St., Marquette. Visit www.marquettehistory.org for more information.

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