Last week in Grand Portage an unexpected archaeological find occurred in Lake Superior just offshore from the historic national monument.
Bob Walker was contracted to work on the Grand Portage National Monument’s dock replacement project. Right now it’s in the excavation stage, and Bob has been using heavy equipment to dig out the dock’s old cribs. All the material being dug up gets dumped from the jaws of the excavator onto the deck of a small barge. It was during this process that Bob made the find.
“Well, I just dumped a bucket full of stuff on the barge and washed it off with the water and that’s where it was just shining me in the eye,” says Bob.
It was a piece of copper that caught Bob’s attention—a scrap left over from what at one time had been part of a copper kettle. At first he didn’t think much of the find, but when he saw Dave Cooper’s eyes light up he knew it was a big deal. Dave is the chief of resource management at the national monument.
“It was a pretty exciting find. It was great that the guys saw it and recognized what it was and stopped the operation,” Dave says.
Bob unearthed a lot of material. Doug Birk, a professional archaeologist, is working with Dave and others at the monument to unlock the puzzle that surrounds this find.
“This may be the biggest find; just the trade kettle portion of this is one of the largest collections made in the history involved in archaeological finds related to the fur trade. It’s just an uncanny and unusual collection to suddenly have in your hands,” says Doug.
Before the monument went ahead with the dock rebuild it sent a team of archaeological divers out to scout around the dock area for any potential historical artifacts. Nothing significant was uncovered because all the material was embedded in the rock-filled cribs supporting the dock. Without a backhoe, or a large piece of machinery, it was impossible to get at. Dave Cooper says the monument staff aren’t clear on how and why all the material ended up there.
“My guess is maybe sometime about 1931 when that park dock was built, someone was just doing some cleaning up around the fort—before it was even a reconstructed fort it was a farmstead and commercial fishing operation—and all this scrap metal was lying around, maybe from the old blacksmiths’ shops, and they just threw it into the cribs, just to get rid of it. But it’s all historic material. And some of it probably dates back 200 years or so. So, it was a pretty exciting find,” says Dave.
There were all kinds of odds and ends unearthed by the backhoe. Given that whoever tossed all these scraps into the crib saw it all as a pile of trash to be rid of; it’s easy to wonder what besides its age makes it so significant.
But Dave says, “It’s amazing how just little, trivial things like this really let you get into the heads of people from 200 years ago, in terms of the very nitty-gritty details of their lives, and what they used and what was functional and what didn’t work.”
Dave and Doug both insist that discoveries like this build our understanding about the people who lived before our time. A quick study of the kettle fragments and you can tell, these objects were used and repaired and reused until they were exhausted.
“In our lives, we would probably just say this is garbage, and it goes to the landfill,” says Doug. “In their lives, they probably held on to this for whatever reason, because they thought maybe someday they would need that little piece of metal or they could re-craft that wrought iron into something else that’s useful.”
A close look at the objects with the guidance of experienced archaeologists and one begins to realize just how thrifty people were in the past.
Dave says archaeologists have learned a lot from finds such as the one unearthed last week.
“The preferences the Natives had on this stuff was extremely important to what was bought and sold. There’s kind of a myth in American history that [white people] schlepped off junk on them, but they were actually pretty demanding customers. If they didn’t like what was being traded, they wouldn’t trade, and then all of a sudden you’ve got a load of trade goods that you can’t get rid of. So, they were very careful to try and find suppliers that would do things to the specifications of the Native customers, and that’s one interesting thing [in] looking at all these different types of kettles or the evolution of trade in muskets, any of the trade goods, is watching Native preferences change, suppliers change, things that may not have been a successful product.”
Over the coming weeks, monument staff will be poring over all the pieces of this new and exciting collection.