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Public gets look at findings from 18th-century fort

July 16, 2008

KALAMAZOO--Western Michigan University archaeologists are plumbing the depths of Southwest Michigan's history, and members of the public will have a chance to see what they've learned during a July 26-27 open house at the Fort St. Joseph archaeological site dig in Niles, Mich.

An open house offering the public a detailed look at the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project and 18th-century life will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 26, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, July 27, to highlight the history and archaeology of Fort St. Joseph. The mission, garrison and trading post complex was occupied from 1691 to 1781 along the St. Joseph River in what is now the city of Niles.

Along with a look at the excavation site and the work taking place there, visitors to the open house will be able to see demonstrations of 18th-century life and watch historical re-enactors recreate the lives of Great Lakes canoe voyageurs, militia members and craftsmen. They also will re-enact such events as the Fort St. Joseph Siege.

Since 1998, WMU faculty researchers and students have been working to identify, investigate and interpret the physical remains of Fort St. Joseph, one of the most important Colonial outposts in the western Great Lakes. WMU has conducted its annual archaeological field school at the site since 2002 in partnership with the city of Niles, Fort St. Joseph Museum and Support the Fort, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving the fort's history.

"This is one of the rare opportunities in the Eastern United States for people to visit a working archaeological dig," says Dr. Michael Nassaney, principal investigator and WMU professor of anthropology. "This is a chance to watch history being uncovered."

This year's open house marks the third time the dig has been opened to the public. Events in 2006 and 2007 each attracted nearly 2,000 visitors eager to see the site and hear the explanations and interpretation of those working there.

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project has netted more than 100,000 artifacts and animal bones associated with the French and English occupations of the fort that once was located along the St. Joseph River. Its strategic location near the St. Joseph-Kankakee river portage allowed the French (1691-1761) and later the British (1761-81) to control southern Lake Michigan.

This mission-garrison-trading post served as a hub of commercial, military and religious activity for local native populations and European powers for nearly a century during a critical period in the colonization of North America. The flags of four nations, France, England, Spain and the United States flew over the fort at different times in its history.

Researchers have uncovered building foundations, fireplaces and hearths and artifacts of everyday life ranging from religious artifacts to weapon remnants. One early discovery that startled researchers was what Nasssaney believes to be a religious artifact tentatively identified as a cilice, a penitential tool that was referenced in "The DaVinci Code." Since this is the only time such a device has been found in an archaeological dig, Nassaney believes it offers an important clue about religious life at the fort on the edge of the French Empire.

The open house will take place in South Riverfront Park on Bond Street in Niles and extend to the public boat launch area near Fort Street. The event will feature an outdoor museum as well as a living history village. It comes near the end of WMU's 33rd annual field school, the only such archeological field school in Michigan and among the longest running such initiatives in the United States.

At the outdoor museum, attendees will be able to witness ongoing archaeological investigations and view fort artifacts. Field school archaeologists will be on hand to give lectures, lead tours, explain archaeology and recount the history of Fort St. Joseph.

The artifacts that will be on display will include items recovered in recent excavations, as well as items from the Fort St. Joseph Museum collection that have not previously been displayed and discoveries made during this year's WMU field school. For more information about the open house, contact LisaMarie Malischke, Fort St. Joseph Archeological Project public outreach coordinator, at lisamariemal@yahoo.com. Information about Fort St. Joseph is available online at www.ci.niles.mi.us/Community/FortStJosephMuseum/ArcheologicalDig.htm.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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