Students, researchers dig deeper into history of Fort St. Joseph

Contact: Erin Flynn

NILES, Mich.—Students and researchers are breaking new ground in southwest Michigan, unearthing artifacts dating back to the 18th century.

 The interdisciplinary nature of this program gave me more choice and made me much more invested in what I was learning and wanting to do it well.


"This isn't sandbox archaeology, this is real archaeology," says Dr. Michael Nassaney, Western Michigan University anthropology professor and principal investigator of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project. Believed to be the longest-running archaeological field school in the country, WMU's program—founded in 1976—gives students hands-on experience at a working archaeological site.

 "It's unlike anything else. We not only get lab experience, we get experience talking to the community," says Maddie Wallaker, a WMU student from Holland. "We get experience getting our hands literally and figuratively dirty, getting out here and learning firsthand. We're literally uncovering history at the tip of our trowel."


Nassaney was recruited by Niles' Support the Fort organization in 1998 to conduct an investigation and find Fort St. Joseph, which operated as a trading post, mission and garrison beginning in 1691. WMU students have been excavating at the site since 2002. Just this year, they made their largest discovery yet—digging underneath the town's old dump.

A kneeling student smiles.

WMU student Heidi Gartley takes a break from digging in the dirt.

"We contacted the state archaeologist who got us in touch with the DEQ and this year, for the first time ever, we actually got a back hoe and cut trenches through the dump," says Nassaney. "This has been a goal for probably 70 years, since the dump was closed."

The new development doubles the size of the archaeological site, revealing new artifacts and features that give a glimpse into daily life at the old fort. But Nassaney says it could take several more decades to truly uncover the scope of the site and all of the buildings that may be intact beneath the ground.

"The work done here at Fort St. Joseph is exciting to this community. It's important to this community, but it's important on a larger stage as well," says Dr. Carla Koretsky, dean of WMU's College of Arts and Sciences. "The work that Dr. Nassaney and his research associates and students do here contributes to our knowledge base not just of Fort St. Joseph, but of so many sites all across the U.S. and globally."

"This is probably one of the best sites I'll ever work at in my career," says lab coordinator Raegan Delmonico, who earned her bachelor's degree in anthropology from WMU. "It's so artifact rich, and the community here is amazing. You don't find sites like this or communities like this that support this kind of large-scale endeavor just anywhere. It's really something special."

Even more important is the information the site contains when excavated properly, adds Nassaney.


Many students have discovered their passion for history in Nassaney's anthropology classes and in the trenches at Fort St. Joseph.

Several people use trowels to excavate in holes at an archaeological site.

"When I was a kid I liked watching "Indiana Jones," but doesn't every kid?" says Cameron Youngs, of Charlotte, who recently earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology after transferring to WMU from a community college.

"I didn't find out this is what I wanted to do until I came to Western. I was really interested in peoples of the past. I kind of wish I could travel back in time and live amongst them to learn more about them, but the closest I can get is archaeology."

In fact, several students at the field school began their college careers pursuing other fields of study.

"It's definitely been a game-changer for me," says Wallaker, who is pursuing a double major in environmental sustainability and Spanish. "I've done a lot at Western. I've studied abroad twice and can honestly say this is unlike any other experience that I've ever had, and I really feel like I'm in the right place."

Project zooarchaeologist Terrance Martin, who earned a master's degree in anthropology from WMU in 1976, has been working at Fort St. Joseph since excavation began in 2002.

"It's great to see each batch of students every year that come out and the enthusiasm they have," he says. "To be able as an undergraduate to come out to a local site like this is remarkable."


A student displays debris that has been sifted at an archaeological site.

Raegan Delmonico, left, sifts sediment collected from an excavation site.

The field school program at WMU is rigorous and highly competitive.

"It's 10-plus hours a day working in a lab and in the field," says Youngs, who was hired as a field assistant after completing the field school program. "They set really high standards so that when people go out into the field, there's a lot of weight that comes with the name Fort St. Joseph."

But there's more to this archaeological project than prestige; many students call the experience magical.

"It's not even just feeling the scientific aspect of the soil. It's getting your hands on it and knowing you're the first person to touch this in 200 years," says Delmonico. "The connection that you have to those people from 200, 300 years ago is not something every person gets."

"Archaeology is everywhere. It's immediately beneath our feet," says Nassaney, "but there are very few sites like this one. So, this is really special."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.