WMU News

Video showcases 18th-century Michigan history, research

April 24, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- It's a dirty job, but thanks to a new video by Western Michigan University researchers, no one else has to do it.

"In Search of Fort St. Joseph," a documentary produced by WMU archaeologists and the University's Department of Media Productions, examines the challenges and triumphs of a research team that worked for four years to find the structural remains of Fort St. Joseph. The site was established in 1691 by French colonists on the banks of the St. Joseph River in what now is Niles, Mich. The 30-minute VHS presentation offers an up-close look at what it takes to stage an archaeological dig and the problems researchers faced when they tried to unearth a site occupied more than three centuries ago.

The video has drawn praise from archaeology and history enthusiasts for its footage of the highly technical process that was used to remove excess water from a 2,200-square-meter area where WMU anthropologists Dr. Michael Nassaney and Dr. William Cremin believed the fort was located. Producers Steve Kettner and John MacKenzie, who collaborated with the archaeologists on the video project, also thought it was important to include scenes of researchers using ground-penetrating radar and other sophisticated geophysical techniques.

The video offers viewers the basics and much more, says Dr. Dean Anderson of Michigan's Office of the State Archaeologist.

"I particularly enjoyed 'In Search of Fort St. Joseph' because it answered many of the questions that people commonly ask of archaeologists, such as 'How do you know where to dig?' and 'Why do you dig so slowly?'" says Anderson. "It illustrates not only how excavation is done,

but also how archaeological questions take shape and, importantly, emphasizes the background research archaeologists conduct before ever putting a shovel in the ground."

While scholarly in nature, "In Search of Fort St. Joseph" also showcases the technical prowess of the research team, packs entertainment value and can be used as a teaching tool.

"This video reveals the most up-to-date, cutting-edge field techniques used by historical archaeologists-particularly on sites that are partially inundated by water," says Illinois State University researcher Elizabeth M. Scott. "We highly recommend its use in the classroom as well as by professional and avocational archaeologists."

In addition to capturing the scientific side of the dig, the video includes historical scenes staged by actors dressed in French colonial attire. And beyond Fort St. Joseph's architectural remains, the video features such revealing finds as glass beads, engraved cutlery handles, a burn pit with dozens of charred corn cobs that might have been used for tanning hides, handmade nails, kettle parts, gun flints and musket balls.

"In searching for the fort, many archaeologists might have gone looking first for the palisades-the wood fence or structure surrounding the fort," Nassaney says. "We were determined to find evidence from inside the structure. Our dig site gave us a small window into the fort."

Fort St. Joseph existed until 1781 and also is known as the Four Flags Fort, because it was controlled by France, England, Spain and the U.S. during its 90-year existence. Native Americans also played a role in the history of Fort St. Joseph, which was virtually forgotten by the mid-1800s.

Nassaney and Cremin will continue their examination of the area and its influence on the lives of Michigan's early settlers. They are working with the city of Niles and Support the Fort, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving the fort's history. Sponsors of the video project include Support the Fort, the Fort Miami Heritage Society and the WMU College of Arts and Sciences.

Copies of "In Search of Fort St. Joseph" are available for $19.95 each, plus shipping and handling costs, through the WMU Bookstore at <www.wmubookstore.com/fsj.asp>. For more information, contact Nassaney at (269) 387-3981 or <nassaney@wmich.edu>.

Media contact: Gail Towns, 269 387-8400, gail.towns@wmich.edu

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