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Fort St. Joseph open house showcases archaeology

Aug. 9, 2006

KALAMAZOO--Normally, when parents ask, "Can you dig it?" kids roll their eyes and wonder what planet their parents came from. For one weekend in August, however, kids can respond with a resounding, "Yes, we can!" as Western Michigan University welcomes area families to its Archaeology Open House at Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Mich.

The two-day event is a rare chance for the public to witness the process of history being uncovered, as faculty and student researchers welcome visitors to the excavation site of what was once an 18th-century fort and trading post--one of the Great Lakes' most important outposts. The fort remains are the subject of a dig by WMU's annual Archaeology Field School.

The open house will kick off at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 11, with an opening reception featuring: a number of state and local dignitaries; Dr. Thomas Kent, dean of WMU's College of Arts and Sciences; and the site's lead archeologist, Dr. Michael Nassaney, professor of anthropology.

The open house, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, includes on-site lectures by Nassaney at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as well as educational stations designed to help both adults and children explore the era when the fort was active, 1691 to 1781. The stations will feature music and entertainment by soldier and voyageur re-enactors. Visitors to the event, which is free and open to the public, will observe students from WMU and other Michigan colleges participating in the field school and engaged in the excavation process. Artifacts and other material evidence discovered thus far will be on display as well.

"This event will give visitors from all over southwest Michigan a first-hand look at how archaeologists actually uncover and discover evidence from the past," notes Nassaney. "This site has consistently exceeded our expectations. We're looking at something that could one day be as archaeologically and historically significant to Michigan's history as Fort Michilimackinac is now."

Fort St. Joseph was a trading post along the St. Joseph River in Niles and at times during its 90-year existence was controlled by the French, the British and, briefly, a group of Spaniards. The site was rediscovered in 1998 when a group called Support the Fort Inc. asked Nassaney to look for the fort. Nassaney narrowed his search to an area that Dr. Joseph L. Peyser, a local historian, had identified as the likely location of the lost fort. It wasn't until 2002 that Nassaney and student workers could make the site accessible for serious research by using innovative engineering equipment to dewater the area being examined. Since that time, a significant number of artifacts and the structural remains of Fort St. Joseph have been discovered.

The WMU research and the artifacts discovered have been the subject of a number of articles, including one in Michigan History magazine, as well as professional presentations around the nation by faculty and students involved in the annual field school. WMU's Archaeology Field School, now 30 years old, is the oldest continuous program of its kind in Michigan. This year's field school began July 10.

The open house is sponsored by the Western Michigan University Archeology Project, in conjunction with the city of Niles, the Fort St. Joseph Museum, and Support the Fort Inc., a non profit organization promoting and preserving the history of the fort.

To get to the Fort St. Joseph site from Kalamazoo, take I-94 west to exit 41 (Rt. 140). Go south on Rt. 140 and follow the signs to Niles. Once in Niles, temporary directional signage will direct visitors to the site along the river near Bond Street.

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

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