Week 1 in Review

Some of the field crew taking a breather after climbing up the Cliff rock slide.

Like all field projects, the first week was terribly busy.  Eight students, two volunteers, and two Michigan Tech faculty got our project rolling.  This week was all about learning to make maps and becoming familiar with the history of the Cliff Mine.  The project team spent the first morning of the project on campus learning the basics of mapping, “old-school style.”  Team members learned how to make maps as an extension of the human body, pacing off distances and creating a sketch map.  Then we advanced to triangulation by tape measures and also using compass bearings. When they scaled and plotted their data, the students had much more success with the former than the latter.

Sam Sweitz and I aren’t Luddites.  We started the students with these techniques before advancing to the digital tools because we know that understanding basic mapping skills will make the research team more skilled users of high tech tools.  Starting with the tape measure, a magnetic compass, and drafting supplies also helps the project team to understand the map makers and land surveyors who worked on the Keweenaw’s mine districts during the 1840s and 1850s. Those people made their maps sighting on optical instruments and pulling chain, the same way we will start mapping the archaeological remains.

Bill and Jessica drawing the Stamp Mill foundation.

Bill and Jessica drawing the Stamp Mill foundation.

We all loaded up into vehicles on Monday afternoon and drove out to the site. Sean Gohman walked us all over from the industrial core out to the town site.  By the end of the day the research team members were all charged up an eager to go.  While in the field, we spent this week exercising our mapping skills by recording the mill.  We raked off the foundation of the stamp mill and started a measured drawing of the building, including the stamp mill and the wash room, where the ore was pulverized into sand and then washed to recover nuggets of copper.

This building has many intact features that provide clues for the project team.  While mapping, students and volunteers are already able to match up some historic photographs from the collection of the Copper Country Archives.  When our plot is finished, I’ll try to post the plot map, cross section, and sample photos here.

John holding the surveying rod.

John holding the "Staff of Ra" surveying rod. The rod's prism reflects the laser back to the EDM Total Station and gives precise spatial measurements that Sean will use to build a virtual map of the Cliff Mine ruins.

Sean with EDM Total Station

Sean works the EDM Total Station, and instrument that uses a laser to make precise distance measurements that can be exported to computer mapping software and GIS.

At the same time that one group was drawing and measuring the Stamp Mill, Tim Goddard worked with Sean to teach other research team members how to use the EDM Total Station.  That group placed datum “control points” around on the site. These points will become the base locations from which we will map all the other buildings on the site.

Once the control points were set up, Sean will start the second week recording points for the digital map.  He is also starting on the mill, so we’ll try to post a map when we can.

Besides our work at the site, we also took our first field trip and had our first guest lecture during the first week.  We all went to visit The A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum at Michigan Technological University.  This Seaman is the Mineral Museum of Michigan and displays one of the largest mineral collections on public view in America.  Curator George Robinson spoke to our research team members about the geological history of the Keweenaw and the Lake Superior Basin with particular emphasis on the formation and evolution of copper deposits.  He then walked us through the specimens from the Cliff Mine and other Keweenaw locations displayed as part of the world’s finest collection of Michigan minerals. Dr. Robinson helped the students to become comfortable with float and fissure copper, conglomerate and Amygdaloid lodes, vesicular basalt, datolite, calcite veins, greenstone and other minerals, but also to see hints of past labor by recognizing chisel fan fragments and drill scars.

The team members also enjoyed a guest lecture by Larry Lankton, noted historian and author of several books about mining communities and technology in Lake Superior.  We are using one of his books, Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines (Oxford University Press, 1991), as a textbook for the field school course.  Dr. Lankton gave an overview of the development of mining camps and locations in the Copper Country, outlining the progression from prospecting mining camp, to developing camp, and into mine locations and towns.  He explained how the evolution of local landscapes like that at the Cliff Mine were directly effected by investor decisions in Boston or elsewhere as much as by the decisions of people who lived here.  Dr. Lankton’s new book, Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior, 1840s-1990s (Wayne State University Press, 2010) adds even more to the discussion by expanding to consider the mining of copper from sulfide ores at the White Pine mine.  The question of mining processes, ore bodies, and environmental legacies is of great interest to the field school students, so I expect to continue discussions of these threads over the summer.

The week drew to a close and we still had more drawing to do in order to complete this building complex, but the crew did a great job despite some poor weather.  We are all excited for the second week!

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About Timothy James Scarlett

Associate Professor of Archaeology at Michigan Technological University.

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