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Duck Lake: Analyzing Superior County’s Prehistoric Past

Ottawa National Forest, Michigan, 1996
by Mark Hill, Forest Archaeologist

We use PIT as a means of accomplishing much needed resource management tasks, as well as to meet our public education requirements and to provide a unique recreation experience for the participants. The return on these projects is exceptional. Between 1991 and 1996, for example, 230 PIT volunteers contributed 9,353 hours to projects on the Ottawa National Forest. This is the equivalent of nearly $87,000 of contributed labor.

The first PIT project held on the Ottawa National Forest in 1996 took place at the Duck Lake site on the Kenton District. Twenty-eight volunteers worked with Ottawa heritage program personnel to conduct test excavations at this prehistoric habitation site that contained evidence of stone-tool use and production and the manufacture of copper tools.

Prehistoric sites associated with copper production and use are a highly endangered resource. Some of the earliest metalworking in the world occurred in the Lake Superior region at least 8,000 years ago. For thousands of years, copper from this region was made into tools and ornaments and traded all over eastern North America. Yet few sites associated with copper production have been formally investigated on the mainland. Many more sites have been destroyed by historical-period copper mining, and more recently by amateur and commercial metal-detector users illegally looking for artifacts and float copper for collection or sale. Collectors equipped with metal detectors are rapidly destroying these sites both on and off the forest.

Our work at the Duck Lake site had two broad objectives: (1) to initiate study of these rapidly disappearing sites, and (2) to use what we learn to begin developing ways to identify, manage, and protect prehistoric copper-production sites on the Ottawa National Forest. During the two-week project, we made progress toward both objectives. Eleven 1-m2 excavation units were opened on site, and stone tools, copper artifacts, and a possible fire-hearth were unearthed. Charcoal was recovered for radiocarbon-dating purposes, soil samples were taken to study the remains of plants that grew on the site or were used by the occupants, and one spear point was found that helps to tie the occupation of the site to known cultural groups. Most of the stone used for tool manufacture apparently was imported from southwestern Wisconsin. The occupants of the site may have traveled from southern Wisconsin, or possibly traded with people to the south to obtain these nonlocal materials.

Much is still required to complete this study. Fieldwork is just the tip of the iceberg; materials still need to be washed, cataloged, measured, weighed, and analyzed. Analysis of the copper tools, worked copper, and copper preforms will help us begin to understand the techniques and objectives characteristic of this early technology. Typically this work has been difficult for us to accomplish because of other demands on our time. Another PIT project was held in December 1996 to complete at least the washing and cataloging activities.

We also heard from a number of visitors to the site about the possible locations of additional sites. Our current site-location model would likely fail to predict these type of sites. As we learn about new sites from informants, we can begin to understand the settings that they are likely to occupy and improve our inventory methods. Protection strategies can then be applied to these endangered, and often damaged, resources.
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