Michigan Technological University’s 2013 Field School in Industrial Archaeology

Michigan Technological University’s 2013 Field School in Industrial Archaeology

The Cliff Mine Project’s 4th Field Research Season.

Join Michigan Tech industrial archaeologists in documenting a historic copper mine in the heart of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The Keweenaw is famous for its abundant formations of native copper, ranging in size from pebbles to record-breaking boulders of pure metal. Our ongoing project investigates the ruins of the Cliff Mine, the region’s first profitable copper mine, the townsite of Clifton (established 1845, peaked c.1870, and abandoned in the early 20th century), and comparable sites on the Keweenaw. The “Cliff Vein” produced over 38 million pounds of refined copper over a 40-year period, paying dividends to its investors totaling $2.5 million. People working in the mine and living in the town transformed the social and technological practices of mining, adapting to the mass copper running through the region’s rich veins and starting America’s first successful industrial mining boom. The Cliff site is situated along the 200-foot greenstone bluff that runs up the spine of the Keweenaw Peninsula, about 30 miles northeast of Houghton, Michigan.

Learning archaeological fieldwork is an immersive experience where teamwork is essential. It takes weeks of work before a person can begin assembling the clues from each discovery into meaningful pictures of the past. As a result, students should expect the work to be exacting, often slow, and physically challenging, as one develops professional skills over time. We work eight-hour days in all conditions, five days a week (generally Wednesday through Sunday) throughout the six-week summer course. All that time is essential to the process of learning tools and techniques, as well as piecing together the clues of Cliff and Clifton. Students should expect to do the actual fieldwork instead of watching other people work and tell you what it all means. Every day, each person adds an important piece to this large, multiyear, interdisciplinary jigsaw puzzle that is rediscovering Cliff and its community.

The class is led by Associate Professors Timothy Scarlett and Samuel Sweitz, in close collaboration with Project Archaeologists Sean Gohman and Lee Presley.  Instruction is enhanced through the active participation by guest scholars and experts in Copper County industrial and preindustrial history, archaeological and environmental sciences, and planning and industrial heritage studies. The course may be taken for undergraduate or graduate credit.

Our research is driven by questions posed by a team of graduate students and faculty, as we pursue several intertwined threads:
• We are reconstructing the evolution of the mine’s industrial processes during its heyday, using clues left by workers as they built, worked, and reworked the site’s shafts, mills, engine houses, stacks, shops, houses, and offices.
• We are excavating in town to recover artifacts that tell stories about the residents’ daily lives, putting “meat on the bones” of the animals they ate and illustrating the material worlds they built in their homes, churches, and schools.
• We have established a landscape archaeology theme as well, in which we are using bioarchaeological, geoarchaeological, and archaeochemical studies to enhance our understanding of how the residents transformed the Keweenaw’s ecological setting. Our effort ties the people of the Cliff Mine to the transformations of the entire region as farms and villages waxed and economic, social, and ecological relationships with Cliff waned.

On the Cliff Mine and Clifton site, students will learn a wide range of archaeological field methods and gain proficiency using important equipment and tools, within a committed public archaeology context. Examples of what team members learn include the following:
• consulting documents, maps, aerial photos, and oral history during excavation and survey, including several different types of remote sensing (satellite, aerial, ground-based, and maritime remote sensing systems have all been used in past seasons);
• using traditional mapping technologies, along with LiDAR, Global Position Systems (GPS), and digital Total Station (EDM) tools, in mapping landscape details such as walls, structures, and roadways for the purpose of creating “living” geospatial environments within a Geographic Information System database;
• working with both “wide area” excavation and Shovel Test Pit survey for data recovery, including appropriate sampling methodology to ensure that artifacts are representative of the larger area;
• completing measured drawings of architectural remains with traditional tools, as well as digital equipment like EDMs and LiDAR, to produce measured drawings;
• sampling for archaeobotanical, geoarchaeological, and archaeochemical analyses;
• ethically driven decision making about artifact collection, cleaning, identification, analyses, and conservation, with concern for industrial archaeological sites in particular; and
• working with stakeholder and descendant communities in the responsible conduct of public scholarship and research with industrial heritage; including legal, ethical, and environmental issues surrounding industrial communities, sites, and landscapes.

During time off, students will be able to enjoy the rich cultural and natural heritage of Michigan’s spectacular Keweenaw Peninsula and the shores of Lake Superior. A short drive brings visitors in reach of two national parks, two national forests, several state parks and wilderness areas, industrial heritage museums and monuments, miles of public lakeshore, watersports, and world-class mountain biking trails.

More information about class registration and costs can be found here:


Please explore the Cliff Mine research blog here, which archives information from several years of fieldwork and research.



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