Random Artifact from the Collection – a Michigan Barbed Axe


As 2021 gets underway, here is a photo of a random artifact from the Castle Museum’s collection – a Michigan Barbed Axe. It was donated to the museum decades ago, with no accompanying information. This style of axe is primarily restricted to Michigan and Ohio and likely dates to the Late Archaic period (roughly 3000-5000 years ago). However, we don’t have many (any?) closely associated dates for these artifacts in Michigan and the style and method of manufacturing may have originated even earlier. This particular specimen has a label indicating it was found somewhere in Saginaw County. It is made out of diabase, or a similar type of igneous rock. It measures 14.4 cm long and weighs 1037.5 grams.

Michigan Barbed Axe from Saginaw County.

This specimen is also the kind of artifact that leaves you wanting more… more information, that is. Information like: where exactly, when, and by whom was it found? Was it found on an old beach ridge, a floodplain, a sand dune? Were other artifacts associated with it? If so, what types, what activities might they represent, and how old were they? In short, what was the archaeological context from which this artifact was removed? Sadly, these questions remain unanswered. We are left with an object that may be intriguing, may be really cool, beautiful even, but it is an object that can tell us very little about the lives of the people who made or used it. Without context, the potential archaeological value of this artifact has been lost. It now serves as a reminder that, if you discover an artifact, it is vital to record as much detailed contextual information as you can. Otherwise, any potential for the find to increase understanding of local or regional cultural history will be squandered.

2020 Archaeological Field Season Review

Well, 2020 has certainly been an interesting year! Amidst the general upheaval of normal operations, somehow I’ve allowed this blog to go dormant for several months. I’m hoping to change that and return to more regular posting. Towards that end, a summary of the 2020 field season seems apropos. The areas of highlighted text below are links to videos – short clips taken at the various projects, or more in depth discussions, or previous posts about related topics.

Among the casualties of the necessary social distancing protocols put in place this year has been the Castle Museum’s volunteer program. Volunteers have always been a vital component of the Museum’s archaeology team and their absence had a profound affect. Still, despite the temporary cessation of our regular volunteer program, the Castle Museum was able to conduct a productive field season.

Field work kicked off this spring with an inadvertent discovery of several flakes (the waste product from making stone tools) while hiking in one of our county parks. After securing permission from park officials, we (my son was drafted into volunteer status) returned to the site to map in and collect the artifacts that were exposed on the surface.

Selection of flakes from surface.

In addition to numerous flakes, we found a projectile point (arrowhead), a broken biface fragment (stone tool fragment), two tiny pieces of pottery, and several fire-cracked rocks. A short video made in the field can be viewed here – fair warning it’s a bit shaky – you might get seasick!

Another project conducted off and on throughout the field season was a continuation of our site monitoring efforts in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. This project, which has been ongoing in one form or another since 1999, currently involves monitoring known archaeological sites and mapping the locations of any artifacts or features that may be exposed through erosion or other natural processes. These processes were exacerbated this spring when excessive rainfall upstream led to dam failures and severe flooding. As a result, increased erosion occurred at several sites within the refuge, exposing several historic and prehistoric artifacts and features.

Butchered (saw-cut) cow scapula from base of eroding riverbank.

Eroding hearth feature.

The flooding also resulted in the deposition of sediment on the surface (alluviation) to an extent not previously seen during the course of this project.

Alluvium on floodplain.

The majority of our field time this summer was spent at the Spencer Woods locale of the Spencer Farm site in Bridgeport Township. Shovel-testing in 2019 revealed a small scatter of Late Woodland ceramics at this site. A previous post about our 2019 work at the Spencer Woods locale can be viewed here. We returned to the location this year to see if we could find any material to go with the ceramics that might give us a better idea of what activities may have been conducted at the site and what time of the year it was occupied. The project was marked by an ongoing dispute with a local woodchuck about the proper way to excavate a test unit!

Excavation unit prior to woodchuck visit.

The same unit after a demonstration of the woodchuck’s excavation prowess.

We ended up excavating 19 square meters, finding more Late Woodland ceramics and a few non-diagnostic flaked stone artifacts. Unfortunately, we did not find any trash pits, hearths, or other features. Short video clips taken during the course of the project can be viewed here, here, and here.

In early July, test excavations at the Spencer Woods site were paused while we conducted a shovel-test survey in Frankentrost at a site thought to be the location of the log structure that served as the original Immanuel Lutheran Church building. We found many artifacts dating from the mid-19th through the early 20th century, which is not surprising given the site has been continuously occupied since 1848.

One of the shovel-test pits (STPs) at the Frankentrost project.

Unfortunately, we found that the ground in the area where the original structure is thought to have been located has been plowed, thus likely destroying any trace of the building. A short video about the project can be viewed here.

Finally, the aforementioned dam failures on the Tittabawassee River upstream from Saginaw resulted in the exposure of several archaeological sites that had been inundated since the construction of the dams. One of the sites, located in Gladwin County, contains remnants of a late 19th century, steam-powered lumber mill. I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weekends surveying and mapping the site with colleagues from Central Michigan, Oakland, and Saginaw Valley State universities and the Gladwin County Historical Society – all the while masked up and socially distant! The site contained remnants of brick and timber foundations, a brick chimney, a wood dam/log boom, and artifacts related to the structure and operation of the mill.

Remnants of lumber mill.

So, despite the limitation of not being able to field a full archaeology team, the Castle Museum still managed to have a productive season. Now our attention shifts to processing, analyzing, writing up, and sharing the results of our fieldwork. As 2021 approaches, I am looking forward to reopening the lab to volunteers as soon as conditions allow. In the meantime, I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe!

New Archaeology of the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge Video

For those interested in the Castle Museum’s archaeological work in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, I put together a brief video introduction to the project. A link to the video on youtube was posted on the museum’s facebook page today. Below is a photo of Ken and Monte digging shovel-tests at one of the sites in the refuge in 2015.

Ken and Monty digging STPs at 20SA315

Ken and Monty digging STPs at 20SA315

Lab Update 14 April 2020

Hello all! Just a quick note to let you know the short video I referred to in the previous post is now up on the Castle Museum’s Facebook page. The video shows the types and amount of material recovered from a single square meter excavation unit from our work in the Swan Creek area last fall.

Lab Update, April 2020

Hello All, I hope you and your loved-ones are safe and healthy and are making it through the current upheaval in the best ways possible. The Castle Museum family is well and looking forward to reopening the museum and reconnecting with all of our friends and visitors. As the museum is closed, so too is the archaeology lab. However, I still have remote access to my computer and direct access to much of the material from our fall 2019 excavations in our Swan Creek study area. So, Castle Museum Archaeology continues!

Prior to the cancellation of classes and subsequent closing of the museum, we were fortunate to have Dr. Brad Jarvis and several of his Saginaw Valley State University history students working in the lab on a weekly basis. They made much progress on the initial processing of the 1/8″ screened samples from our Swan Creek excavation. Sorting the samples is a slow process with each containing hundreds (1000+ in most samples) of small bone fragments along with numerous brick fragments, cinders, ceramics, nails, window glass, and other artifacts. A short video showing a sample of the bone material has been posted on the museum’s facebook page and youtube channel. An additional video showing the range of artifacts recovered in one excavation unit should be posted soon.

Brad, Zach, and Mitch sorting 1/8″ screened samples.

Even while we are still in the preliminary sorting and processing stage, we have managed to begin a bit of analysis. Despite the extremely small size of most of the artifacts, we have, courtesy of local ceramics expert Tim Bennett, been able to come up with tentative identifications of two of the transferware patterns found at the site. The two charming sherds below depicting cows appear to be from a “Union” pattern plate. This pattern was first registered in 1852 and was likely manufactured by Edward Challinor.  He was in operation from 1842-1867.

Probable “Union” pattern sherds.

The second tentative identification is of the chinoiserie style transfer printed sherd pictured below. [Chinoiserie style refers to the imitation of Chinese motifs in Western art.] The pattern appears to be “Canton” by Charles James Mason & Co. (1826-1848).

Probable “Canton” pattern sherd.

Both of these identifications are consistent with our general impression that the site was primarily occupied during the mid-19th century. As the processing, cataloguing, and analysis continues, there is sure to be much more to share. So, stay home, stay healthy, and stay tuned for future updates!

Michigan Archaeological Society Meeting Thursday, 5 March 2020

The next meeting of the Saginaw Valley Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society will be held here at the Castle Museum on Thursday, March 5th, at 7:00 PM. As always, the public is invited to attend. The following description (with minor modifications) was provided by Chapter President, Don Simons:

The Saginaw Chapter meeting will feature a slide program by Don Simons spotlighting a culture called “Mississippian” circa, AD 700-1500. The focus is ceramic technology from the Middle Mississippi Valley. The images are exceptional as taken from the 1898-9 report on the “Aboriginal Pottery of the Eastern U.S.” by W.H. Holmes, published by the Smithsonian Institution. The ceramic technology and artistry is considered to equal or exceed in sophistication any found in North America.

Also: chapter member John White will present information passed down from his grandfather in Arkansas – a resident near the mound excavations. He will also present his artifacts from that area.

Related cultural manifestations, sometimes referred to as Upper Mississippian, are poorly known in Michigan. Thanks to excavations conducted by the Castle Museum, the Clunie site in Saginaw County has been shown to contain a significant Upper Mississippian component, making a major contribution to the state’s and especially Saginaw County’s prehistory.

Many thanks to Don for the the shout-out regarding the Castle Museum’s work at the Clunie site! Here are a few images of some of the “Upper Mississippian” pottery from Clunie and other sites in the Saginaw Valley. Note: this pottery is much different than the Mississippian pottery that will be highlighted in next week’s program!

A shell-tempered vessel from the Clunie site.


A grit-tempered vessel from the Clunie site.


A shell-tempered vessel from the Stadelmeyer site.


A shell-tempered vessel with a strap handle from the Stroebel site.

An Atypical Early Late Woodland Sherd from Saginaw County

Interior cord-marking is a trait typically associated with Early Woodland ceramics in Michigan and elsewhere in the region. This is certainly true for local Early Woodland wares such as Schultz Thick and Shiawassee Ware, which date from ca. 700-400 B.C. and ca. 400 B.C.- A.D. 1 respectively (Fischer 1972; Garland and Beld 1999; Halsey 1976). However, “typically” doesn’t mean exclusively!

Wayne Punctate sherd with interior cord-marking.

The rimsherd pictured here, with obvious cord-marking on the interior surface, is an example of early Late Woodland Wayne Ware and likely dates between ca. A.D. 600 and A.D. 1100 (Lovis 1990). Although the interior cord-marking is atypical, everything else about the sherd (paste, temper, thickness, exterior surface treatment, decoration, method of manufacture) is consistent with the punctate variety of the type Wayne decorated. This sherd was found in 1999 at site 20SA1254 during the first year of the Castle Museum’s archaeological survey, testing, and monitoring program in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge – right here in Saginaw County!

Michigan Archaeological Society Meeting Thursday, 6 Feb. 2020

Please join us for the Saginaw Valley Chapter’s first meeting of 2020! The meeting will be held here at the Castle Museum at 7:00 PM. Dr. Scott Beld will be the featured speaker. He will be discussing late Middle Woodland occupation sites at Chippewa Nature Center in Midland County, Michigan. The official notice is copied below. As always, the public is invited and encouraged to attend.


SVC Feb. 2020 Meeting Notice


Archaeological sites dating to the late Middle Woodland period are also present in Saginaw County. One artifact sometimes recovered at sites from this period is a type of pottery called Reuben Linear. The exterior rim of these ceramics is often decorated with horizontal cord impressions or with a similar horizontal design created by dragging a cord-wrapped stick or dentate tool around the rim. The lower edge of this decorative zone is often bounded by a row of punctates. Interior surfaces, at least in the upper neck/rim area of the vessel, are often deeply striated. In order to whet your appetite for Dr. Beld’s presentation, here is a photo of a Reuben Linear rimsherd recovered several years ago by the Castle Museum’s archaeological work at site 20SA1251, located on the Shiawassee River near Saginaw.


Reuben Linear rimsherd from site 20SA1251.

2019 Fieldwork Summary

For the Castle Museum Archaeology team, 2019 proved to be a decidedly unusual year for fieldwork. Uncooperative weather in the spring and fall impacted both ends of the field season. Still, we managed to accomplish much.


The cold and wet spring kept us out of the field entirely until mid-May. Our first foray out of the lab was a guided visit to a pair of sites in Bridgeport Township (20SA604 and 20SA605) with local avocational archaeologist, Bernie Spencer. We were able to record the locations of several important finds at both sites and make a small collection of artifacts from 20SA605. Later, Mr. Spencer generously donated his collection from 20SA604 to the Castle Museum.


20SA604 selected 2

Selected artifacts from 20SA604.


Also, in mid-May, we resumed our annual monitoring of archaeological sites in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. This primarily entails walking over known site areas and noting the presence and extent of any erosion or other surface exposures, and documenting and collecting any archaeological materials that are found. Generally high water levels made this a challenging endeavor this year!


In early July we were back in Bridgeport Township to begin the first of our two major field projects this year, a shovel-test survey of a portion of the Spencer Farm site (20SA1374). Once again our friend, Mr. Spencer, was the catalyst for the project. Spencer’s collection from this site contains artifacts spanning much of the prehistoric period including several projectile points dating from the late Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic periods (roughly 8,000-10,000 years ago!). Intact archaeological sites from these early time periods are exceedingly rare in Michigan. Unfortunately, much of the site area where the earliest artifacts were found was destroyed by sand mining in the 1950s. The location we tested, dubbed the Spencer Woods locale, is a relatively undisturbed area on the edge of the sand mining operation. We excavated 84 shovel-test pits (50 cm square holes), on a five to ten meter grid, over approximately two acres. Although we did not find any diagnostic artifacts from the late Paleo-Indian or Early Archaic periods, we did find evidence of Early Woodland (ca. 700-200 B.C.) and early Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 600-1000) occupations.


Andy Ken and Kiersten 3

Andy, Ken, and Kiersten digging an STP at Spencer Woods.

Spencer Woods artifacts 3

Selected artifacts from the Spencer Woods locale.


In early September, as we were finishing up our work at the Spencer Woods locale, we learned that one of the survey locations in our Swan Creek study area had not been farmed this year due to the cold and wet spring. The survey area contains a concentration of habitation debris possibly associated with a 19th century Methodist mission. After contacting the landowner and finding him generously amenable to our plans, we re-surveyed the area, mapping in all of the artifacts we found on the surface, and commenced working on what ended up as a two meter wide by seven meter long excavation block. Nearly from the start, we struggled with the weather. In fact, we spent most of September, October, and early November rained out, flooded out, or, at the very least, dealing with excessively wet and muddy conditions.


working in the mud 2

Brad enjoying the conditions at Swan Creek.


Despite the difficulties, our excavations produced a wide array of 19th century material including among other things domestic debris such as dish and bottle fragments, structural materials including nails and window glass, personal items such as buttons and smoking pipes, and subsistence remains, mostly in the form of burnt animal bone fragments. Unfortunately, our hopes of locating a cellar, or other structural features, were not realized.


Swan Creek Artifacts 2

Selected artifacts from the Swan Creek excavation.


Looking forward, we will now settle in to a winter of lab work – washing, sorting, cataloguing, and analyzing the material recovered during the 2019 field season. And, of course, we will begin planning more archaeological adventures for 2020!

Archaeology Meeting Tonight!

Please join us tonight at the Castle Museum for the November meeting of the Saginaw Valley Chapter of the Michigan Archaeological Society. Following the business meeting, we will be heading downstairs to view the museum’s new exhibit “Our Foundations: Origins of Saginaw County.” Other exhibits in the lower level of the museum will also be open, including our archaeology exhibit, and the Archaeology Lab will be open for a “behind the scenes” look! As always, the public is invited and encouraged to attend. The official announcement is copied below.