Digging for the past

There’s one class at MCCC that isn’t afraid to get dirty.

An archeheological field study course offered at MCCC over the spring semester has brought students out of the classroom and into the dirt of two archeological dig sites, where students have discovered hundreds of artifacts as well as the possible footprint of a prehistoric animal.

The students investigated two sites located in Maybee, containing artifacts from as far as 12,000 years ago.

Two possible footprints of a mastodon, a prehistoric creature similar to the wooly mammoth, got the students excited.

Dr. Scott Beld of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology has visited the site to review the footprint.

Students also have discovered a possible dig site dating to the last ice age, buried beneath the surface and sealed from disturbance. If they can confirm the site, it will be the first of its kind in Michigan said the instructor of the course Ken Mohney.

In addition, students have found fragments of ancient pottery and tools, as well as possible ancient house posts and fire or storage pits – some from thousands of years ago, from the first occupants of Michigan.

“Not all the material looks that exciting, but it’s the fact that they’re finding something that’s relevant,” Mohney said.

“With this class it’s an experiment that’s never been done before. I have no way of knowing what they’re going to find.”

The first occupants of Michigan came roughly 11,000 years ago after the ice age, Mohney said. They most likely were hunting caribou and extinct game like mammoths and mastodons. Mohney called the location ideal for ancient peoples.

“They were hunter-gatherers during the archaic period and they would’ve been here basically going through a grocery store, because there’s so much material here in terms of food,” he said.

The sites were originally discovered by Tom LaDuke, president of the River Raisin Chapter of the Michigan Archaeology Society.

“There was a collector that gathered a lot of artifacts but wouldn’t tell anyone where he found them,” LaDuke said.

“I had a fair idea that it was at this site so I decided to do a little digging myself and [the work with MCCC] was a continuation of that.”

LaDuke said the site is extremely significant for Michigan because it contains artifacts that have laid beneath the surface undisturbed for as many as 12,000 years.

Rawan Awad, a student in the course, said it’s been much easier learning the course material when she can back it up with actual findings.

“You get to know the basic information first,” she said. “You know what you’re looking for and you know how to dig. It’s not like you’re a fish out of water.”

Some students have worked on the site outside of class time and others have agreed to continue their work after the class ends in June. Mohney said he admires the students’ dedication.

“The only thing that stinks is that it’s a community college so in two years I’m going to lose these people,” he said.

Mohney is an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology. He has investigated several archaeological field sites in the U.S. He created the course idea and made the connection with LaDuke to offer the dig site to students.

This is the second year MCCC has offered the class. During the first year, students were able to dig in a creek in Munson Park, as well as on the property of Dr. Gerald Howe, a director of The Foundation at MCCC.

Mohney said last year’s digs weren’t very productive. He finished the report on any discoveries this year.

Mohney first envisioned a field class five or six years ago, and finally received approval during the first year Vinnie Maltese served as dean of Math and Science.

The class may not continue next year since it is being run as a “special topic” course, which can only run for two years.

“With a new course, you don’t know if there will be student interest,” Maltese said. “The idea behind a special topic class is to run the course for two years without fully approving it.”

Maltese said he was pretty confident that the course would be fully approved in the Fall semester due to the high success and student interest.

“So far I haven’t had anybody complain,” Mohney said about the course. “Some people like it better than others obviously, but it’s a class where you go out and it’s 100 percent hands on. You don’t do anything other than hands-on work besides the first day.”

Jen Shadle, another student in the course, certainly isn’t complaining. She said she plans to major in archaeology.

“We have so much fun out here,” she said. “It’s more like playing than work. It’s so enjoyable.”

As for the dirt, the students get covered, but when they’re stumbling across a possible mastodon footprint, no one seems to mind.