On an afternoon hike through the Sleeping Bear Dunes, my cousin Andrew and I stumbled upon some pottery fragments. We figured they were old and might be important, so we told the National Park Service. They assembled a team, and we headed out for a closer look.
Many people probably walked by the shards of clay — they looked like bark or brown leaves. I would have walked by 100 times and not seen it, even though I was looking for artifacts. (click the pictures to zoom in, if you’d like!)
Andrew found them. He says the patterned way the shards were laying caught his eye. It was as if someone had left a design in the sand. We didn’t do anything that first night of discovery. We didn’t have a camera and dinner was calling.
The next day I made a few calls and soon we had a time scheduled to show the park the artifacts. The next evening, we met the park service at the site. They were excited. So were we.
We took lots of photos.
Laura Quackenbush, the park curator and historian, said that the most important shards are the rim of what she said was a clay pot. These are the most distinctive and could be associated with pottery found at other archaeological sites in northern Michigan.
Chances are the Native American people who used this pot camped on the dunes while on their way up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline. There were not many permanent encampments in the dunes area.
This pottery is at least 500 years old. That date stands out as when the Native Americans began replacing their fragile clay vessels with European metal pots. Metal pots were important acquisitions for the First Peoples – portable and unbreakable.
This clay pot probably broke and was abandoned. Maybe it stored a stash of food that was never retrieved, but likely it slipped out of a cooks hands, or two boys were wrestling and fell on it.
Speaking of boys, Hawthorn and Colebrook took a while to get their head around these broken pieces of clay. Their eyes opened wide when I said this pot might be as old as some of the mummy’s in Egypt. “And nobody has seen this clay pot for maybe 1 or 2 thousand years,” I said. “It has been hidden in the sand.”
5 minutes later, they were off wrestling and jumping off a little bluff.
While they played, the park archeologists documented the find. Each shard of clay’s location was carefully documented with this graph of made of string.
Then the clay pieces were retrieved, one by one. They will be taken to park headquarters where they will be recorded and stored. A detailed documentation of the site and fragments will be made and reviewed by both National Park Service and Michigan archaeologists. We hope to have a date the clay pot was made and then hopefully determine from what tribe and where they resided. We know it was sometime in the late Woodland Period, between 200 BC to 1500 AD.
There is a small chance that someone might try to put it together. Or maybe it will be part of an exhibit at the Dunes visitor center showing exactly how it looked when it was found. The fragments will be stored in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore museum collections facility. Perhaps it can, after a full analysis, be used to show park visitors proof of earlier traveler’s visits to shifting sands of the frontal dunes.
Before we left, we buried a foot-long metal rod 6 inches into the sand. That will help researchers mark the spot of the find, even as nature alters the faces of the dunes.
Everyone we had the pleasure to work with stressed that the Dunes will eventually reveal more secrets, but that those secrets deserve to be protected and shared with generations to come. If you happen to stumble upon such a find, please call the Park Service!
Andrew and I feel special that the dunes revealed a secret to us. It has given us a great memory and connected us even closer to our favorite place in all the world.