Ancient Native American artifacts found in Door County

Devin Burke

Most Lawrentians don’t get to see what’s behind the door at the front of Briggs 326. Many walk by the classroom, looking in through the walls of glass cases filled with hominid skull casts, but few are privy to what happens far beyond the door. Inside the room, there’s a locked door that leads to the archaeology lab, which contains a storage room filled with thousands of archaeological dig artifacts. Most of those artifacts were excavated from Rock Island, a small Lake Michigan island near the northern tip of Door County.

Between 1969 and 1974, Lawrence anthropology professors Ronald and Carol Mason directed excavations on Rock Island. The island has been visited and lived on by many communities of people over thousands of years, making it “what archaeologists call a `multi-component site,'” says Ronald Mason. The artifacts found there date back to the 1st century b.c.

Mason describes Rock Island as “just an incredibly rich site.” In addition to the site’s excellently preserved state, the excavations have yielded tools, weapons, and other implements by the thousands, various structures including a Native American fort, domestic items such as food remains, clothing, and cooking sites, and other finds. The items have been left by many groups of Native Americans and Europeans.

In terms of research, the Masons have focused their studies on the time of contact between Native Americans and Europeans from the 1600s to the 1750s. One reason that Rock Island is a particularly rare find is its wealth of material from this time. The contact years between Native Americans and Europeans were a destructive time in America’s history, but that destruction was more due to fighting between Native American tribes initially than to the Europeans.

Many refugee Native American groups fled from Iroqouis warriors and landed on Rock Island, which is an easily defensible island with its three rocky shores. On the southern side, the island features a sandy beach that was a perfect landing for canoes.

Rock Island was also a popular location because it was located on a Native American trade route that had been in place for maybe a thousand years.
Many stories have been discovered and investigated on Rock Island. The famous French explorer La Salle landed there in 1679 to trade furs. His ship, Le Griffon, the first sailing ship built in the Great Lakes, was lost somewhere in the lake containing many archaeological treasures, and has yet to be found. La Salle, who was not on the ship, was almost bankrupted. After paddling back to the mainland in a canoe, his illustrious career continued. La Salle is one European figure whose role with the Native Americans has been fleshed out with the finds.
Today, the island is open to the public. A short ten-minute ferry takes people to the island, and the only overnight facilities are the tents people bring for themselves.

A small local exhibit houses some of the artifacts that the Masons have found at the island. The island is administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, but Lawrence has curatorial responsibility for most of the finds in perpetuity.

In the past, Lawrentians have participated both in the excavation and in the analysis of the finds from Rock Island. While the Masons have published books and articles on the subject of Rock Island, Mason says that studies on such a find are ongoing.

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