Students dig program

50 years of archaeology finds traces of past

by Dottie Barnes

Tatiana Kenny, an anthropology major from Belding, screened thick, black dirt for hours, looking for tiny pieces of Native American artifacts.

She, along with two dozen other Grand Valley classmates, spent several weeks in May and June participating in an archaeological dig at a farm in Allendale. The class had immediate success, finding more than 40 pieces in
the first few days of the dig.

The students were part of an experience and program that dates back to the founding years of Grand Valley. Students have traveled around West Michigan and the world for the past five decades uncovering traces of the past and studying the remains of ancient societies. This fall marks the 50th anniversary of archaeology at Grand Valley.

June archaeology dig

In June, archaeology students look for Native American artifacts
at a dig near a farm in Ottawa County.

photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

“These sites were rich in artifacts and Doc Flanders and his students found items dating from 50 B.C. to 100 A.D.”
–Janet Brashler

Early digs

The late Richard “Doc” Flanders established the archaeology field school and anthropology program at Grand Valley. Flanders, a professor of anthropology at Grand Valley from 1964 until his death in 1989, was known by colleagues and students as an “Indiana Jones-type” and for being charismatic.

Flanders is credited with recording more than 200 archaeology sites in West Michigan.

“He trained a generation of archaeologists who have jobs all over the United States,” said Janet Brashler, professor and curator of anthropology at Grand Valley. “Because of him, Grand Valley made a mark in the archaeology community and the program has a strong reputation. His work was extraordinary.”

Flanders began excavating what’s known as the Blendon Landing area with archaeology students in 1965. Blendon Landing, located on the Allendale Campus, is the historic site where a community of about 200 people settled in the early 1860s. The town had a sawmill and a shipyard, where four ships were built, including the Lumberman.

The Lumberman sank during a powerful storm near Milwaukee in 1893. Mark Schwartz, associate professor of anthropology and an underwater archaeologist at Grand Valley, took a team to visit the Lumberman’s wreckage in July 2011.

1980s dig




Students dig for artifacts at Blendon Landing in the 1980s.

The Blendon Landing sawmill and other buildings burned in 1864 and by 1912 it was deserted. Over the years, Flanders and his students were able to uncover several artifacts from the site. Blendon Landing is just one of many educational projects Flanders and future Grand Valley faculty members would initiate to take advantage of the rich physical resources of the campus, accomplishing work valuable both academically and scientifically.

Flanders once told the Grand Rapids Press: “My group is nearly unique in the country. Most universities with archaeology programs use graduate students. I have only undergraduates, but I’m extremely pleased with the way they have worked.”

Flanders took students to dozens of area sites including the Norton Mounds site in Grand Rapids and the Spoonville site south of Nunica. In the early 1880s, Spoonville was a small village located along the banks of the Grand River. Both locations would prove to be important training sites for students, yielding numerous chipped stone tools and other projectile points (pointed tools, such as a spear, dart or arrow, or perhaps a knife).

“These sites were rich in artifacts and Doc Flanders and his students found items dating from 50 B.C. to 100 A.D.,” said Brashler. “Doc Flanders established the field school tradition in the curriculum and in the local community as a public service and a way of engaging students.”

Modern digs

Archaeology was initially combined with the geography and sociology departments at Grand Valley, and was still combined when Brashler came to the university 25 years ago. She said the archaeology program has experienced the most growth during the past 15 years.

“It started out with just Doc Flanders and a few adjuncts. Then I came in 1990,” she said. “We have now expanded the staff and program to include environmental and historical archaeologists as well as cultural, biological and linguistic anthropologists who also run summer field programs that give students hands-on experience working in the local community and in several countries around the world. Students come to Grand Valley specifically for the anthropology program.”

Brashler said participating in a field school is required for students, not only because of its educational value, but so students can understand the physical demands of the career — sometimes spending weeks in the cold, wind and mud.



“Taken all together they are pieces in a puzzle — one where large pieces will always be missing.”
–Janet Brashler

Brashler has taken students to many of the sites established by Flanders, but the Allendale farm site she visited in May was a first for her and her students. The site was first identified in the 1960s and has turned up numerous Native American artifacts.

“It is a multi-component site, a new and challenging effort,” she said. “Items found here date back 30 years to 10,000 years.”

Kenny worked alongside Jarrod Trombley and Katie Richcreek, both recent graduates. They said despite the thick, clay-like dirt, students were able to find some Native American pieces. “We found fire-cracked rock, which is evidence of occupation,” said Kenny. “Rock heated to that extreme doesn’t happen naturally."

Trombley said students also found a few flakes (pieces of stone removed from a core for use as a tool). Students were spread out over a wide area of the farm, sifting through dirt for artifacts. Rachel Schmidt and Emily Bartz were stationed closer to the Grand River. Schmidt, a junior from Bay City, said she is hoping to travel to England, Scotland or Ireland after graduation to work on excavation of ancient Celtic sites. “I’ve been fascinated with archaeology since I was little,” said Schmidt. “I came to Grand Valley for its strong anthropology program.”

Bartz, a senior from Alpena, said she is interested in underwater archaeology. “I will be attending a field school in Traverse City and working to earn an underwater archaeology certificate in the next few months,” she said.

Archaeology 50th Anniversary Video

Pay dirt

Grand Valley field schools in archaeology have produced evidence of how people lived in West Michigan for thousands of years before Europeans settled in the area.

Some of the most important discoveries include documenting food-getting strategies, ways of life and mortuary practices at numerous sites dating between 1000 B.C. and European contact. Artifacts found include items made from stone, copper, pottery and bone, as well as food remains, storage pits and campfires.

“Taken all together they are pieces in a puzzle — one where large pieces will always be missing; archaeology provides the key material evidence,” said Brashler.

In addition, students and faculty have been able to form new relationships with the local Native American community whose ancestors Grand Valley students have helped describe and identify.

Brashler said the Native Americans’ perspectives enrich the archaeologists and make the story more complex.

Field work by Grand Valley faculty

Elizabeth Arnold, environmental archaeologist, zooarchaeology: South Africa, Sudan, Israel

Dale Borders, historical archaeologist: Charlton Park in Barry County

Janet Brashler, archaeologist: the Midwest, Jordan

Jeremiah Cataldo: Ancient religions and ethnicities

Matthew Daley: Historic preservation/Industrial archaeology

Jim Goode: Archaeology and Politics

Angela Lockard Reed: Public archaeology

Gwyn Madden, bioarchaeologist: Ukraine

Melissa Morison: Ceramic analysis

Alexei Nikitin: Archaeogenetics

Mark Schwartz, archaeologist, underwater archaeology: Michigan, Turkey, Middle East

Russell Rhoads, cultural anthropologist: Sierra Leone (Fulbright Scholar)

Chris Shaffer, biological anthropologist: Guyana

Heather Van Wormer, cultural anthropologist: New Zealand

Deana Weibel, cultural anthropologist: France

Michael Wroblewski, Linguistic anthropologist: Ecuador

As the archaeology field school program has grown and the Anthropology Department has developed into a “destination department,” so have field school opportunities in the other subdisciplines of anthropology. Locally,
the field schools that worked with farmers markets in Holland and Grand Rapids have helped the markets reach out to more diverse clientele. Other international field experiences in New Zealand, England, Jordan, Ukraine and Turkey have helped students get experience on the global stage.

“As a result, Grand Valley anthropology students have found a wide variety of jobs in government, various organizations, the private sector and academia,” said Brashler. “The program is successful and it is on the move.”

Minor in archaeology

Grand Valley offers a minor in archaeology through a collaborative interdepartmental program that welcomes students in every academic major and program.

Students who complete the archaeology minor often pursue graduate training or find employment in areas such as writing or publishing, law, museums and galleries, communications and government service. The minor is also compatible with pre-professional programs such as business, nursing and engineering.

The archaeology program encourages student participation with local and national archaeology groups such as the Michigan Archaeological Society and the Archaeological Institute of America, both of which have local chapters.

The Archaeological Society of GVSU is a student organization that meets twice a month for social and academic events such as field trips and discussion of excavation projects.


Page last modified October 30, 2017