The Cliff Mine Site Project
Join Michigan Tech industrial archaeologists in documenting a historic copper mine in the heart of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The Keweenaw is famous for its abundant formations of native copper, ranging in size from pebbles to record-breaking boulders of pure metal. Our ongoing project investigates the ruins of the Cliff Mine, the region's first profitable copper mine, and its townsite of Clifton (established 1845, peaked c.1870, and abandoned in the early 20th century).
What are we researching?
Our research is driven by questions posed by a team of graduate students and faculty, as we pursue several intertwined threads:
- We are reconstructing the evolution of the mine’s industrial processes during its heyday, using clues left by workers as they built, worked, and reworked the site's shafts, mills, engine houses, stacks, shops, houses, and offices.
- We are excavating in town to recover artifacts that tell stories about the residents’ daily lives, putting “meat on the bones” of the animals they ate and illustrating the material worlds they built in their homes, churches, and schools.
- We have established a landscape archaeology theme as well, in which we are using bioarchaeological, geoarchaeological, and archaeochemical studies to enhance our understanding of how the residents transformed the Keweenaw’s ecological setting. Our effort ties the people of the Cliff Mine to the transformations of the entire region as farms and villages waxed and economic, social, and ecological relationships with Cliff waned.
The “Cliff Vein” produced over 38 million pounds of refined copper over a 40-year period, paying dividends to its investors totaling $2.5 million. People working in the mine and living in the town transformed the social and technological practices of mining, adapting to the mass copper running through the region’s rich veins and starting America’s first successful industrial mining boom. The Cliff site is situated along the 200-foot greenstone bluff that runs up the spine of the Keweenaw Peninsula, about 30 miles northeast of Tech’s hometown of Houghton.
The Field School Experience
Learning archaeological fieldwork is an immersive experience where teamwork is essential. It takes weeks of work before a person can begin assembling the clues from each discovery into meaningful pictures of the past. As a result, students should expect the work to be exacting, often slow, and physically challenging, as one develops professional skills over time. We work eight-hour days in all conditions, five days a week (Wednesday through Sunday) throughout the six-week summer course. All that time is essential to the process of learning tools and techniques, as well as piecing together the clues of Cliff and Clifton. Students should expect to do the actual fieldwork instead of watching other people work and tell you what it all means. Every day, each person adds an important piece to this large, multiyear, interdisciplinary jigsaw puzzle that is rediscovering Cliff and its community.
What will I learn?
On the Cliff Mine and Clifton site, students will learn a wide range of archaeological field methods and gain proficiency using important equipment and tools. Examples of what team members learn include the following:
- consulting documents, maps, aerial photos, and oral history during excavation and survey, including several different types of remote sensing (satellite, aerial, ground-based, and maritime);
- using traditional mapping technologies, along with LiDAR, Global Position Systems (GPS), and digital Total Station (EDM) tools, in mapping landscape details such as walls, structures, and roadways;
- working with both "wide area" excavation and Shovel Test Pit survey for data recovery, including appropriate sampling methodology to ensure that artifacts are representative of the larger area;
- completing measured drawings of architectural remains with traditional tools, as well as digital equipment like EDMs and LiDAR, to produce measured drawings;
- sampling for archaeobotanical and geoarchaeological analyses;
- ethically driven decision making about artifact collection, cleaning, identification, analyses, and conservation, considering industrial archaeological sites in particular; and
- working with stakeholder and descendant communities in the responsible conduct of public scholarship and research with industrial heritage, including legal and ethical issues surrounding industrial communities, sites, and landscapes.
Prior to the start of fieldwork, students can anticipate field trips. The trips are coordinated with each summer’s excavation topic (and the weather) and usually include local mining sites, the Copper Country Archives and Historical Collections, partner sites in the Keweenaw National Historical Park, Keweenaw County Historical Society museums and sites, and perhaps a curator's introduction to the collection at the A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum. In addition to field trips, students will experience lectures and discussions devoted to the history and technology of early copper mining in the Keweenaw and the communities and landscapes it produced. Guest lectures are given by published historians, anthropologists, environmental scientists, and many other experts.
Participants in the Cliff Mine project become public archaeologists. Students regularly interact with site visitors, providing tours of the Cliff Mine and Clifton and discussing the region’s copper-mining history. Students therefore have many opportunities to develop their skills as facilitators, educators, docents, and speakers as they represent their own fieldwork findings to site guests, which instructors facilitate with discussions about best practices and ethical concerns.
Students will live in Houghton, Michigan. Michigan Tech will help guest students to find private accommodations in town for the duration of the field school. Project participants are encouraged to explore the Keweenaw’s ecological and cultural heritage during their time off, and many choose to bring outdoor recreation gear for mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, road biking, and the many water sport opportunities provided by Lake Superior and our national and state parks and forests.
Michigan Tech undergraduate students can use the field school to fulfill up to 6 credits for several general education degree requirements: HASS Creative Endeavor, FES Environmental Electives, Performance Activities, SSS Anthropology/Archaeology Electives, and World Cultures. Prior to enrolling, please confirm with your academic advisor that the credits will count toward the desired degree requirements.
- Register for the Field Archaeology course on Banweb. The undergraduate course number is SS3210, and the graduate course number is SS5700.
- Download the Cliff Mine Survey Project Application Form, complete it, and submit it to Timothy Scarlett in the industrial archaeology program. You can repeat credits for SS3210/SS5700, so you can take this course again for credit if you have already completed a field school.
Domestic Undergraduate Students Enrolled in Outside Universities
To register for the Field Archaeology course as a guest student, complete the following steps:
- Download the Cliff Mine Survey Project Application Form, complete it, and submit it to Timothy Scarlett in the industrial archaeology program.
- Visit the registrar at your home university and request a guest student application form. Using your own university's form streamlines the credit transfer process. If your university does not have such a form, download the state of Michigan's Guest Student Application Form.
- Complete the appropriate guest student application form.
- Note that you may enroll in whatever number of credit hours your institution requires. For example, some universities require their students to complete 4 credit hours of field school training. You should enroll for the number of credits appropriate to your home department’s or university's requirements.
- You may need to take the form to your university's registrar, and they will certify your application and forward the form to Michigan Tech’s undergraduate admissions office; confirm this step with the registrar. You may be required to pay a $30 application fee. Tech’s admissions office will submit the form to the registrar’s office. If you have questions about registering for this course, email Tech’s registrar’s office or call 906-487-2319.
International students could participate on a tourist visa, since the Field Archaeology course only lasts for six weeks. Send us a completed application, by email or fax (906-487-2468). You should contact your home university's international studies coordinator or Michigan Tech’s International Programs and Services office.
Michigan Tech has a number of international cooperative and exchange agreements that can facilitate guest students from around the world. We encourage prospective students to email International Programs and Services for advice.