I drove up into the Northern parts of Michigan with my wife last weekend. We took the ferry over to Mackinaw Island and stopped in a couple of museums and antique stores, as well as a number of touristy-type shops that all looked the same. We noticed that a lot of the old resorts and motels were either mostly vacant or completely abandoned, and they should have been near-full at this time of year. We wondered what any of the locals did for work, especially during the off-season. More education will not necessarily help them much.
We met up with a friend who is an archaeology student and is doing a summer work/study program as a part of her undergraduate degree program. It was interesting to hear about her work and aspirations.
She and fifteen other archaeology students are living in a mansion that was deeded to the county some years ago. It’s miles from any McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, or other civilization. They get to stay there free in exchange for a summer semester of manual labor.
Part of their work this summer involves digging around in the nearby forest (county-owned park land) looking for Native American artifacts. Apparently the State wants to build a road through the area, but they have to make sure it’s not an important archaeological site before they can start the work. She said they’d found some rock tools, shells and animal bones, but nothing too important.
Then there’s another site where they’re digging around the foundation where a barn once stood. Nearby is one of Michigan’s famous old lighthouses. The state can’t afford to maintain these anymore, so they’ve been selling them to private parties… with certain restrictions. The new owner of this lighthouse and adjacent land was saddened to learn that he couldn’t put up any new structures on the site until he had an archeological dig performed. Apparently he got a deal worked out where he made a donation to someone (county, state, or university?) in order to get this team out there to survey the site and document their findings. Our friend was excited to tell us that she thinks they’ve now found all the pieces to completely restore a broken bottle that was found on the site. She said there were also some buttons, pieces of a broken plate, and a piece of silverware.
The whole thing seems like an incredible waste of time and effort to me. I’d honestly have no problem if the new owner of the lighthouse wanted to know what was buried there and paid for the work himself. A community of Native Americans could buy the park and to preserve it and rediscover their past by paying for a professional dig. Instead we have money taken by threat of force through county property taxes, state income tax, Federal tax money, as well as civil constraints on private owners to spend their money on so-called “public interests.” This money spent on activities that will really bring little or no economic benefit to anyone.
Even the educational or entertainment value of their findings is almost nil. I asked our friend what would happen to all of these “artifacts,” and she suggested that they could end up in a museum, but didn’t sound too hopeful. I could imagine a placard in a cabinet that reads, “These things were found on the site,” with accompanying text describing their possible uses and speculation about their former owners. But who would actually pay to see such things? What part of a museum’s admission price would they be worth? Which is why we’re being forced to pay for such things – because no sensible person would invest money in such an effort – at least not with the expectation that he/she could profit from the investment.
And what about the student workers? Imagine if they could spend the summer working together to build some kind of business? I wonder what they could accomplish in just twelve weeks? Instead, they’re sifting dirt, taking pictures of shells, piecing broken utensils back together, basically reveling in collectivist achievements of ages gone by.
I had to refrain from asking too many leading questions of our archaeologist friend. I didn’t want to totally demoralize her. She’s enjoying the work, and I suppose she’s also enjoying the drama of eight young men and eight young women living together in a secluded mansion on the shore of Lake Michigan, surrounded by dense forest and miles from civilization. (Maybe that would be a better way to fund such efforts: install cameras and create a reality TV show!)
I asked her what she wanted to do after she got her degree. She said she would probably continue with her Master’s Degree and then possibly the PhD. After that she said she hope to get a job either teaching or working in a museum. Just what we needed, I thought, along with more telephone sanitizers, hairdressers, and advertising account executives.
The mansion, by the way, is due to be demolished in the near future. It only looks to be about thirty years old, and is a striking piece of modern architecture. The county was renting the place out for only $600/week before it became student housing, but they didn’t make enough or reinvest enough in repairs, and now it needs much more than the county can afford. The park also has some kind of international designation on it now, so they can’t sell the mansion back into private hands, either.
Now I’m thinking of ways to make the reality show more interesting. Like burying something at one of the dig sites for them to find and fight over, like a piece of gold or an Ojibwa rattle with reputed magical powers. Or tell the students that one of them was going to have to carry around a loaded rifle in case of bear or wolf attacks (think of the drama!). How about making them stay over the winter – they’d have to chop their own wood and go ice fishing for sustenance. Portray the lighthouse owner as an evil capitalist who wants to obliterate the past so he can build a paper mill or a coal-powered electric plant. Have a Native American who shows up randomly to give them cryptic advice and stern looks. Or maybe just present them with the dilemma of having to produce more than they consume?