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Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge

Our Research / Archaeology Collections / Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge Archaeology

In 1999, with cooperation and permits from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Historical Society of Saginaw County initiated an archaeological research program in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.  The goals of the project are to monitor known archaeological sites, locate and map additional sites and artifacts, investigate the size and integrity of archaeological sites by shovel-testing, and conduct excavations to learn more about the prehistoric inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley.


The Shiawassee NWR contains over 9,500 acres of marshlands, grasslands, mixed hardwood forest, and croplands near the geographical center of the Saginaw Valley.  Several waterways run through the refuge including the Cass, Flint, Shiawassee, and Tittabawassee rivers.  The wildlife refuge is located in part of the region informally known as the Shiawassee Flats.  Because most of the area lies only a few meters above the present level of the Great Lakes, minor increases in lake level have the potential to flood large portions of the region. Indeed, this appears to have happened several times during the past 5,000 years.


The marshes, hardwood forests, and grasslands create an extremely biologically productive environment.  The abundant resources have attracted people to the Saginaw Valley for over 11,000 years.  The rivers of the region join together near the center of the valley.  From their confluence, they spread out in all directions creating a network of waterways that served to funnel people into the center of the Saginaw Valley as they traveled across the region. Given its location in the center of the Saginaw Valley, the wildlife refuge is perfectly situated to contain a wealth of archaeological sites and information.


Historical Society archaeologists have documented over 30 archaeological sites in the Shiawassee NWR.  In addition, six previously recorded sites were rediscovered and their locations more accurately mapped.  Information from these sites is greatly expanding the known distribution of Late Archaic through Historic period occupations in the central Saginaw Valley.


Despite the progress already made, the work at the refuge has barely scratched the surface of the knowledge hidden there.  Most of the documented sites are located in areas where the ground surface is exposed and artifacts were found lying on the surface.  A large portion of the refuge is covered with heavy vegetation making surface exposure unlikely.  Much work remains to be done before we have a complete picture of the number and distribution of archaeological sites in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

Archaeological excavations conducted by the Historical Society in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge have yielded abundant evidence of the activities of Middle Woodland and Late Prehistoric people. Archaeologists are studying the tools, pottery fragments, and various food items that have been recovered from the excavations in order to piece together a picture of the daily lives of these early inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley.  


Excavations at two Middle Woodland period sites have yielded radiocarbon dates of ca. A.D. 50 and ca. A.D. 330.  The A.D. 50 date was obtained from charred food residue scraped from the surface of a Green Point ware pot.  Previous archaeological work in the Saginaw Valley had suggested that Green Point ware ceramics date from A.D. 300-500, thus placing this style in the later portion of the Middle Woodland period.  The new data indicate this style was already being made near the very beginning of the Middle Woodland period.  Stone tools recovered from these sites are made from a variety of raw materials, some of which were derived from as far away as Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.  Clearly, trade and other forms of non-local interaction were important aspects of Middle Woodland life.  Charred hickory and walnut shells and the bones of catfish, walleye, muskrat, white-tailed deer, elk, and many other animals indicate some of the abundant local resources that sustained the Middle Woodland inhabitants of the region.


Multiple radiocarbon dates between A.D. 1400 and 1650 demonstrate that the Clunie site in the Shiawassee NWR was heavily occupied during the Late Prehistoric period.  Excavation of several trash pits and fire hearths has revealed that freshwater mussels and fish, including sturgeon, suckers, and walleye were very important resources at this site.  Mammals, including white-tailed deer, elk, bear, and others were also important elements of the site inhabitants’ diet.  Charred maize kernel and cob fragments indicate the practice of at least a low level of horticulture, while numerous acorn fragments from one of the hearth features point to the continued use of wild plant foods.  Small triangular projectile points indicate the bow and arrow was the hunting weapon of choice for this time period.  The wide variety of ceramic decorative styles and motifs may indicate that people from a variety of social or ethnic traditions periodically visited this site. 


Although still in the early stages of the investigations, new data from the Historical Society’s excavations in the Shiawassee National Wildlife refuge are already beginning to add to our understanding of the Middle Woodland and Late Prehistoric inhabitants of the Saginaw Valley. As the excavations continue and more detailed analyses are completed, this work is sure to add tremendously to our understanding and appreciation of the societies that preceded us in this valley.

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