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Great Lakes Archaeology

The first active collecting division in the Museum was the Great Lakes Division. This division is responsible for archaeological holdings from Michigan, the surrounding Great Lakes states, and Ontario, Canada. The first curator of the division was Dr. Wilbert B. Hinsdale, the preeminent authority on Michigan archaeology in the early part of the twentieth century. His extensive correspondence and personal collections formed the beginning of the Great Lakes’ scientific holdings. Dr. Emerson F. Greenman followed him as curator; during his more than twenty years of activity, Greenman excavated many of the most significant archaeological sites within the region.

The Great Lakes Division holds more than one million cataloged objects collected from more than 2300 archaeological sites in the region. The materials held are overwhelmingly archaeological in character: ground and flaked stone tools, lithic manufacture debris, ceramics, copper, shell, and, less commonly, wood, charcoal, and historic era artifacts.

The collections are the largest and most comprehensive in the state of Michigan and include materials from most of the major sites within the state, including collections from all but 3 of the 83 counties in Michigan. In addition to the holdings generated by Museum-run field projects, the Great Lakes Division has benefited from the donation of numerous large private collections. Areas of major research focus include the Saginaw Valley, northeast and central lower Michigan, and southeast Michigan.

The division is also active in historic preservation in Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw County area. The Museum, in collaboration with the City of Ann Arbor Planning Department, initiated the Archaeology in the Urban Setting program, which is now in its second decade. The model program evaluates properties within the city for their potential archaeological significance as part of the normal planning and permitting process. The division has partnered with the Lower Huron Valley Chapter of the Michigan Archaeology Society to achieve similar ends on the township level with the Vanishing Farmlands Survey. In this program, student volunteers and avocational archaeologists systematically survey threatened farmlands within Washtenaw County.

The Great Lakes Division has a well-deserved reputation for the development of innovative culture-ecological approaches to Great Lakes prehistory, with such NSF-supported programs as the Edge Area Study and the Marginal Agricultural Adaptations Project. The current focus of research is on the character of Native culture and ecology in the period immediately prior to European contact in the Great Lakes.

More recently, current Curator John O'Shea has expanded the division to include the historic era of the Lake Huron region, developing expertise in coastal and underwater archaeology with a particular focus on nineteenth-century shipwrecks. Learn more about the Great Lakes Research here.