Thursday, August 29, 2013

I'm Sorry, Did You Say "Tinkling Cones"?

I don’t think your Dirt Girl has ever been so excited to tell you about her finds of late. It will be a somewhat complicated story and to tell the truth, I’m a little cowed at the prospect...

As many of you know, I have strong ties to the Great Lakes State. After I graduated from the University of Michigan, I pretty much stayed in Ann Arbor until 2008, when Al and I moved to Nashville. (You see, I’d been psychically summoned here by country music, undiscovered Civil War relics, and a whole slew of tiny children desperate to learn to point their feet.)

I’ve never regretted the move but I get back Up North as often as I can. I love Michigan: brainy, sparkling Ann Arbor; sad, scrappy Detroit, the small towns, the beautiful rivers and oh, Lake Michigan, I love you soooo.

From 1997-2007, Al’s family gathered on the shores of Lake Michigan for two weeks of lovely togetherness. After this difficult past year (Chloe, and a whole lotta other stuff) I felt I deserved to stare at water for a week or so, not quite sure how I’d pay for it, I booked a cabin for a week. (Thanks, Dad.)

It took me two days to drive up there, but with Jakson (black dog, a model citizen, quite capable of driving if only he had thumbs) at my side, it was pleasant enough. We stayed in Ann Arbor overnight and were at our destination by Thursday mid-afternoon.

First stop was a different rental, where a healthy dose of Hills was already gathered. My kids (honorary Hills) were there too, which was great.

I wasted no time in getting down to the beach and swinging the Fisher F75 in and out of the shallow water where the waves meet the sand.

Pretty quickly, I found this, deep in the wet sand.

I know. You are jealous. You need to
deal with your feelings. Yes, I'm pretty
sure it is not a Tonka steering wheel.

I really, really like it. More on this later.

Two days later, the Hills headed home and my kids and I moved into “our” cabin, a couple of miles north.

The place was old and teeny: one room, with a loft sleeping area, a wee kitchen and a bathroom. Massive, stone fireplace. Deck. Lake Michigan. Coziness, beer, whiskey, love, food, woodsmoke, dog, water, sand, stars. At our max, we were six people, but we didn’t care. A zillion rounds of Balderdash were played, to riotous effect.

Jak, waiting for Balderdash to begin.

Months before, I’d asked the homeowners about MDing around the cabin and they said sure. So, since it was, ultimately my vacation, I felt little or no guilt about abandoning my family that first day and heading out into the gentle, sandy woods for a little look-see. The sun sprinkled through the tall trees. The ground was soft and loamy. No mosquitos. Yum.

Here’s what I expected to find: tin cans, old Matchbox cars from long-ago vacationers, pulltabs. Maybe, if I was lucky, some wheat pennies.

That’s not quite how it worked out.

I headed off down a path that ran parallel to a small bluff overlooking the water. Signals were by no means constant, but they were there. I started digging, pulling out old scraps of metal, none of it very deep. Looked greenish, like copper, but I wasn’t sure. Also funny little rings, like old washers. Figured it was all just junk and stuck it in the fanny pack.

Later on, we got locked out of the cabin and the owner, John, came down to help us out (turned out he’d left us the wrong key). I told him I’d been metal detecting, but hadn’t found much.

John’s grandfather had built the cabin nearly 100 years ago and he’d spent much of his boyhood in there playing in those woods. “We used to find tinkling cones in the woods all the time,” he said.

Tinkling cones?

Yes, he explained. The Native people would trade with the French and English soldiers and traders – silver trinkets and scraps of metal (old copper pots, etc.) in return for beaver pelts. The Native people would sometimes form the scraps of metal into little “cones” that they’d dangle from their clothes.

Hmmm. Cones like this? I asked.

About 2 inches and 1 inch. Yes, they tinkle.

Yes, said John, excitedly, those are tinkling cones.

Inspired, I spent part of each day happily exploring these gentle woods. The little bit of contemporary trash I found (a couple of tin cans, one or two bottle caps, a tube of hair cream or something) was nothing compared to remarkable evidence of the indigenous people who used to live here on this lake, their rich culture in simple harmony with the earth. And evidence of their early contact with the Europeans who, as we all know, changed everything for them.

Here's a sampling:

I was initially very confused
by these, but they are trade
silver trinkets, I believe.

I have no idea.

Musket balls.

Again, no idea.
Tiny Viking headdress?

LOVE it. I think it is
part of a hawk bell.
Note the "No"... not sure what it means.

Colonial era coat buttons.
Note cool pattern on the larger one.

The back of the larger button.

Several times, I got some monster signals – real honkers – and dug fairly deep to pull out large pieces of old copper.

About 9x4 inches.
This is OLD. It's kind of a bundle
of scraps, pressed together.

This is the back.

Miscellaneous copper strips.
Ones at top are about 12 inches long.

I can't handle it.

Needless to say, there were some pretty serious history rushes coursing thru the old bod.

After a couple of days, I visited John’s wife, Debbie, in her realty office. Debbie loves to MD too and was curious to see what I’d found.

“Whit, what kind of metal detector do you HAVE???” she said when I took the items out of the bag. An artist with a degree in anthropology, Debbie had worked as an interpreter at a local museum and was well aware of the issues that so often pit archaeologists against metal detectorists. Still, she enjoyed detecting from time to time and, like me, was open to hunting areas where no archaeologist was ever likely to go. We talked a long time.

I mentioned that virtually everything I found was within, say, 50 feet of the bluff overlooking the lake.  The further I got from the lake, the less I found (as in swinging the machine for 15 minutes without a sound.)

Debbie made the point that for the Native Americans living here, the lake was the road; there was little point in settling or even going much inland (though I know that there were settlements around large inland lakes). I began to better understand the richness of the land: water, meat, fish, wood in seemingly endless supply, right on the lake. It was all kind of Eden-ish, except for those blasted winters. I learned that many tribes thought of northern Michigan as a place to go in the summers – like their later fudge-purchasing, Rayban-wearing counterparts. They would travel south for the harsher months.

I’ve never felt much connection to Native American cultures. I’ve never wanted to wear the jewelry, nor collect the blankets. A psychic once told me I had been a Native American midwife in a previous life and I almost busted out laughing – not because of the midwife part, that I could believe – but because of my lifelong lack of connection to anything remotely Native. I admired, respected and was moderately interested in Native culture, but didn’t feel it the way so many people do.

But after my week by the lake, discovering, cleaning and holding items they made, held, wore and valued… now I feel it.

Still, the question loomed: what should I do with these items? Donate them to a museum? Make assemblages? Give to my card-carrying NA friends whose ancestors lived near this place not so long ago?

When I got home, I took a big chance and wrote to an archaeologist, attaching this photo of the thing I found in the surf.

Gulp. Here is our exchange:

Hello, Dr. XXX
I found your email address online and hope it's ok to ask you a quick question. I was recently metal detecting in the surf of Lake Michigan. [I told her the name of the town.]

I found an item in the water I'm very curious about and was wondering if you might be able to identify it. I've attached a photo. It's about the size of a quarter. Any leads much appreciated.

Here’s her response:
That is certainly interesting – of course it is hard to ID things from just a photo, but it certainly looks like trade silver and perhaps a piece of some kind of Jesuit ring/pin/other personal ornamentation – trade silver was common in Jesuit relations with tribal communities in the Great Lakes – so I would say this is an item from the early historic period, French interaction with Michigan tribes, between ca. 1610 and 1740ish (French and Indian War)

It’s a very nice item -- I must add as an archaeologist that once an artifact is out of context, it loses a lot of its meaning, it is very important to us to find things in situ and for sites to remain as intact as possible.  The items themselves are only one part of the story, the main part of the story is the association of items with each other, with buildings, with living surfaces, and so on. I would also add that tribal communities are still very present and active in Northern Michigan today and they are working hard to protect their cultural heritage – you might consider giving this item to them or to a local museum.

I wrote back immediately:

I'm excited to hear your take on the item. I immediately thought about donating it, but wanted to check with you — or someone — to be sure it wasn't a steering wheel off an old toy car, or some 1970s hippie jewelry.

I do understand about the "in situ" issue — and the differing views of archaeologists and metal detectorists. This item was found IN the water (right where the waves were lapping up) so I would imagine the in situ issue is moot, right? It must have been moved around quite a bit over the centuries.

The part that confuses me is the ethics of metal detecting in an area where clearly no archaeologist is ever going to go. In addition to the item I found in the surf, I did find a few clearly historical items in the woods right next to the cabin we were renting (with permission of homeowner).

 Isn't it better to at least know that an area might be worth looking at closer? Isn't it better to find some items and donate them rather than just have them be lost forever, or be bulldozed during a home building?

Is an ethical metal detectorist who locates a potential site and perhaps contacts an archaeologist better than leaving a site undiscovered? Sorry… lots of questions! I'm genuinely trying to understand the issue better and do appreciate your wisdom. Thank you!

She never wrote back. 

I probably over-gushed. Maybe she thought my questions were challenging in some way. I did appreciate her initial response, though.

Back home, I’ve been learning more about “trade silver” – the items brought over from Europe specifically for trade with indigenous folks.

And what I’ve learned has made me look closer at some of the items I found and initially disregarded. For example, these:

Well, of course I thought the long item was
a 1970s hair barrette. Wouldn't you?

I also disregarded the smaller piece until I got home and found two tiny letters on the cut end…

Can't quite make it out; can you?

 But online I found photos of nearly identical pieces in a website on Native American trade silver. So I guess that’s what they are. 

Which brings me back to my original question: what do I do with this stuff? I certainly didn’t rob a grave. These were items that were dropped or discarded by both Native people and Europeans who were in the midst of living their lives. It’s not like this is ancient history and we have no idea what happened there. We know. This particular collision of cultures -- Lake Michigan tribes and European traders and missionaries -- has been studied and written about by all kinds of scholars. In every way, it is a terrible story of hubris and violence and subjugation. But it is not a mystery.

Is it inherently disrespectful of me to remove these items from the ground? Could it be that they want to be found?

What about the tin cans, bottle caps and the pulltabs? Should I remove those? After all, they are the artifacts of the future.

Everything in the ground tells a story. Everything. 

I’m just listening.

And with that, I will leave you with the sound of the waves, an incoming rainstorm and a joyous, gamboling dog. 


  1. Uff all of my comment got erased :( I think you are right with the questions to the woman. I have the same questions in mind. We also get a lot of frowns from the archeologists but I don't think they should make such a big deal out of it. THere are thousands of miles of fields and they will never be able to look through all of that, and besides they scrape off the first layers anyway because it's not interesting to look there. Sorry, my first post was a bit more positive (am really fed up with this Blogger login problem now :p)

  2. Thank you for your comment! Yes, I'm still thinking a lot about the ethics of all this and on the whole I feel OK about my finds. My current plan is to give the tinkling cones to a close friends whose ancestors were a tribe that lived very close to where I found them. And to give the silver cross item (and maybe some other stuff) to the local Native museum up there. Be well!

  3. Whit, so glad to have found your blog! My husband gave me a metal detector for Christmas, and now that the garden's in decline, I finally got out and used it. Totally hooked. Of course, I seem to mostly dig up nails and smashed unidentifiable zinc/aluminum bits. But it's so much fun! Looking on the internet, it does appear to be a bit of a masculine hobby, so I'm glad to find other ladies who are into it as well. Happy digging!

  4. Hi Becky, and welcome to the inSANE world of MD. I just got back from several hours in the blazing heat in a construction site. I didn't do so well, but my best digging buddy, Cheryl, ROCKED IT EVERY WHICH WAY. I'm hoping to write about it soon. Where are you located? If you're in TN, we will have to get together and dig. Whit

  5. Whit, what a nice offer! I know I could learn so much for you. Unfortunately, I'm about 1000 miles away in Maine. So I bet my digging season is a bit shorter than yours is.... BTW, I really enjoy your writing, your pictures, and the fact that you love dogs!
    Take care, Becky

  6. Oooh, Maine! I went a wonderful camp in Maine when I was a teen. It was on Deer Isle. I bet you could find some great stuff up there! Keep in touch and let me know what you find!

  7. Some day I will corner an Archaeologist and nag her until she tells me why they see our hobby as being destructive. In England, they co-opted the hobby and things have reached a certain uncomfortable balance over there. If me or my friend Steve ever found anything French-settler-1700's we would keel over and die of excitement. BTW, I have two full blooded native american grandparents in my lineage so I give you permission not to feel guilty about keeping the trinkets. There it's official.

  8. Whit, What a great post. I have recently been trying to work with the Archaeologists in our area without success. It seems as though they consider us a splinter under their nails. I recently sent out a lengthy letter to many Archaeologists asking them if they would kindly like to work with our club and didn't get any responses out of 15-20. I included the promo videos of the mder's working at Montpilier with the archaeology team. It saddens me that they are so close minded to working with us. At least 99% of them that is. Hopefully they will one day see the light. I look forward to reading your posts more as you seem to do a great job!

  9. Thanks, Steve. Great to hear from you. I can see their side of it. Clearly, much history HAS been lost due to looters, unscrupulous metal detectors and the like, but gosh, they're never going to find or explore every site. I will post an update re the tinkling cones very soon. Something cool happened with them! More later and Happy 2014 to you, my friend!