With every dig, Dr. Richard Clute of Alpena hopes the mystery surrounding ancient 1,000-year-old shale discs that once belonged to pre-tribal Native Americans can be solved.
What are the discs? How did they end up buried here? Why, with a single exception, have they been found only in Alpena and no place else in the world?
Called "Naub-cow-zo-win" discs after the Ojibwa-Ottawa word for charms of personal significance, hundreds of them have been discovered buried in the backyard of a nondescript house tucked between two businesses along US-23-S.
Megan Ouillette and Chris Woolman, students in an ACC summer anthropology class, sift through soil for ancient artifacts.
"I want to be at the point in the next couple of years where I can say something conclusive about them and publish it," Clute said.
For the second summer in a row, he and students enrolled in his Anthropology 240 class at Alpena Community College have spent a week at the site doing excavation and mapping work. Clute, however, has been interested in the site and the mysterious discs for much longer.
It was back in the 1950s that the property owners first discovered some of the discs while digging up a garden. Clute said they initially didn't put much stock in their discovery, but ultimately they concluded that the discs might have some sort of Indian association.
The property owners then contacted the now deceased Gerald Haltiner, who had a keen interest in and knowledge of Native American artifacts. Haltiner and his son, former Besser Museum curator Robert Haltiner, knew immediately that the discs were of historical importance and sent some off to the University of Michigan for archaeological evaluation.
At first, officials there believed the discs were "fakes" even though the Haltiners knew otherwise. The discs then sat in storage for many years. In the 1980s, Clute and others were involved in additional excavation efforts that eventually enabled them to authenticate the discs.
"There have been controlled excavations here for the last 28 years," said Clute, a retired ACC professor who splits his time between Alpena and China, where he teaches at the university level. He is also associated with the Besser Museum as a curator of anthropology.
To date, two scholarly papers have been published on the significance of the discs that are now held in high regard because of their prehistoric context, their symbology and their uniqueness to the region of Thunder Bay. Within the last two years, a number of the discs went on permanent exhibit in the Besser Museum's Native American Gallery.
Clute believes the site eventually will be sold for commercial use. Several other sites in Alpena where some discs also were found have long since met with such a fate. Clute said he hopes to finish mapping out and excavating the current site while the opportunity is still available.
"This is a very unusual site in that it's not a residential site," he said. "It seems to be a very temporary kind of usage. We find no kitchen hearth that suggests long-term usage and there is very little kitchen-type of waste debris."
Working from previously done drawings of the landscape which a thousand years ago would have been right along the Lake Huron shore but now is further inland Clute's students carefully dug down into the ground and removed layers of soil that were then shaken through large sifters. Their labor produced some results.
"We're finding lots of evidence of people having been here," said Stephanie Prince, who along with her husband, Pete, assisted with the dig. Both hold degrees in anthropology and are extremely experienced in the field.
"We've found ceramics and flakes from tool making," Prince said. "We're finding parts of tools from arrows and chisels, and also disc fragments. The disc fragments have incising and designs on them."
While some of the discs found over the years were whole, others were found broken. Clute said the disc have been scattered around the site, but also buried deeply in caches.
"There have been hundreds found here," Clute said. "Lots of the discs were broken, but they don't break easily. It suggests that they were intentionally broken."
The only disc found outside of Alpena was in Ontario on the opposite side of Lake Huron.
For Clute, the site has worked as a good hands-on instructional classroom for the students, exposing them to the techniques and purposes of an archeological dig.
"We're approaching this now with specific questions and looking for whatever kind of evidence we can to unwrap the mystery," he said. "We're asking specific questions. Is there evidence that this is a religious ritual location? It would seem as though it was a place of significance to the people of Alpena 1,000 years ago."
Clute has shared findings with the Native American community, and he said that although they agree the discs are personal religious symbols, they can't provide an explanation as to why they have been found in Alpena and only Alpena.
And so the digging and the studying continues in hopes that one day this age-old mystery will be solved.