Tech archaeologists hosting free tours of Cliff Mine site

CLIFTON – The Michigan Technological University Industrial Archaeology Field School is in its fourth year excavating sites near the Cliff Mine – the first profitable copper mine in the Keweenaw – and students in the program are once again preparing to guide the public on tours of the historic site.

The free tours start this weekend, beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, with the last tour starting at 3:30 p.m. both days. Tours, which leave from the east end of Cliff Drive, about a mile from the town of Phoenix, near the junction of U.S. 41, will also be held June 22-23 and 29-30, the final two weekends of the seven-week field school program.

People are welcome to stop by and ask questions between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday as well while the teams work on the site.

“It’s critical to us that the public be involved in this. We’re not doing this just for ourselves,” said Sam Sweitz, Michigan Tech associate professor and co-principal investigator and instructor at the site, along with Tim Scarlett. “Yes, we want to train students so they can go on and be good archeologists, but that idea of sharing this site and sharing the knowledge that we gain from this site with the public is critical to what we’re doing here.

“… There’s a really nice dialogue between the archaeologists and the public at this site. People will say my great-grandfather worked at the site. They’ll give us information we didn’t know yet. It’s fantastic.”

The tours will be set to various levels of difficulty, and will be fairly open-ended, with opportunities given to explore using signs posted throughout the site as a guide.

“It’s important that people understand it’s not Disneyland. It’s uneven walking, basically like a hike in the woods in the Keweenaw,” Scarlett said. “Come prepared.”

The team of undergraduate and graduate students have learned a lot at the site in the last three years, from digitally mapping the area in the first year, and excavating the stamp mill site the last two years, and now they’re focusing their attention on the nearby town of Clifton, unearthing details about what day-to-day life may have been like.

“Each year we build on what we did the year before,” Sweitz said.

The project has continuity through the leadership of Sweitz and Scarlett, and through several graduate students who have pursued theses and dissertations based off work at the site. Lee Presley, a Ph.D. student in Tech’s industrial heritage and archaeology program – the only such program in the country – for example, is in her second year studying food systems, local farming and consumption patterns at the site.

Each year, though, new students join the project.

“It’s been very exciting. This is my first taste of real archaeology,” said Connor Will, who will be starting his second year in Tech’s anthropology program this fall. “I’m really liking the digging, the mapping, the drawing, the interpretation and the collaboration.”

Thursday he was working with team members Melissa Michaelson, who will also be starting her second year in anthropology, and Rob Anthony, a first-year graduate student in industrial archaeology. The team was excavating a yard space near a house foundation.

“You see archaeology in the movies, and on TV, not only are they glorified, but they find perfect, immaculate remains of an entire village. At least so far here that’s not how it’s worked,” said Anthony, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Northern Michigan University. “We’re finding lots of evidence of day-to-day life. It’s not like Indiana Jones where every moment is action packed, but it’s still exciting.”

“I think the reason there is an industrial archaeology school and program at Tech is because this is the birthplace of the whole entire area,” Michaelson said. “I think that’s a very interesting part to really grasp.”

Sweitz and Scarlett hope to continue the project for as long as they can, possibly for many decades like at many other excavation sites. The duration of the project all depends on funding, with about a third of the money coming each from private gifts to the Michigan Tech Fund, grants from the Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission and the Department of Social Sciences at Michigan Tech.

“As long as we can find people to help fund this, we’ll continue to work here,” Sweitz said.

The research is being done with permission on land owned by the Keweenaw County Road Commission.

For more information about the history of the mine, and Tech’s archaeology project at the site, take a free public tour or visit the project blog online at