Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Interpreting the South Flats Earthwork (20MU2): Insights Gained from Geophysical Surveys

Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Interpreting the South Flats Earthwork (20MU2): Insights Gained from Geophysical Surveys

Article excerpt


Michigan's prehistoric earthen enclosures are among the least understood archaeological sites in the state. This paper explores the function of the South Flats Earthwork (20MU2) using remote sensing strategies to reveal aspects of its internal structure not available through excavation. Ground penetrating radar and magnetometry were employed to explore this fragile archaeological site. Results, coupled with excavation data, suggest that South Flats was the work of a small-scale society and a locus of storage and food exchange through kin ties.


Presented here are the results of surface geophysical surveys at the South Flats enclosure (20MU2) in Muskegon County, Michigan. South Flats has been excavated twice, once by George Quimby in 1937 and later by Crand Valley State University (GVSU) in 2006 (Quimby 1965; Gaff and Brashler 2011). Even though previously studied and reported on, this earthwork was subjected to geophysical surveying in 2010 to collect more information related to site structure than was available from excavation alone. We intentionally chose this option after conducting limited excavations and restoration of the enclosure in 2006 because the site is small and fragile; we wanted to learn more without further impacting the site. The results of the geophysical surveys are presented here and we offer interpretations based on the results of the survey coupled with original work done regarding the site that was not included in the original report. We first briefly situate our work in landscape archaeology and mobility studies. Next, we review and summarize previous interpretations of Michigan's earthworks and place them in the context of other earthen enclosures in the eastern United States. We then discuss the geophysical surveys at South Flats and the results of that work. The geophysical data coupled with the excavation data collected at South Flats is an example of how archaeologists can gain site-wide information about the structure of the site not evident through excavation alone, which in turn can enhance interpretations about site placement and function. Finally, we discuss South Flats in the context of current discussions about landscape, mobility and social interaction in the Late Prehistoric of Michigan.


Understanding the landscape placement and internal arrangement of a structure such as South Flats, and its relationship to group dynamics and mobility is critical to understanding the site's function and meaning. Approaches to understanding human interactions with landscape began with work in the early twentieth century by geographer Carl Sauer (1925) among others and subsequently a variety of ethnographers such as Basso (1996) Thornton (2008), and numerous archaeologists writing mostly beginning in the late twentieth century and continuing into the present (Ashmore and Knapp 1999). Several summaries of the numerous approaches taken by landscape archaeology more thoroughly discuss its history and theory and are nor summarized here, except to acknowledge that landscape approaches in archaeology today are diverse (Knapp and Ashmore 1999; Ashmore and Blackmore 2008). How archaeologists employ landscape archaeology is influenced to some extent by the intellectual traditions which frame questions and interpretations based on theoretical positions of the investigator (Ashmore and Blackmore 2008). We acknowledge our predominantly processualist approach and see understanding sites such as South Flats through the lens of ecological and environmental archaeology and landscape, rather than by searching for meanings and phenomenology of landscape, though we see both approaches as worthy of discussion.

It is from this perspective that we engage our understanding of the modest monument that is South Flats. We seek to understand it in terms of the group of peoples who constructed it and gave its location meaning through its placement in the physical environment, the adaptive strategies evident at the site and its regional context, and how it might inform us with regard to social, political and economic dimensions of Late Prehistoric society in west central Lower Michigan. …

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