Ashley Lemke

Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Department of Anthropology, ACUA Board Member, ACUA Ex-Officio Chair

The Great Lakes are a wonderful place for conducting underwater archaeology. Particularly known for their wonderful preservation of wooden shipwrecks, all five of North America’s “inland seas” have a rich archaeological record. The maritime history in the region has been recognized by not one, but two NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary  and the newest sanctuary in this nation-wide program, the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary . The cold, fresh waters in the lakes are responsible for remarkable preservation, not just of ship and plane wrecks, but of much older archaeological sites as well.

Research in Lake Huron has been documenting a 10,000 year old submerged landscape, the Alpena-Amberley Ridge (AAR). This landform, which cuts across the modern Lake Huron basin, is ~145 km long and between 12-16 kilometers wide, a long narrow causeway that was dry land at the end of the last ice age. This feature is just a small area of the vast prehistoric landscape in the Great Lakes, when water levels were much lower and more land was exposed and inhabited by past peoples. The AAR and these areas would have been some of the most productive environments, near fresh water and with abundant wildlife, including caribou. Archaeological research on the AAR has documented numerous archaeological sites, including many sites with stone constructed features that were used for caribou hunting. In addition to the features themselves, artifacts and preserved organic remains have been recovered. There are 9,000 year old rooted trees on the bottom of Lake Huron – evidence of the past dry land landscape.

Team members, students, parents, and NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary staff on the research vessel

While many people are interested in underwater archaeology, accessing the sites and data can be difficult, particularly the sites on the AAR that are between 35 and 50 miles offshore and 100 feet below water. One method our team has developed for bringing this past landscape to life is through virtual reality. Working with computer scientists, we have created a virtual world model of the AAR when it was dry land, which includes known archaeological sites and reconstructed environment based on real data collected underwater. This VR program was then brought into a high school classroom in Alpena, Michigan and students were taught about underwater archaeology in general, the Lake Huron project, Native American hunting techniques, and caribou behavior and they then entered the virtual world to explore for themselves and generate hypotheses about where additional archaeological sites may be found.

High school students exploring the virtual Alpena-Amberley Ridge.

This summer, the first group of students were taken out on a research vessel to ground truth, or in this case, use a remote operated vehicle, to investigate the AAR and look for archaeological evidence. This collaborative project with the high school will continue, as well as working with Native communities in Alaksa to learn more about caribou hunting – eventually students across the country will be able to be “on” the AAR at the same time in VR.

Project Team at Alpena High School (left to right) Dr. Robert Reynolds, Professor, Computer Science, Wayne State University; Chencheng Zhang, PhD Student Computer Science, Wayne State University; Dr. Ashley Lemke, Associate Professor Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Erich Schulter, High School Teacher, Science in the Sanctuary, Alpena, Michigan; Dr. John O’Shea, Professor, Anthropology, University of Michigan; Dr. Cailen O’Shea, Assistant Professor, Education, North Dakota State University.

High school students on board the research vessel

This an exciting time for Great Lakes archaeology, with the new sanctuary and a new program for underwater archaeology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Set right next to Lake Michigan, UWM is a new launching point for students interested in underwater archaeology in general and submerged landscapes in particular! I will be taking graduate students for both the M.S. and Ph.D. programs in Anthropology starting Spring 2024. Apply today!

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