Explore Stone Street
Reconnecting with Flint's First Residents
Flint’s history is much deeper than you might think, and the evidence is under our feet. After the glaciers retreated about 15,000 years ago, First People/Native Americans made their homes in the place we now call Flint. The descendants of these first communities still live here today, and their ancestors have left enduring traces of their presence. Their history can be told by the artifacts left at habitation and burial sites in the city and beyond - like the Stone Street site.
The Stone Street site, a burial site discovered in Flint’s Carriage Town neighborhood, provides us with the opportunity to explore two important issues relating to Flint’s deeper past. First, what was life like for Flint’s earliest inhabitants? Flint’s archaeology can tell us a great deal about how people lived here several millenia ago. Second, what should we do if we find archaeological artifacts or human remains? Places like the Stone Street burial ground are places of great cultural significance to the people who are buried there and their descendants. Like a modern cemetery, they deserve respect. Notifying the right people about a potential find protects these places from unintended harm.
Before the arrival of people from other continents in the 17th century (1800’s), the city looked very different than it does today. The Flint River wove through the landscape on a natural path serving as a transportation route linking the First People to Saginaw Bay and beyond. The regional landscape was very different and indigenous plants and animals thrived in the forests, meadows, and rivers.
An Accidental Discovery – The Stone Street Burial Ground
Archaeological remains are often elusive and many sites have been destroyed by construction activities in the city, especially in the last 150 years. That doesn’t mean that all traces of the first people are gone. It was a surprise to find a large 1000 year old burial ground so close to downtown Flint (Explore Further: Why didn’t we know about the Stone Street burial ground before 2008?) but, sadly, many of the ancestors buried there were unearthed and broken when large foundations were dug for new houses on the west side of Stone Street, between 2nd and University (3rd) Avenues in Carriage Town.
Caring for the Site
The bones and AFO’s (Associated Funerary Objects) of Native American ancestors lay within large piles of back dirt; unfortunately, they were broken and intermixed with the artifacts from the 19th and 20th century homes. The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, represented by staff from the Ziibiwing Center for Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, were consulted (Explore Further: Why Were the Saginaw-Chippewa Tribe Involved with the Stone Street discovery?). Some descendants thought the dirt should be bulldozed back into the earth, but others did not wish the ancestors to be reburied with the garbage of the most recent occupants. The Tribe requested that all the back dirt piles be screened, separating the ancestral remains and their artifacts from the 19th and 20th century artifacts. From 2009 through 2011, tribal members, community volunteers, and students screened 76,000 cubic feet of dirt.
Archaeological Recovery and Repatriation
Bones can tell the story of many aspects of a person’s life – their appearance, diet, health, and sometimes their cause or manner of death. Dr. Beverley Smith of the University of Michigan-Flint directed the recovery and was accorded the trust of the descendent community to inventory the ancestral remains and their AFO”s. This analysis provided a picture of the demography (sex, age), health (pathologies), and time period when the burial ground was used to inter the ancestors. The burial ground was used between circa 800 ACE (after Christian Era) until 1400 ACE based upon the analyis of the AFO’s; no radiocarbon/C14 dating was used. (Explore Further: How do AFO’s help estimate the date of the burial ground?) Archaeologists refer to the time period as the “Woodland”. The ancestors and their AFO’s were reburied at the site in a sacred and solemn ceremony at the end of each summer (see one of the reburial invitations below). The reburial was made even more meaningful because the officiates of the ceremony, led by Mr. George Martin, Lac Courtes Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Midewiwan and Tribal Elder, US Marine Corps Veteran, could speak about the remains as people - women and men, children and elders as is customary at any funeral service.
Explore Further: Why is taking Images of Ancestral Remains Disrespectful?
Learning from Flint’s First Residents
There were no images taken of the ancestral remains but an inventory of those recovered are curated by the Ziibiwing Center for Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan (Explore Further: Why is taking Images of Ancestral Remains Disrespectful?). A great deal of important information lies in this inventory (see summary chart below). A minimum of 109 individuals were recovered based on side and size of the most frequently recorded part of the adult skeleton – the petrous portion of the temporal element of the skull. The petrous is a hard, sturdy bone that encompasses the ear canal. The age and sex profile of the burial population is consistent with a cemetery used over a long period of time and an expected range of a “normal death curve”. This is important because, together with a lack of arrowheads/projectile points and traumatic injury to the bones, we can dispell the possibility of a plague, battle, or other traumatic event. In many ways, it was a cemetery used like any other cemetery.
By any measure that bones can tell us, the people buried at Stone Street were members of a healthy population. The majority of the people were elderly when they died although, sadly, infants and children are also found in the burial ground. They consumed a healthy diet since there is no evidence of any nutritional deficiency diseases and even caries (tooth cavities) are fairly rare. The most frequent problem was osteoarthritis – a common condition experienced by most elderly people. The ancestors who lived their lives and buried their dead between 600 and 1200 years ago in the place today we call Flint, Michigan have given us a great gift.