Digging the Dig

Hands-on archaeological learning at Crossroads at Big Creek

by Laurel Hauser, Assistant Director, Crossroads at Big Creek

Lessons about indigenous life can be gleaned above and below the soil at Crossroads at Big Creek. For the past six years, Crossroads – an experience-based environmental learning center in Sturgeon Bay – has hosted professional archaeologists Randy Dickson, William Kemps and Emily Rux of Midwest Archaeological Consultants. The trio has guided hundreds of local students, teachers and adults in learning about Native American history in a very hands-on way.

(From left) Archeologist William Kemps and visiting teacher Linda Roehig examine soil at one of the Crossroads at Big Creek dig sites. Roehig, who participated in one of the adult dig days, discovered an intact arrowhead. Photo by Laurel Hauser.

The program began when Dickson asked whether Crossroads would allow him to do an archaeological demonstration for his daughter’s second-grade class.  

“He didn’t have to ask twice,” said Crossroads Director Coggin Heeringa. “I had a gut feeling that areas around Big Creek might be ‘hot spots.’”

Her hunch was correct: Sites have been located at all three Crossroads preserves – Big Creek, Ida Bay and The Cove – and they’ve yielded flintknapping (stone-tool-making) residue, intact arrowheads and clay-pot fragments indicative of the Middle and Late Woodland eras, about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.

“The pottery shards are particularly exciting,” Heeringa said. “They tell us that our property was the site of a settlement – probably a seasonal one that was used repeatedly. Nomadic people didn’t invest time into creating vessels because they weren’t portable.”

Kemps sifts through shovelfuls of soil looking for artifacts near where Big Creek empties into Sturgeon Bay. He scans the site. Cattails bend in the breeze, and a lone heron fishes. He explains that this would have been an ideal site for an indigenous settlement.  

Experienced-based learning at Crossroads at Big Creek includes partaking in the everyday activities of indigenous peoples, including constructing a wigwam shelter. Photo by Laurel Hauser.

“They had running water, shelter in the rocky outcroppings of the bluffs near here, clay and a source of protein in the sturgeon they caught – everything they needed.”

During the fall semester for the last six years, middle school students have participated in the dig, and during the past two years, Heeringa has worked with Midwest Archaeological Consultants to expand the learning curriculum to include everyday Woodland-era activities.

More than 120 middle school students helped build shelters, craft clay pots and construct travois (ancient handcarts). They also propelled atlatls (spears) at woolly-mammoth and wolf targets. In the course of one day, they were able to complete a basic wigwam, weaving bark and moss into sapling girders.

“This is why experiential learning is so important,” Heeringa said. “You can hear about wigwams and travois and see photos of them, but until you select the wood, tie it together and step through the door or heft the cart, you don’t really get how it works. You don’t get it until you’ve done it.”

The spring experience is funded by grants from Cellcom Green Gifts, the Carol Coryell Scholarship Fund, the Cliff and Clara Herlache Heritage Foundation of the Door County Community Foundation, the Wisconsin Humanities Council and contributions to Crossroads from individual donors.

A sixth-grade student from T.J. Walker Middle School prepares to propel an atlatl at a woolly-mammoth target during a learning exploration day at Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay. Photo by Holly Selle.

“We are grateful to all who make this experience possible right here in Door County. For many, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – something kids remember forever.”

Four years ago, Crossroads opened the dig experience to adults, too. Pamela Johnson and Kent Moraga jumped at the chance. “We each wanted to be archaeologists at one point in our lives,” Moraga said, but careers in nuclear power and pharmaceutical engineering pulled them in other directions. Scraping and sifting soil, they relished the opportunity to rub shoulders with and hear stories from professional archaeologists.

“We’ve looked at advertisements in National Geographic for digs halfway around the world,” Moraga said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to do this just down the road from where we live.”

Crossroads at Big Creek is a 501(c)(3) organization that offers education, conducts research and provides outdoor experiences to inspire environmental stewardship in learners of all ages. Its trails and property are open 24/7. The Collins Learning Center, 2041 Michigan St. in Sturgeon Bay, is open daily, 2-4 pm, and at other times when staff members are present. To learn more, visit or call 920.746.5895.


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