Dr. Terry Brock is a historical and public archaeologist, and is currently the Assistant Director of Archaeology at the Montpelier Foundation in Orange, Virginia. He served as the first Campus Archaeologist from 2008 to 2010 while a graduate student at MSU. As someone who was […]
Author: Mari Isa
Still searching for an archaeology field school for this summer? The Campus Archaeology Program will be offering a field school—right here on MSU’s campus—from May 13 to June 7, 2019. A field school is one of the best ways to learn what it takes to […]
Dr. Amy Michael is a biological anthropologist whose research examines the microstructure of human bones and teeth in order to address questions ranging from health and social identity in the ancient Maya to the effect of lifestyle factors on skeletal age. She is currently a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, NH and serves as a senior staff member on the Central Belize Archaeological Survey project. Dr. Michael was a Campus Archaeology fellow from 2011 to 2017.
As part of our ongoing series highlighting CAP alumni I (virtually) sat down with Dr. Michael to ask her about her time as a Campus Archaeology fellow. During our conversation we talked about how a biological anthropologist ended up spending six years working on projects in historical archaeology, and learned how that experience shaped who she is as an anthropologist.
Q: You’re a biological anthropologist, so how and why did you get involved with CAP?
A: I took a mortuary archaeology class with [Dr. Lynne Goldstein, former CAP Director] and I just really admired her. I thought that she was an incredible mentor and person. At that point in grad school I was still figuring things out and exploring my options in the [anthropology] program. I met with Lynne and she was very welcoming. She saw the value in bringing in different viewpoints to the table. Right away she put me on a project researching sustainability on campus, which got me working in the [MSU] archives. I realized I really liked doing archival work and that led to me developing a gender and landscape project that involved a lot of research in the archives.
Q: Can you tell me more about that project?
A: The project focused on how early college women experienced landscape differently from men. I spent a lot of time in the archives reading through scrapbooks and journals and notes from women’s student council meetings. I was able to piece together that early women on campus were restricted in where they were allowed to be. They needed chaperones to go certain places. But within the journals and scrapbooks you also saw a lot of humor about their situation. The women would pull pranks and write about the rules they had to follow in this really tongue in cheek way. It became less a story of restriction and more about how these women worked to make that section of campus their own. They set up their own student council, they policed themselves, and they made that area of north campus work for them.
Q: What was your favorite part about working for CAP?
A: For me the best part was figuring out that I was interested in an area of anthropology that I previously had zero experience working in. Even though I’m someone whose primary interest is in biological anthropology, [Dr. Goldstein and CAP] helped me conceptualize that to be a good anthropologist you have to be interested in everything else. You don’t have to be excellent in everything, but all fields should inform what you do.
Q: How do you bring what you learned in CAP to what you do now?
A: I think working with CAP and historical archaeology made me a better anthropologist because I couldn’t rest on my expertise in bones. The projects I work on in the Maya world are very much osteology driven, they’re focused on extracting technical and methodological data from bones. [In CAP] I had to get more creative about how to get at things. It pushed me to learn new skills – what isa good, efficient way to search the archives? How can I look at these artifacts? How can I use every line of evidence available to me? Being pushed out of my comfort zone made me realize I’m not just interested in bones and teeth. It gave me a better idea of what I’m interested in and what I can do.
Every job I’ve had I’ve been asked about CAP in the interview. They always want to know, “You’re a bio person but you did six years of historical archaeology?” There’s this assumption that you can’t have other interests, but that’s not true. I think that because of my experience I can speak to a broader audience of students.
CAP has also given me access to something I can share with my students. When I worked at LCC [Lansing Community College] and Albion [College], I was able to send some of my students to CAP. The CAP field school is such an important opportunity for students who can’t afford to spend the time or money to go abroad to get field experience. It’s important to me because I couldn’t afford it in undergrad.
Q: What do you miss most about CAP now that you’re an alumna?
A: Lynne Goldstein! I miss working closely with her and with the CAP fellows. Going to CAP meetings I really felt a sense of camaraderie. I miss being part of a project that was led by someone I really admired.
At UNH, [Dr. Meghan Howey, Professor of Anthropology] runs a campus archaeology project called “The Lost Campus.” It prioritizes freshmen to get them immediately interested in the history of UNH and making a connection to campus. CAP had a big influence on that program. It’s cool to me to be at a place where we’re paying homage to Lynne Goldstein and giving students these archaeology experiences early on.
Those who follow us know that outreach is a big part of what we do in the Campus Archaeology Program. Every year, CAP participates in several public outreach events including Michigan Archaeology Day, Grandparents University, ScienceFest, and more. These events are important because it gives […]
Take a moment to think about what kinds of materials you’d expect to find in a garbage dump from 2018. Did plastic immediately spring to mind? About 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, only about 10% of which is recycled (1). Since mass production of plastic took off around 1950 an estimated 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been produced, much of which has ended up in landfills (1). We don’t encounter much plastic at the oldest sites on MSU’s campus. At sites dating to the 19th century, like Saints’ Rest and College Hall, we more frequently find glass, metal, and ceramics. At more recent sites, however, we begin to see more plastic in the archaeological record, reflecting the increased availability and use of plastic in everyday items. Several plastic artifacts were excavated at the Brody-Emmons Complex, the site of the East Lansing city landfill in the early 20th century.
Humans have long used natural substances with plastic properties, such as rubber and shellac, but man-made plastics are a fairly recent innovation. The first man-made plastic is attributed to British chemist Alexander Parkes (2). In 1856, Parkes acquired a patent for a product made from a plant material called cellulose treated with nitric acid and other chemicals. The product, called Parkesine, exhibited many useful properties: when hot it could be easily molded into various shapes, but when cool it was sturdy and durable. Unlike rubber, it could be industrially produced in large quantities (2).
Early plastics such as Parkesine and its successor, celluloid, involved the addition of chemicals to naturally occurring polymers (3). The first fully synthetic plastic wasn’t invented until 1907 when American chemist Leo Baekeland produced a plastic material through a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. He called his phenolic resin “Bakelite,” polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycoanhydride to the chemistry nerds out there. Unlike celluloid, Bakelite is thermosetting; once molded, it retains its shape even if heated again (3).
Baekeland patented Bakelite in 1909 and formed the General Bakelite Company around 1910 (3). The company adopted the infinity symbol as its logo to match its slogan “a material of a thousand uses.” In fact, Bakelite did prove to have many uses. Due to its resistance to heat and electricity, it was particularly useful in the automotive and electrical industries. The earliest commercial use of Bakelite was in insulating bushings manufactured for the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation in 1908. During World War I, Bakelite was used in everything from electrical systems to airplane propellers. As plastic began to be incorporated in electronics such as telephones and radios, these products became cheaper and thus more widely accessible (3). There were also many decorative and aesthetic uses for Bakelite. Blocks of Bakelite could be carved to create items like pipe stems, cigarette holders, and even jewelry (3). The look, weight, and sound of Bakelite pieces struck together are similar to ivory (4). For this reason, phenolic resins are still used in items such as billiard balls, dominos, and chess pieces (3).
One of the plastic artifacts associated with the East Lansing landfill is a small hand-held mirror we suspected might be made of Bakelite. People who have handled a lot of Bakelite can make an assessment based on subtle clues like sound and feel. Since I have not handled much of it myself, I turned to some of the other “tests” for Bakelite.
First I tried the smell test. This method involves heating the object – either by running it under hot water or rubbing it vigorously–and sniffing. Bakelite gives off a telltale formaldehyde smell (4). As I wanted to avoid damaging the artifact, I tried the rubbing approach. The mirror definitely smelled “weird” to me, but it was too faint for me to discern a specific scent.
Next I decided to try one of the visual methods for testing Bakelite. These methods involve swabbing a Q-Tip or white cloth dampened with certain chemicals against the object in question. If the object is Bakelite, it will turn the Q-tip yellow (4). Other early plastics, such as Lucite, do not produce this result. Chemicals typically used for testing Bakelite are Formula 409 and Simichrome metal polish (4). I couldn’t find Simichrome at my local hardware store, so I opted to try Formula 409. After gently cleaning the mirror to remove any dirt, Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright and I swabbed a Q-Tip sprayed with 409 against the back of the mirror. The Q-Tip turned faintly yellow, which seemed promising. After a bit of research, I discovered that some people have successfully used baking soda to test for Bakelite (5). I decided to try this method too, and added a bit of baking soda to a damp white paper towel. Voila! The paper towel turned yellow where it contacted the plastic. These tests seem to indicate that the mirror is Bakelite, which makes it the second Bakelite artifact identified in the Brody assemblage. A Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand with a Bakelite lid was also recovered in 2011.
Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society in 1993 (3). As the world’s first synthetic plastic Bakelite is credited with ushering in the Polymer Age, also called the Age of Plastics (3). It is interesting to observe that we can see this landmark—and evidence of the dawn of the Age of Plastics —in the archaeological record of our campus.
Mason jars are having a moment. If you’ve attended a wedding (particularly the barn variety) or eaten at a brunch establishment in the last decade, chances are you’ve consumed a beverage out of a Mason jar. What the youngest among us may not realize is […]
Here at CAP we think a lot about different ways of sharing our research. We can—and do—present at conferences, give public lectures, and publish site reports and journal articles. While these avenues are great for communicating our work to other experts, they are probably not […]
Given one hour, how do you teach 300 7th graders to think like archaeologists? This was the challenge presented to us when a group of teachers contacted CAP about doing an interactive event to introduce their 7th grade social studies students to archaeology. Although CAP regularly does activity-based engagement with elementary school children, we did not have a ready-made activity appropriate for older students.
This event presented us with an opportunity to consider which aspects of archaeology we most wanted to share with young members of the public. Since we couldn’t teach 7th graders how to do archaeology in one hour in a classroom, we decided to focus on getting them to understand how archaeologists use material and contextual evidence to draw conclusions, and how archaeology can contribute unique information to our knowledge of the past.
Over the past few weeks, we developed a “site in a box” activity designed to give students an opportunity to think like archaeologists. We assembled boxes containing artifacts, site photos, and maps, with each box representing a “mystery” archaeological site. Lisa wrote in detail about our process in assembling these boxes on the blog last week. Students were instructed to work together, using all available evidence to complete two tasks. The first task was to identify the artifacts and discuss their potential uses. The second task was to use these answers to make larger inferences about the site: What type of site was it? What was the time period and geographic location of the site? What do the artifacts say about the people associated with the site? For example, how did they eat and procure food? How did they dress? Did they see any evidence of belief systems?
We debuted the new activity last Friday at the middle school. On the day of the event, we divided nine CAP representatives including Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Camp, all six CAP fellows, and one undergraduate volunteer across three classrooms to help run the activity. Each classroom of students was divided into five groups, each assigned a different box representing containing the materials from one of the mystery sites.
Each class was 55 minutes long. We typically took the first 10 minutes to explain the activity and answer a few questions. After this introduction, students had about 30-35 minutes to work in groups to complete the activity. During this time, CAP representatives walked around the room answering questions, helping stimulate discussion, and guiding students in identifying some of the trickier artifacts. During the last 15 minutes of class, each group presented their findings, selecting a few artifacts to share along with their conclusions about the site. Finally, they compared their answers with the site descriptions in the answer key.
We found this time frame short enough to keep students engaged throughout the entire class period, but long enough for them to answer most of the questions. Left to their own devices students tended to spend most of their time describing artifacts, so CAP representatives learned to help steer discussions toward interpretations at the halfway mark to keep them on track. While the students did well with most of the physical artifacts, we noticed we needed to clarify what to do with images of artifacts, as students often overlooked or struggled to identify these. In the future we might consider replacing these with physical artifacts or clearer images, along with explicit instructions to look at artifact images.
Overall, we felt that the activity was a success. The students were engaged, enthusiastic, and seemed to enjoy piecing together the puzzle we presented them. They asked thoughtful questions and came up with interesting interpretations about their sites. We were especially impressed with some of the connections they made based on what they had previously learned in social studies. Several students asked if the presence of corn and eggshells meant the people at their site were domesticating plants and animals.
Although preparation for this event took considerable investment of time and resources, it also presented an opportunity to develop a quality activity we could use for other events. These kits would be appropriate and interesting to audiences from middle school students to adults. Looking forward to our planned outreach events, this activity could easily be used for Grandparents’ University. Finally, putting together this activity made us think about how to convey what makes archaeology a unique and relevant source of information in a meaningful, yet manageable way.
Avid readers of the CAP blog might remember our excitement last year when we discovered a piece of yellow-green vaseline glass in the Gunson assemblage. The glass glowed bright green under black light, indicating it contained uranium. This week as we continued to sort through […]