Even during a quarantine, archaeology does not stop. While we have not been able to get out into the field until recently, we at CAP have been working hard to create historical background summaries of areas that will be impacted by construction (a critical part …
Author: Jeff Painter
Archival research is one of the backbones of archeological work, especially in historical archaeology. Not only do we conduct archival research to find more information about the people who lived at a particular site and how the site was used, but it is also a …
After receiving permission to conduct field work in the Sanford Woodlot, Jack and I (along with Campus Archaeologist Autumn Painter) were able to start mapping and surveying the remains of the MSU sugar house. While our work was impacted by snow and falling leaves, we were able to complete a detailed sketch map of the architectural remains and remnant equipment. We were also lucky enough to locate a few artifacts as well!
During our explorations of the area, we were only able to relocate the northern edge of the sugar house. The extant architecture was composed of concrete and rebar and was roughly 26 meters long, east to west, with a northern projection of the building present on the west side. While wall foundations were still standing at the northern projection, the rest of the concrete was collapsed and may have been either wall segments or the remains of a concrete floor. Directly to the north of this wall/floor was a field of small concrete pylons, which, based on archival documents (Campus Parks Office Sanford Walking Tour), served as supports for a small sawmill. The building, located on the edge of a small flood plain, was built into the side of a gentle slope.
Overall, the construction of this building appears to match closely with the ideal building described in a 1949 report by Putnam Robbins, one of the researchers in charge of the sugar house. In this report, Putnam specifies that the floor and base of the walls should be constructed from concrete, and that the building should be built into a slope at the edge of the sugar bush, with a collection tank built at the highest elevation. This slope is very important, because this allows gravity to feed sap from the collection tank into the storage tank and then the evaporator without need of human or mechanical power.
But this work did provide one small mystery. In a 1942 map (MSU Map Library), the only map we have located that depicts an outline of the sugar house, the building is shown as a long rectangle with a projection on its south side. Our research, on the other hand, has found a projection of the building on the north side. Further, all of the images of the sugar house that we have, all showing the south side of the structure, do not depict a southern projection of the building, only a flat wall. Since the south side of the building is either buried or missing, it is not possible at this time to investigate this mystery, leaving the architectural design of the building unclear.
While mapping, we also recovered a few artifacts that we think were associated with the sugar house. Scattered to the northwest edge of the building are a number of large metal objects, presumably sawmill equipment that was left behind. Also found scattered around the edges of the building were three bottle bases, two shards of clear bottle glass, and one piece of electrical hardware. Two of the three bottle bases were old Coca-Cola bottles; one nearly complete Coke bottle is marked with a patent number of D-105529, dating the bottle’s manufacture to between 1938 and 1951 (See past blog). It also has an Owens-Illinois Glass Co. maker’s mark on its side, with the number 42 to its right, possibly indicating the bottle was manufactured in 1942 (https://sha.org/bottle/index.htm). The clear bottle base has a marker’s mark as well, a capital G within a square, indicating that it was made by Glenshaw Glass Co. (1904-2004, 2007-present). We can narrow its chronology down further based on the presence of stippling on the base, which was applied to bottles after 1940 (https://sha.org/bottle/index.htm). As the sugar house was in operation until the early 1960s, its possible both bottles relate to the use of the structure, but Sanford Woodlot is also a popular spot for nature walks and has accumulated its share of thrown away bottles over the years.
While we are currently taking a break in field work for the winter, we hope to continue survey work in the spring, so stay tuned for another update!
2019 “BLM/SHA Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information Website.” https://sha.org/bottle/index.htm
MSU Campus Parks Office
N.D. “Sanford Natural Area: An Island of Wilderness on the Campus of Michigan State University, Walking Tour.” MSU Archives and Historical Collections, natural areas file.
MSU Map Library
1942 Map of MSC Farm and Experimental Plots. http://archive.lib.msu.edu/maps/MSU-Scanned/Michigan/msu/msc%20campus%20300%20dpis/843-d-A-1942-planning-300.jpg
Robbins, Putnam W.
1949 Production of Maple Syrup in Michigan. Circular Bulletin 213, MSU Agricultural Experiment Station.
While Jack and I plan our field research on the old sugar bush that once stood in Sandford Woodlot, we have continued to do background research on the site. With help from Whitney Miller, the good folks at the MSU Archives and Historical Collections, and …
Speaking as a person with a serious sweet tooth, maple syrup may be one of the greatest products of nature. It is tasty, versatile, and can be made by anyone with enough maple trees and a hot flame. It also has been a part of …
While archaeologists are trained in a number of different skills and techniques, there is one thing that all archaeologists know and love: shovels. Shovels are just as much a part of archaeology as the ubiquitous trowel, and even lend their name to the title of hard working archaeologists who dig for their supper, shovel bums. Every archaeologist can recognize many types of shovels, and we all know what situations they are best for during excavation. So, it is always fun when we get to use a shovel to dig one up.
During CAP’s 2017 field school at Station Terrace, just such an event occurred. In Unit F, placed within the interior of the building, a large shovel blade was recovered by students (Bright 2017). At about 14 inches wide, 17 inches long, and 4.5 inches deep (give or take a quarter of an inch or so of rust), this was a large metal shovel that, based on its deep well, was designed for scooping (McLeod n.d.). Due to its scoop appearance, this shovel may have been a large-scale mover of things, such as coal, grain, gravel, mulch, etc. But this begs the question: why was this type of shovel in Station Terrace?
Station Terrace, which stood on campus from the early 1890’s until 1924, served many functions during its relatively short life as part of MSU. Early on, it was used as housing for visiting researchers and then for unmarried male instructors, during which it received the great nickname of “the Bull Pen.” From 1903 to 1923, Station Terrace was used as the East Lansing Post Office, while a front room served as a trolley car waiting room. In 1921, the waiting room was turned into a small café, known as the Flower Pot Tea Room (Bright 2016; Michael 2017). Thanks to a house fire in 1903, exterior photographs and the one existing photograph of one of the bedrooms, we know that the building had at least one chimney pre-1910 and two post 1910 expansion(Bright 2016); indicating it had fire places and possibly some other source of internal heating, but there is no mention of a large coal-burning stove that would have required a large shovel for moving coal. It also does not appear that any of the buildings many functions would have required the movement of large amounts of scoop-able materials, unless the post office moved letters and packages by shovel.
So why was this shovel kept in Station Terrace? To me, the mystery of how objects were used in the past can be just as much fun as uncovering tidbits of history that have been lost for thousands of years. Humans are an amazingly creative bunch, meaning that we use objects in many different ways. For example, my wife uses a high-ball glass not for drinking, but for cutting dough to make pierogis. We rarely use this glass for anything else at home; it is reserved for a purpose that many people would not expect. I think the Station Terrace shovel was used in a similar manner. While it may have at one point served to shovel coal, grain, or other materials, I think it was used as a snow shovel at Station Terrace. Being located in Michigan, MSU gets a lot of snow. As Station Terrace served as a post office and trolley stop, moving vehicles, people, and mail carts would have regularly needed access to the building. Snow and ice would have impeded this accessibility, so snow removal was, and still is, essential. As this blog by Tim Heffernan attests, old coal shovels make great snow removal devices thanks to their weight and their metal blades. In the end, it is very difficult to know exactly how this object was used, but context clues suggest that it might have completed a number of jobs in its life, some that are easier to imagine, others that will continue to be a mystery.
2016 “Station Terrace: A Building with Many Identities.” Campus Archaeology Blog. http://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=4255.
2017 “2017 Field School Recap: Station Terrace.” Campus Archaeology Blog. http://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=5401.
n.d. “Types of Shovels: Your Complete Guide to What Works Best Where.” https://www.backyardboss.net/types-of-shovels/.
2017 “The Flower Pot Tea Room: A Female-Run Student Business on the Early Campus.” Campus Archaeology Blog. http://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=4895.
This summer, Cowles House, MSU’s oldest standing building, is due to get a facelift. As part of this remodeling, crews will remove a few trees from around and inside the building and expand the west wing. In preparation for this work, I have been researching …
Take a long look at the objects in the picture below. What do you think they are? I bet that your first guess was just a little bit off. They are not small hand-cuffs (as they were originally labeled in the lab!), buckles, or tiny …
While archaeologists are great at identifying artifacts that we recover, we occasionally find objects that are a mystery. Even on campus, we sometimes find intriguing objects in our excavations that take some investigative work to identify. One group of objects that has piqued our interest were a number of small black cylinders recovered during the 2015 CAP field school at the late 19th-early 20th century Gunson site. Ambiguous enough to make finding a function difficult, the current Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright suggested that they might have originally served as carbon rods within batteries. After doing some research, she appears to be right!
Carbon rods are found in the center of zinc-carbon batteries, today’s basic household battery. In general, these batteries produce energy through chemical reactions that take place between their component parts. As these reactions release energy, the centrally placed carbon rod functions as a positive electrode, helping to funnel the released energy into whatever device the battery is powering (Frood 2003; Schumm 2011). These batteries can come in both flat or cylindrical forms, and can be stacked together to generate even larger electric potential (Schumm 2011). Based on the shape and the length of the carbon rods recovered by CAP, it is likely that they originated from within cylinder batteries.
If, like me, you tend to image the late 18th-early 19th century as battery free, they actually have a much deeper history than many realize. The first batteries that we know of were actually created centuries ago, sometime between 200 B.C. or A.D. 600. Known as “Baghdad Batteries,” these devices, constructed from metal and liquid components placed in clay jars, were capable of producing a small electric charge, but it is unknown how they would have been used (Frood 2003). Much later, in 1866, the same concepts were used by Georges-Lionel LeClanche to invent the LeClanche wet cell battery. Housed in a glass mason jar, this early battery was used to power important technologies like telegraph machines and railroad signals. In 1888, Carl Gassner improved this model and created the first dry cell battery, which used a solid medium instead of a liquid one. This improvement made these batteries spill-proof, and are the ancestor of all of our modern batteries today (Schumm 2011). Both wet and dry cell batteries utilized carbon rods to help channel the battery’s energy, but based on the dates from the Gunson site (late 19th-early 20th century), these rods would have been from dry cell batteries.
Batteries may have had numerous roles on campus. Starting in the 1890s, MSU officials were working on initiatives to power many parts of campus through the use of electricity (Meeting Minutes of Offices of Board of Trustees and President 1892, 1894, 1898). A few departments also requested and received funding to purchase electrical equipment for power sources and experiments. For example, in 1890 and 1895, the College approved the purchase of a mysterious “electric apparatus” for two different professors (Meeting Minutes of Offices of the Board of Trustees and President 1890, 1895). In 1898, they also approved the purchase of an electrical motor to power the equipment within the mechanical shops (Meeting Minutes of Offices of the Board of Trustees and President 1898). Batteries are also occasionally mentioned, as in 1904, when a large storage battery (think like a large car battery) was purchased and installed for the Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering (M.A.C. Record, Dec. 13th, 1904). Batteries also may have been used to power technologies mentioned earlier, such as communication equipment.
It is hard to know how Gunson, a horticulturalist by trade, would have used these batteries. While it is likely that he and his family may have used them within their home for some purpose, another clue is found in an 1896 edition of the M.A.C. Record. Within, there is a small discussion of an experiment conducted by a few men in Chicago, who used electricity produced by an electric engine and then storage batteries attached to a cart to kill weeds along a railroad line (M.A.C, Record, Oct. 20th, 1896). While the validity of such experiments is called into question by this article, it shows that people in many scientific fields were experimenting with electricity during this time, even horticulturalists and botanists. As such, some of the batteries we have recovered may have served household functions, but others may have been used in experiments conducted in Gunson’s greenhouse or around the campus grounds.
2003 “Riddle of ‘Baghdad Batteries.’” BBC News website. Accessed Feb. 7th, 2018.
MSU Archives and Historical Collections
1896 M.A.C. Record, October 20th, 1896.
1904 M.A.C. Record, December 13th, 1904.
1890 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1892 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1894 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1895 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1898 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
Schumm, Brooke Jr.
2011 Zin-Carbon Batteries. In Linden’s Handbook of Batteries, edited by Thomas B. Reddy and David Linden. McGraw Hill, Columbus OH.
Dating archaeological sites that we discover is one of the most basic tasks that archaeologists perform. While we all must do it, dating archaeological assemblages is not always easy. Luckily, marketing and branding, a crucial part of our consumer world, helps to make dating historic …