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 […]
Author: Jeff Painter
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 […]
In archaeology, we frequently use large assemblages of different artifacts to interpret what happened at an archaeological site. While a greater number of artifacts is always useful, the ability of just one single artifact to tell us a story is also amazing. I am reminded […]
During this semester, I have been researching the use history of the Adams Field/Music Building area ahead of proposed construction. This work has reminded me just how complex, and sometimes odd, college campuses can be, and the many activities that take place within them. On researching this one particular area, it seems as if a million different things happened there in just the last 162 years; a slight exaggeration, but not by much! Sporting events, side shows, dances, two presidential visits, farming, construction and landscape modification, and temporary camps are just a few of the many documented happenings in this particular part of campus. Here, I will quickly review a few of these events that I have not already discussed elsewhere and explore their importance for us at the Campus Archaeology Program.
One of the more important activities, the reason an armory and Adams Field were originally constructed around 1885, was for military training. While much of this training involved marching, drills, exercise, and the occasional skirmish, practice with different firearms also took place (Kuhn 1955:155-156). Physical training facilities, in high demand by students, were also housed in the armory, such as “parallel and horizontal bars, a trapeze, rings, ladders, dumb bells, and Indian clubs” (Kuhn 1955: 156). Directly north of the armory, an updated bathhouse was constructed in 1902 in order to aid in this physical training and provide students with a readily available place to bathe. The two buildings were connected by a corridor and the bathhouse held, among other features, a “plunge bath” that was 35 ft. by 17 ft. in dimensions and about 5’ 6” deep (Beal 1915:277).
While military and athletic pursuits were a major activity in this part of campus, other events took place here as well. The armory was occasionally used for lectures, speeches, and even commencement ceremonies early in the history of the University (Beal 1915:271). It was also utilized as an extra living space for summer visitors when rooms were short, as well as the headquarters for doctor’s visits before a hospital was established on campus (Kuhn 1955:168, 188). While we don’t often think of this space as a residential area, in 1888 the first Abbot Hall was built just north and east of the present Music Building. This space became the women’s dormitory early on and housed a fully equipped cooking laboratory and dining room (Beal 1915:271-272; Lautner 1978: Key to Map, 120).
Large university events also have a long history in this part of campus. Before the university athletic program was funded by the university and ticket purchases, teams were supported by fundraising. The largest fundraiser, started in 1907, was the athletic carnival, which took place in the armory and Adams Field. For one day each year, each campus group would host or create an attraction or side show, including a gambling station, wild west saloon, shooting gallery, the Russian bearded lady, and “Wadji, the fossil bedbug, sole survivor of ‘Saint’s Rest’” (M.A.C. Record, March 2, 1909; April 13, 1909). Along with these attractions, the domestic science department supplied food for hungry attendees. The day began with a parade through campus and ended with a large dance in the armory, where the “floor was covered with dancers tripping the light fantastic” (M.A.C. Record, April 30, 1912). The revelry continued long into the night (M.A.C. Record, April 30, 1912). This event was able to raise enough money to help support the athletic program each year, until it became unnecessary in 1912 (Kuhn 1955:257). Other campus dances, such as the Junior Hop, an institution in campus social life for decades, were held in the armory as well (Kuhn 1955:191). One sitting President, Theodore Roosevelt (1907), and one future President, Barack Obama (2007), have also given speeches on Adams Field, which drew massive crowds from all over the area (Kuhn 1955:202; Stawski 2011).
All of these different activities involve material culture in some way. While many of these events would have been cleaned up, leaving few archaeological traces, even the loss and trampling of individual objects over time may contribute to the archaeological record that we at Campus Archaeology find and document. Other activities, such as the leveling of Adams Field for sports and military drills, might destroy earlier archaeological evidence and context by moving and mixing up objects that were once peacefully buried. All of these events, no matter how large and what types of objects were used, are important to document, as they all, over time, possibly contribute to what we find, or do not find, in a particular area. They also contribute to our overall understanding of a space and the role it played over time in campus history. While this area today is just an open field and a few school buildings, it has seen things over the last 162 years that few other parts of campus have.
Beal, W. J.
1915 History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors. Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing.
1955 Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.
Lautner, Harold W.
1978 From an Oak Opening: A Record of the Development of the Campus Park of Michigan State University, 1855-1969. Volume 1. Self-published manuscript on file at the MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
MSU Archives and Historical Collections
M.A.C. Record, Vol. 14, No. 22, March 2, 1909
M.A.C. Record, Vol. 14, No. 27, April 13, 1909
M.A.C. Record, Vol. 17, No. 30, April 30, 1912
2011 “Walter Adams Field Survey: Archaeological Report”. Campus Archaeology Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing.
While often not considered an important topic in archaeology, sports and sports heritage have become an increasingly popular area of inquiry (Schofield 2012; Wood 2016). Like most human activities, a majority of sports involve material culture and impact landscapes and the way people used them. […]