As archaeologists, some of our most common findings are in fact trash, the things people not longer want or need which are then thrown away. As a result, dump sites, or middens, are some of the best contexts from which to reconstruct the lives of …
Author: Jack Biggs
Like Mari Isa, for this blog post, I will be talking about the outreach event that CAP ran for Holmes Middle School in Livonia, MI on Friday, January 19th. However, I will be discussing it from a different point of view. In Mari’s blog, she …
As I mentioned in my first blog post for this year, my CAP project is to go through all of the dissertations, and bachelor’s and master’s theses written by Michigan State students about Michigan State University during its entire history as an institution of higher education. Doing this has granted me access to previous students’ hard work about something they believed in and wished to make known to someone other than themselves and their advisor. The goal of this project (of which I will share more of my results later on) is to find and identify any information that can help supplement the complex and rich histories that we dig up in our excavations.
However, sometimes you come across sources that paint such a rich history, but unfortunately have left no (as yet identified) archaeological trace. I came across one such instance a few weeks ago while reading a master’s thesis in the MSU Special Collections room of the library. Written by William Gibson Butt in 1947, the master’s thesis A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937 reveals the humble beginnings of the Drama Club on campus and traces its first few decades of history as it became a staple in campus life.
Butt (1947) writes that the Drama Club started in 1910 at the behest of student who wished to put on performances on campus as there was no Department of Theatre at the college at that time. The student put on the play The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the Spring of 1910 to great success. Since there was no stage on campus at the time, the students were required to build their own stage at the old Armory (located where the Music Building is now) but could only construct the stage the day of the play and were required to tear it down that evening after the performance. Sylvester King, a faculty member at MAC, agreed to help the students put on the play. Having a background in theater, King was able to acquire costumes for the production from New York City. After the first production, the club was officially recognized by MAC and put on at least two productions every year.
Once they started doing two productions per year, the Drama Club began putting on plays outdoors in a wooded area just east of where Howard Terrace used to stand. This building was demolished in the early 1920s to make room for the Home Economics Building which still stands today, now called the Human Ecology Building. This would place the location of this outdoor performance area somewhere around where the parking ramp between Human Ecology and Olin Health Center. The Drama Club’s first performance outdoors was As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Again, this performance was so successful that the club started putting all of their Spring plays in this same area, and always performed a work by Shakespeare. Due to these annual plays, this wooded area became known as the Forest of Arden, a setting in As You Like It.
Despite all of this well-documented history showcasing MSU students, it is also quite humbling for an archaeologist such as myself. As an archaeologist, I use artifacts that I unearth to try and understand the lives of those who created or used those artifacts. The object drives the narrative, informs the narrative, and is itself then re-informed by the narrative. In many archaeological settings, the story cannot get told or even discovered if there is no artifact with which to start the conversation. In the case of the storied past and early beginnings of the MSC Drama Club, no artifacts to date have been found or associated with this sect of campus life. The area of campus where The Forest of Arden once stood is now occupied by a parking ramp. Additionally, these outdoor performances were intended to be temporary – the players would have picked up any props or potential artifacts relating to theatrical production. It is in instances like this that we must look at our own limitations and recognize that no matter how much we dig up and even rely on archival resources, we can never encapsulate the entire story.
There are some stories that are archaeologically invisible. Fortunately in the case of the Drama Club, the MSU Department of Theatre, the MSU Library, and the MSU Archives have records and documentation of this history. These stories get to be rediscovered and retold in the future. Other stories sadly get erased through time and leave no material record behind. Thus, we are fortunate to belong to an institution that cares about its own history and allows us to access those memories in whatever way we can so that we can pass along great stories such as these. By understanding that we cannot tell the whole story, we become better story-tellers because the belief that we know everything only closes us up to other voices. We must use as many resources and listen to as many voices as we can so that we can better understand ourselves and our school’s proud history.
Butt W.G. 1947 A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937. Master’s thesis, Michigan State College, East Lansing, Michigan.
Continuing with my theme of alcohol bottles found on campus, I’ll be discussing one particular bottle that was discovered during excavations of the Brody/Emmons area. The bottle is a clear, rectangular-based bottle, no doubt a liquor bottle given this shape. If there was any doubt …
The artifacts recovered from the Brody Complex/Emmons Amphitheater excavations are providing many research avenues.. As Mari mentioned in her previous blog, this area was originally used as the East Lansing City Dump for about three decades – from the 1920s to 1950s. One cultural and …
Michigan State University is designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning as a Research 1 (R1) institution (1). Universities do not simply achieve this status due to the population of the student body or the amount of land owned by the school. In order to reach this designation, there are five strictly regulated objectives that must be met (although each of these each has their own numerous sub-objectives). Overall the university must:
- Offer a full and wide range of baccalaureate programs
- Be committed to graduate studies and education through the doctorate program
- Give a high priority to research
- Award at least 50 doctoral degrees each year
- Receive annually $40 million or more in federal support (1)
MSU meets and surpasses all these requirements, indicating that the university is dedicated to a higher level and a superior quality of research. Furthermore, the university is equally dedicated to how that research can be used and applied in a diverse array of fields across the world. People all around the globe are beneficiaries of institutions such as MSU and the research that they help to produce. However, you do not need to hunt for the results of MSU-sponsored research in far-away places such as with the dam projects in Brazil through the College of Engineering or protein research in Japan with Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology. Although these projects are necessary and help push research forward, the fruits of MSU research can also be seen everywhere on campus: in the layout of the campus itself, in the design of the buildings, in the structure of education in the classroom, in the social experience of campus life, and much more.
Unknown to many, but felt by everyone on campus, research about the university itself by its own students has been conducted since the earliest years of the school’s history. Unfortunately, many of us are unaware of, and therefore cannot truly appreciate, the amount of hard work and years of research that went in to making MSU the renowned institution it is today. Achieving this standard of excellence was possible by the many introspective research projects conducted at and about the school. It is my job this year to rediscover and uncover as many of these MSU-themed bachelor’s theses, master’s theses, and dissertations as I can, document their contents, and obtain maps, photographs, and accounts that we have not had access to in the past.
One of the main reasons behind this is that there are many theses and dissertations focusing on topics related to the school that can add to the rich history of the university and aid our work. Not only do these contain topics that we haven’t had as much access to in the past, but they also come from an interesting perspective that is seldom seen or heard: that of MSU students writing about the campus in a research capacity.
Of the first few publications I have sorted through and recorded already, (thanks to the help of the MSU Library Special Collections) new information and insights into early campus life can be seen and read. For example, a 1934 Bachelor’s Thesis by H.A. Balbach and J.J. Zerbe through the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences (now called the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources) entitled “The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road” discusses the numerous and arduous surveying expeditions and calculations these two students did in order to formalize the boundaries of the college.
They write that with the original land grant from the federal government and later land acquisitions from private land owners, the piece-meal 1700-acre area owned by the college (as of 1934) was never systematically surveyed to discover the true boundaries (2). (There are at least two other bachelor’s theses dating to around 1934 over the same topic but in different areas of campus.) Page after page is filled with complex and highly organized surveying calculations, but Balbach and Zerbe can’t help but show their frustration at times. On page 26 of their thesis (and in the photo below), they placed a picture of one of their marker-finding expeditions with a caption that reads: “NO LUCK! This shot was taken when the authors had just about exhausted patience in trying to locate the cornerstone on the Township line between sections 24-25 of Lansing Township. As one may see, it was necessary to re-fill and begin at the other side where the stone was subsequently located” (2, pg. 26). As they stated, they eventually found the cornerstone, but first dug in the wrong spot and had to break through Tarvia paved roads (a type of cost-effective road created by the Barrett Manufacturing Company in 1903 (3) and utilized by the school) with nothing other than pickaxes and shovels (2).
It is through these types of source materials that we can learn about the school’s past from unique perspectives, gain access to materials and resources that we had not previously had, and gain a greater understanding for how research has been conducted at the school through time. I am excited to keep digging into these MSU-themed research topics and hope to share some of their results and comments in future posts.
- Balbach H.A. and J.J. Zerbe. The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road, 1934
Figure 1: Photo by Balbach H.A. and J.J. Zerbe, The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road, 1934.
Figure 2: Photo by Balbach H.A. and J.J. Zerbe, The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road, 1934, p. 26.