In December of 2020, CAP was proud to be included in the Society for Historical Archaeology’s (SHA) Newsletter for winter 2020 (download here). In an article written by CAP director Dr. Stacey L. Camp, former Campus Archaeologist Autumn Painter, and current Campus Archaeologist Jeff Burnett, …
Author: Jeff Burnett
In the wake of Black Lives Matter movement, started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013 (Herstory 2020) and the mounting calls to reform and rethink institutions of all kinds, colleges and universities throughout the United States have responded by calling attention …
MSU’s Campus Archaeology Program is well known in our community for our public outreach events and our archaeological excavations. These activities allow our archaeologists to be visible members of our MSU community and gets us out of our laboratories so we can teach and dig! However, most of the work we do at CAP occurs behind the scenes, after excavations end and between outreach events we clean and catalog artifacts, we analyze these collections and research sites, the artifacts and historic landscapes we excavated, and we write about those projects. We want to share that side of our work with the community just as we do the excavations and the researched artifacts and have been working to develop outreach activities to bring the lab to the public.
Our idea was to produce a game which let people reconstruct ceramic vessels out of broken sherds, letting us talk about how most of the artifacts we find during excavations are fragmentary, not the whole vessels they see in the display boxes. We also thought it would help us demonstrate how archaeologists turn these fragments into whole objects, how difficult it can be, and how it helps archaeologists learn. We wanted to have a version of this game ready for Michigan Archaeology Day.
One common bit of lab work archaeologists do is reconstruct the ceramic pottery we find during our excavations. Only rarely do we find intact vessels or tableware, most often the objects we find are highly fragmented. Having only fragments makes it difficult to identify what the ceramic would have been used for (usually determined by its form and material) and when it would have been used (can determined by decoration). A great blog post by former CAP fellow Jeff Painter demonstrates the connections between refitting and identification for historic ceramics.
Archaeologists use artifacts to ask questions about the people who would have used them, to ask the most interesting questions we need try to get the most detailed information as possible. To transform the fragments into complete or nearly complete ceramics archaeologists work to refit, or reconnect, the pieces. It can be similar to working on a puzzle, except our puzzles are three-dimensional, most of the pieces are missing, and you have to use lots of glue – better not make a mistake or leave gaps!
Archaeologies actually get really excited when fragments of the same vessel fit together, or cross-mend, because we know we can use this information to better understand the site and the people who lived, visited, or worked there. We wanted our puzzle game to convey this experience, both the joy that comes from completing a refit and the new insights that come from seeing an intact vessel compared to a pile of fragments.
To achieve our goals, we decided we would break actual, though non-archaeologically sourced, ceramics and use magnets to allow users to refit them without glue. We believed having actual ceramics which would hopefully hold their shape would best show the vessel’s form. To assist in this, we planned to prompt prospective puzzlers to guess if it was a plate, bowl, cup, chamber pot, etc. before they completed the refit and then ask the same question afterwards.
We had to start out build by first breaking our newly purchased ceramics. Wearing safety googles and gloves, we dropped these into the sinks in our lab. Surprisingly, each one broke on the first drop, though the finer ceramics (porcelains) were so highly fragmented that they could not be used. Our suggestion is using other ceramics or possibly dropping them from a lower height, we will try this next time.
Next, we sanded the edges down so the edges would be smooth and safe, ceramics can cut like glass!
After that we drilled holes into the now smoothed edges, dropped in a small amount of super glue, inserted 0.1 inch diameter disk magnets, and added a coating of glue to the outside to help secure the magnets. It was important to ensure the magnets on the edges we wanted to refit were polar opposites, otherwise they pieces would repel and never cross-mend. Once or twice the small margents flipped on us and we had to extract and re-set them. We also experimented with putting magnets on one edge and ferrous metal fragments on its opposite, which saved time and drill bits, but was less secure then having magnets on both sides.
Playing the game
The game worked! The people who came to our table during Michigan Archaeology Day seemed to really enjoy the puzzle, though some were frustrated trying to figure out how it fit together, a feeling all archaeologists can empathize with. We hope they gained a better sense of what archaeologists do in the lab and all the work which occurs after excavations. Though we did not do an official survey, participants seemed to make more informed guesses as to the vessel’s form. When it was a pile of fragments many said they had no idea, but after working on it they often stated that our shallow bowl reconstruction looked like a bowl or it looked like a plate.
This design is a working prototype and throughout the construction process we learned that there is plenty of room for improvement.
- The first area is that we need to locate softer paste ceramics, today’s kitchenware and porcelain are fired at incredibly high temperatures, meaning that their paste is incredibly hard, we quickly exhausted our supply of drill bits.
- Secondly, and related to the first, we needed more magnets, especially for using curved bodied vessels, to ensure they hold up on their own. Because the ceramics we used were so hard, we put fewer magnets than we probably should have.
- Thirdly, we need to make sure to drill the magnets deeper into the fabric of the pottery. If they extend to far out the pieces being to offset and large gaps appear. In addition to the refit appearing less fine, it also artificially increased the difficulty of the puzzle and reduced the structural integrity of the mended fragments.
- Lastly, people told us they were disappointed that we didn’t provide the entire ceramic for them to refit. Only having a portion of a vessel is a common frustration for archaeologists, but it was not one we were really expecting the puzzlers to feel and not something that we prioritized in our design. Our decision to use a section of the ceramic was related to the difficulty of drilling into the paste and the related time constraints. We will make sure our next version of this game includes ceramics which are more, if not entirely, complete.
If you are looking forward to trying our new outreach activity and seeing how we have improved it the Campus Archaeology Program will be at MSU’s Science Fest in April 2020. Hope to see you there!
Figure 1: The Campus Archaeology Program’s virtual exhibit of MSU History An example of how archaeologists can share material culture with a broad public. For this week’s blog post I wanted to give an introduction to open archaeology as it ties to public outreach and …
Today sodas high in sugar are considered indulgent treats or unhealthy drinks, often disparaged as empty calories. Over the last decade consumption of these and other sugary beverages has dropped by nearly twenty percent (NY Times). However, this was not always the case, the development …
Chris Stawski was involved with Campus Archaeology at its inception, beginning as an archaeological technician in the summer of 2008. Chris also held the position of Campus Archaeologist during the 2010-2011 academic year. During his tenure with CAP, he was a crew chief twice during the Campus Archaeology Summer Field School, and helped to create the framework for a Geographic Information System database for campus archaeological and historical research and analysis.
Chris earned his PhD from Michigan State University with a focus on archaeology in 2012, and since has been applying his skills in higher education, where he had taught for 5 years as an adjunct faculty member in the Anthropology Department at San Francisco State University.
Chris currently works at the University of California Berkeley’s Extension Program, and assists the Dean’s Office in project management and research. It is in this position that he uses his skills first developed working as Campus Archaeologist, which include establishing and maintaining campus partnerships, effectively communicating with external stakeholders and departments, and collaborating in multi-disciplinary research.
Q: You were in of the first groups of CAP fellows, what was it like when you were all establishing the program and how did it change over your tenure?
A: While CAP was first being established, the focus was on trying to figure out what we were working with archaeologically and trying to get a sense of the history and pre-history of the campus. A parallel focus was trying to be good campus partners. I took a lot of meetings with folks across campus to help foster collaboration and to make sure people knew who we were and what our mission was. This was where Dr. Goldstein was so successful in the early years of CAP, and its due to her laying the groundwork for these relationships that made CAP a truly successful program.
A: As things went on, people started to take more notice, and we emphasized the outreach in an effort to engage both the internal community at MSU, the larger archaeological community, as well as the local East Lansing community. The summer field schools were a great success in this respect, and really made people aware of what we were doing on campus. Archaeologically, over time we got a good handle on the landscape and what we may expect to find, and started building models that were informed by the survey and excavations we did. This led to more structure for the program, more opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate participation, and more research.
Q: What was your year as Campus Archaeologist like?
A: My year as Campus Archaeologist was spent organizing. I worked with some very excellent undergraduate interns, and together we helped to curate, standardize and structure the artifact collection for CAP. That was a big undertaking, but very helpful for all future collections. My own personal project was to build the framework for a Geographic Information System (GIS) for the archaeological investigations we did. It was pretty bare bones in the beginning, but subsequent people at CAP have improved upon the database and structure since I left. My final months as Campus Archaeologist were spent helping to run the 2nd ever CAP Summer Field School.
Q: What was your biggest challenge as a Campus Archaeologist?
A: My biggest challenge was social media. Terry Brock and Dr. Goldstein were so good at using these platforms for CAP, and I was completely illiterate in terms of Twitter and Facebook. But I kept at it because that was a crucial way in which we interacted with the public. As an archaeological program, I would have to imagine that we were a very early adopter of social media, especially Twitter. I have since gotten a bit better with Twitter, but it is still not my strong suit 🙂
Q: What was your favorite part of CAP (highlights)?
A: My favorite parts of CAP were the summer field schools, working with the undergraduate interns on their projects and seeing them present at the undergrad symposium, and just being in the field. You never knew when you may be called in to go to a construction site, or be asked to do some initial investigation of an area. It was so fun loading up my truck and heading out with my peers to go excavate on a nice fall day. Those are some of my fondest memories from my time at MSU.
Q: What were the major projects that you work on/with fellows on?
A: Like I had mentioned earlier, one of the biggest projects was curating and providing a structure to the artifact database at CAP. The other major project was the Faculty Row project, which was a huge construction undertaking in the oldest part of campus. That was my first major project, andI spent all summer helping to oversee and mitigate the major earth moving being done. That was also the first time we used GIS at CAP. We found a great map of the old Faculty Row buildings, and I was able to take that map and overlay it on the current aerial imagery of campus to get a better idea of where we may find archaeological sensitive areas and material.
Q: What are you currently working on now?
A:Currently I am the executive assistant to the Dean of the UC Berkeley Extension Program. I help to manage the Dean’s Office as well aid in managing projects, research and analysis related to the mission of the program. Prior to this role, I was an adjunct lecturer in the Anthropology Department at San Francisco State University.
Q: What was the most important thing you got out of CAP? How do you bring what you learned in CAP to what you do now?
A: For me, CAP was the best example of how you do archaeology and research in higher education, while simultaneously being a good campus partner and engaging in multi-disciplinary and cross-departmental collaboration. It helped to take me out of my “anthro/arch” bubble, and showed me the value of inclusivity and teamwork. Good research must take on a collaborative aspect, and you must be diverse in how you approach your work. Whether that is a diversity of people, different perspectives and viewpoints, or a variety of departments/programs, it is an essential aspect of all the work I have done since my time at CAP.
I want to thank Chris Stawski for allowing me to interview him and for his excellent perspectives into the early years of the Campus Archaeology Program.
As a new member of the Campus Archaeology Program and as someone starting my first year in the anthropology program, I have not yet chosen a project, so I was delighted when the opportunity to interview a former member of CAP came up. As I …