I’ve been a member of Campus Archaeology Program since I started working on my Ph.D. in 2010. Next month, I graduate. The experience and knowledge I’ve gained as a member of CAP has been invaluable, and it has shaped my professional trajectory in many ways. […]
Author: Katy Meyers Emery
As we do every year, here is a look at the presentations that will be at the Society for American Archaeology’s Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida taking place this week. We have a number of presentations, sessions and forums involving members of the MSU Anthropology program. […]
Over the summer, we found some yellow-green bumpy glass within the Gunson collection. It was a unique color that didn’t fit with the normal range of aqua, clear, green and brown glass, and appeared to be in a form that was nicer- like a vase or drinking glass. It also had an odd raised pattern that we hadn’t seen before.
That’s when we pulled out the black light and discovered it glowed! We had found our first sample of Uranium Glass on campus.
Uranium glass, also known as vaseline glass due to its color, is glass that has uranium added to the mixture during the molten period when color is added. The amount of uranium can range from 2-20%, and can vary in color from yellow to yellow green or even avocado coloring. Due to the presence of uranium oxide in the glass, the glass will glow a bright green color when put under a black light- this is the best way to identify it. While uranium is radioactive, it isn’t actually bad to drink or enjoy food in the glassware that uses this. The amounts that leach out of the glass is so tiny, that it won’t have an effect on you.
Vaseline glass became popular during the mid-19th century, and was at its height of popularity from the 1880s to 1920s. Uranium oxide was first used as a coloring agent in the 1830s, and spread throughout Europe during the 1840s. It was produced by a variety of companies, who specialized in different tones of greens and yellows. Each company had unique names for their specific color of uranium glass, including citron, jasmine, golden green, mustard, Florentine and more. During the Depression, iron oxide was added to the glass to increase its green glow- although antique collecting purists argue that this shouldn’t be included in true uranium glass collections. The glass was formed into a variety of decorative and practical dinnerware pieces including cups, bowls, plates, vases, figurines, paperweights and more.
In 1943, production of vaseline glass was stopped due to the implementation of heavy regulations on the use of uranium. It wasn’t until 1958 that uranium was deregulated and the production of vaseline glass resumed, this time using depleted uranium instead of the natural radioactive version.
At the Gunson/Admin site, our uranium glass included a piece of golden green hobnail glass. Hobnail glass is a specific pattern of decoration where bumps of glass are added to the exterior or interior of the glass to produce a raised pattern. While these were most popular during the 1940s and 1950s, they came into production during the Victorian period. Our uranium glass is a unique piece of history, and is just plain cool. The glowing glass is something that today we may view as strange- who would ever want to drink out of a glass colored with a radioactive material- but in the past was a unique collectible. You can still find examples of uranium glass today in antique shops, but buyer beware. There are fake vaseline glass products that have the neon green coloring but do not glow under a black light. Unless it glows, it isn’t real uranium glass!
Antique Vaseline Glass. Collector’s Weekly. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/glassware/vaseline-glass
These People Love to Collect Radioactive Glass. Are They Nuts? Collector’s Weekly. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/these-people-love-to-collect-radioactive-glass/
Uranium Glass. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium_glass
Today is a holiday that goes by many names: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. The day involves the practice of eating richer and fatty foods before Ash Wednesday when Lenten begins. It is celebrated in different ways depending on where you are. In England […]
Collecting souvenirs is not a modern phenomenon. Travelers have been collecting memorabilia of their adventures for centuries- bringing home with them evidence of the amazing sights and curiosities from far away places. They serve as an integral part of the travel experience for the tourist […]
At the Midwest Archaeological Conference, Lisa, Amy and myself got the opportunity to present some of our preliminary findings from the privy that we uncovered during Summer 2015. Here, I’m going to share some of the findings from our poster, and the poster itself for those who are interested!
In June, 2015 during routine construction monitoring, the Campus Archaeology Program survey crew noticed a disturbed area of bricks and dark soil. The salvage excavation determined that it was a brick privy. This is the only privy we have unearthed on campus, and date ranges from diagnostic artifacts (1850’s-60’s) indicate that this privy was used during the earliest years of the university.
The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was opened to students in 1855, and consisted of two primary buildings: College Hall, the main classroom and library space, and Saints’ Rest, a dormitory. Rapid development and the poor construction of the buildings led to new structures being built, old structures lost to fire, and expansion of the campus across the landscape. Despite finding many of these early buildings, the Campus Archaeology program hadn’t discovered evidence of any privies or earth-closets.
Privies at MSU
Privies were variably constructed from brick, wood, or stone as small, sturdy receptacles for human waste before the invention of the flush toilet. Due to their necessity and use by individuals from all social tiers, privies are located across all manner of sites.
Often, items were discarded into privies due to either intentional disposal or accidental loss. The assemblages in privies often reflect a mixture of artifacts that hint at daily activities and lifeway practices, but these spaces were not used as everyday trash pits. Through disposal of artifacts into the dark hole of the privy, peoples of the past were unintentionally creating a unique cultural assemblage. Archaeological excavations of privies have ranged from Australian convict hospital grounds that revealed medical treatments performed on prisoners (Starr 2001), to archaeo-entomological investigations of insect species to understand displacement of native fauna (Bain 1998), to tracing the use of nightsoil practices in early major American cities (Roberts and Barrett 1984). Even early anatomical techniques can be reconstructed through privy excavation; a report of a privy on the property of a 19th century doctor contained human bones with evidence of postmortem surgical incisions (Mann et al. 1991). Beyond material culture, privies also contain botanical remains that can inform of historical subsistence behavior.
Discovery and Excavation
The privy was discovered on June 2nd, 2015 during routine monitoring of construction. The location of the privy is approximately 10 meters southwest of the first dormitory, and had been protected over the last century by the roadways that covered it. The majority of the artifacts and the nightsoil were concentrated in the northeast quadrant.
The structure consists of a brick wall creating a sunken area about 2 meters by 2 meters, and 0.25 meters deep. On the western edge, there are two angled chutes leading into the sunken area and a central brick pier or pedastal. We conclude that the building had two stalls, allowing multiple people to use the privy at the same time, and two chutes to allow for dumping and removal of nightsoil. The shallow depth and chutes tell us that this was an earth-closet, rather than a privy.
Artifacts from the Nightsoil
Dozens of artifacts were recovered from the nightsoil in the privy. Many of these have been found in other areas on campus: buttons, medicine bottles, inkwells, combs, floral and faunal remains, and more. It also revealed a number of unique artifacts and assemblages that add to our understanding of what it was like to be a member of the 19th century Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. These unique pieces include an entire set of dishware, violin-shaped cologne bottle, and two dolls, one complete figurine type and another consisting of the bust. Here are some of the amazing finds from the privy.
The lack of privies on MSU’s historic campus has always been a mystery, and this first find represents a major boon to our research. Over the next year, we will be looking more closely into MSU’s Archives and Historical Records in order to learn more about privies at MSU, analyzing the artifacts, and determining a more exact date range for the building. This building, despite its mundane function, provides us a unique glimpse into life on MSU’s 19th century campus.
Interested in the complete poster? Download it here!
Bain A. 1998. A seventeenth-century beetle fauna from colonial Boston. Historical Archaeology 32:38-48.
Mann RW, Owsley DW, Shackel PA. 1991. A reconstruction of 19th century surgical techniques: bones in Dr. Thompson’s privy. Historical Archaeology 25:106-112.
Roberts DG, Barrett D. 1984. Nightsoil disposal practices of the 19th century and the origin of artifacts in plowzone proveniences. Historical Archaeology 18:108-115.
Starr F. 2001. Convict artefacts from the Civil Hospital on Norfolk Island. Australasian Historical Archaeology 19:39-47.
For the Midwest Archaeology Conference (November 5-7, 2015) this year, I’m going to be co-authoring an oral presentation on how we maintain continuity in the MSU Campus Archaeology Program when we have a consistently shifting group of graduate and undergraduates working for it. This is […]
Understanding the cultural heritage of an institution is important- it not only helps us define who we are, but where we came from and how we can protect our history for future generations. During summer 2014, Dr. Lynne Goldstein taught a course on Methods in Cultural […]
Michigan State University’s campus began as a small grouping of buildings in an oak opening, and since the 1870s, when the College President decreed that no further construction was allowed within this central wooded area, it has been known as the “sacred space”. The Campus Archaeology Program has worked diligently since 2005 to investigate and protect the archaeological integrity of this historic portion of campus, and much of our work has been located within this ‘sacred space’. It is perceived as one of the last historic and authentic feature of MSU’s campus, which has led to the it being discussed as a static, preserved landscape- a perception that we too as the archaeologists on campus have perpetuated to some extent. However, despite being ‘sacred’, construction, destruction and reconstruction of the space has continued at a steady pace throughout the over 150 years of campus life.
For the “Cultural Landscapes and Heritage Values” conference held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I’m going to be discussing this paradox: why do we talk about this central area of campus like it is a preserved and protected landscape, when construction crews, landscaping and even ourselves have altered it and actively dig it up?
Our excavations have revealed a number of interesting facts about the ‘sacred space’ and its preservation.
- Sacredness has protected some archaeological features from destruction, and prevented major building work: Not only is this the historic area of campus (so we find the majority of historic artifacts here), the concept of the space as an area with protection from construction is highly beneficial for the protection of artifacts and features. We have been able to recover large amounts of artifacts that could have been otherwise destroyed by construction. Further, the preservation of the historic landscape allows us to better interpret artifacts in situ and understand their relationship to the historic context.
- Utilities run throughout the space and even through archaeological features: Despite the theoretical restriction on construction and ‘sacredness’ of the space, there has been destructive alterations to the landscape throughout the years to deal with campus development and changes in technology. Steam tunnels, utility lines to supply water, gas and electric throughout the campus, and the replacement of the lampposts with electric versions has all led to changes underground. Sadly, some of these efforts have highly disturbed archaeological features. College Hall’s foundation walls were damaged by utility lines, and had they not gone through this area, we may have found more evidence from this building.
- Discover of original roads and sidewalks shows that the pathways we take have changed dramatically with shifts in transportation: The roads and sidewalks of campus have shifted in location, type and size over the years, especially since the invention and popularization of cars. The major campus road used to circle on the interior of the sacred space, and was expanded and moved to the outside during the late 19th century. The sidewalks were originally dirt or cinder, and were constructed in informal patterns to simulate a park. Today’s sidewalks are concrete or a glass-concrete hybrid, and while they are still more informal, they are not as winding as they once were. Sidewalks are consistently altered within this space to try to fit student walking patterns to promote walking and biking on sidewalks, rather than creating more informal pathways of dirt between the walks- a losing battle.
- Brick, building material and new soil are scattered across the sacred space, suggesting they were used to raise up sections of land across campus, changing the rolling hills and the overall grading of the sacred space: In various spaces across North campus, we’ve found evidence of clean soil, piles of bricks and building material, and sand deposits that suggest that the actual grading of the landscape has been altered. The slopes of the sacred space today are nowhere near those of the earliest stage of campus occupation, where hills were undulating. It is now a small rolling of a single hill. The landscape has been altered dramatically over time.
- We disturb the ‘sacred space’: It isn’t just landscaping, facilities and planning or the administration that has changed this sacred space. In the act of learning more about the space to better interpret and protect it, we actively are disturbing this landscape and altering it. As always, we try to stick to areas that are already going to be disturbed for one reason or another, but our work is destructive- in learning more about the past, we disturb the context.
Even though the landscape isn’t sacred in the sense that it is static, it is sacred in the fact that the vital characteristics and identity of the space remains coherent and supportive of our university and community identity. But it isn’t just that- the space is a reminder of a lost landscape. We don’t have the first campus buildings, we don’t have the small college in the oak opening. What we have is a space that harkens back to those early designs and hopes of the people who wanted to create a university dedicated to agricultural research. We have natural space in the middle of a thriving, busy and massive campus. The sacred space is a refuge for students, faculty and community members- it is a space of tranquility, a space to restore one’s emotional and physical health by taking a break from the pace of life. It has always been a part of our Spartan identity, and it always will be. Yes, the space has changed- but so have we, so has our university, so has the community.
For us, the space is hallowed ground, a cemetery for the buildings of the original agricultural college of the state of Michigan, and the natural landscape is the piece that remains. As archaeologists, it is our duty to continue to promote this sacredness, not as a static piece of history, but as sacred because it is a vital piece of our Spartan identity, sacred as the site of the original campus, sacred as a shelter from the modern world.
In a couple weeks, from April 15 to April 18, the Society for American Archaeology Annual Conference will be occurring in San Francisco, CA. There is going to be great representation of members of Campus Archaeology and the MSU Anthropology Department. Daggett, Adrianne  SYMPOSIUM: […]