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. Sport culture also influences the way people think of themselves and others, often affecting the way they interact with each other. For instance, I am a huge fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, so whenever I see the red and blue emblem of our rivals, the Chicago Cubs, on a hat or shirt, an irrational anger rises in my chest. The same can also be said for fans of MSU and the University of Michigan, who constantly antagonize each other all over the midwest. Harnessing this sense of identity, community projects involving archaeology at historic sporting venues have been able to engage large fan bases and benefit from their participation in recovering more about the history of these locations (Wood 2016). Michigan State University, with its long history of athletics, also has a rich sports heritage that has impacted the shape of the campus over time and played a major part in student experiences.
Sports have been a part of campus life since the very beginning of the University. The first students, when they were not working or studying, played various games including soccer, rugby, boxing, track events, baseball, and tennis. Other, more eclectic activities were also pursued, such as swinging on trapezes hung from tree limbs (Kuhn 1955:44, 93, 134). These were unorganized activities that took place wherever there was space, including open areas of the campus and in the halls of school buildings themselves (Kuhn 1955:93). Baseball was hugely popular, and games were played daily when weather and time permitted. By the mid-1860s, baseball clubs had been organized on campus that competed with other clubs from local towns, including Lansing, Mason, Okemos, St. Johns, and others (Kuhn 1955:135). As required by the Morrill Act of 1862, the College also instructed interested students in military training. While not a sport, the necessity of housing these military activities helped to spur the construction of the first sports facilities on MSU’s campus.
Around 1885, an armory was built where the Music Building currently stands. The field to the west of this, now Adams Field, was also leveled in order to form an area for holding large military drills (Kuhn 1955:155). At this same time, intercollegiate athletic competitions began at MSU in the form of a “Field Day.” These massive competitions involved athletes from other local colleges who came to compete in numerous sports, such as track and field, baseball, wrestling, boxing, bicycle races, tennis, football, rugby, gymnastics, and many others. These events, when on campus, were held on Adams Field and inside the armory, spilling over onto the roadway at Faculty Row (Kuhn 1955:157-158). Some of the best athletes from MSU’s early days competed in this area every year.
In 1892, as these competitions became entrenched in collegiate life, the College began to invest in further facilities for athletics. Part of Adams Field was once again leveled out and a 1/5 mile cinder track was placed there to facilitate the track and field events at Field Days (Kuhn 1955:159). The location of this track is seen in maps from this time period, such as the one from 1899 below (Lautner 1978). Temporary grandstands were also assembled in this area for events, but it is unknown where they were located in relation to these facilities (Kuhn 1955:159).
While few artifacts have been found in Adams Field over the years, CAP has found some possible evidence of these landscape alterations in our shovel tests. Toward the northwest corner of the current Music Building, where the southeast corner of the track would have been, a gravel layer made of large cobbles was found below the surface (Stawski 2011). This layer may have been purposefully constructed as part of the efforts to level out this area for military drills and sporting events, which require even ground to prevent injuries.
Official sporting events in Adams Field were not long lived. Around 1900, property south of the Red Cedar River was purchased by the College and it was decided to build updated permanent sports facilities, including permanent grandstands, to house intercollegiate competitions (Kuhn 1955:255). This work was completed by 1902, and official athletic competitions moved to this new location, where they still take place today (M.A.C. Record, June 3rd, 1902; Kuhn 1955:255). While Adams Field may no longer be the official sports complex for MSU, students still use this space for impromptu games every year, keeping the spirit of early sports at MSU alive.
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. 7, no. 36, June 3rd, 1902.
2012 The Archaeology of Sports and Pastimes. World Archaeology 44(2):171-174.
2011 “Walter Adams Field Survey: Archaeological Report”. Campus Archaeology Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing.
2016 Archaeology and Sports History: Towards an Inclusive Methodology. The International Journal of the History of Sport 33(6-7):752-756.