Solving Puzzles on MSU’s Sacred Space

As archaeologists, we often appear as curious creatures to those individuals who are unfamiliar with our work. Unlike most professions whose employees call a cubicle their home base, archaeologists spend their days out in the field digging holes or trenches, but only when our heads aren’t buried in books or in front of a computer; however, one never sees that glamorous part of the job. Anyway, when we are out in the field we are often seen with a shovel in hand and a screen by our side, slaving away either digging holes (STPs or shovel test pits) or actual test units. As visitors come by to observe our activities, we are often asked various questions. Among the common “Finding any gold?” , “Are there dinosaurs down there?”, or simply “What are you doing?”, we often get asked, “Well, how do you know where to dig…?”.  Well to be honest, we kind of don’t. Although we wish we all had X-ray vision to see what’s under the ground, that technology or genetic manipulation has not yet been created. I also wish I could tell you all that we are just THAT smart where we know exactly where everything is…

So how do we know where to dig when in the field? Archaeology is a big puzzle. We study maps, photographs, and other historical records as a way to gain a better understanding of the landscape on which we are working. Often times when determining where to excavate, we dig in a sweep of STPs, or shovel test pits, in an area that is known to have some sort of historical past or in an area that will be altered by construction (which is the case this summer on MSU’s campus). These 1ft wide by 3ft deep holes are meant to give us a glimpse into what is beneath the surface. Based on the artifacts recovered, the stratigraphy (different layers of soil or cultural material within the walls of the STP), and the consistency between the overall make up of these STPs, we are able to determine if there is the possibility of finding a larger site.

Eve hard at work in the trenches

In the last two weeks, we have transformed the area of two separate STPs into their own excavation units. In the first area, just north of Linton Hall, we found a series of STPs containing a lot of historic construction material (bricks, nails, window glass), a layer of brick and clinkers (burnt coal) in the stratigraphy, and artifacts such as animal bone and even a penny! The unique make up of these STPs encouraged us to open a larger 2m x 2m excavation unit in the middle of the holes in order to better understand what is going on in that region. Most recently, we have been working on a unit south of Morrill Hall. While digging underneath where there used to be a sidewalk, we had a series of STPs yield a great number of bricks. This mass amount of bricks could mean one of two things: this area was filled up with this material as a way to even out the ground, or it is the foundation of a historic building. However, the only way to actually see what is going on is to open the STP into a larger unit.

So…now you know the answer to the infamous question of “How do you know where to dig?”. We dig holes in regions we think are important and see what story they have to tell us. As archaeologists, we don’t have special powers but we sure do know how to read and solve a puzzle!


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