Survey Spot: Cowles House

This Thursday, the Campus Archaeology Program will be engaging in archaeological survey behind Cowles House, known to most as the President’s House. This building is the oldest standing at MSU, and was built as one of the original Faculty Row homes in 1857. It was home to MAC’s earliest presidents, Williams and Abott, and also to the professors of Botany, such as William J. Beal and Ernst Bessey. It was also home to President Hannah, and, most recently, to President McPherson. Currently, it is used as a banquet hall. Since its construction, the building has been modified significantly; only a portion of the original building is still evident, and it is much larger than its original size.

Cowles House in 1934.
Cowle’s House in 1934.

Our hope is to find intact deposits in the backyard of the building. Previous excavations at Saints’ Rest have indicated that refuse was disposed of in the back of the dormitories, and this is typically where refuse was disposed of in the 19th centuries. Previous archaeological work done by CAP has investigated the sites of the other Faculty Row buildings, located where Landon and Campbell Hall are now located, but there were no intact archaeological deposits.

Such a find would give a glimpse into the the early years of the college. Historical evidence has indicated that the earliest years of the Agricultural College, those before received the influx in Land Grant money, were difficult. Students and Faculty built the campus buildings, firing their own brick on campus. It was 3 miles to Lansing, and the basic amenities were scarce. A trash unit from that time period would provide a glimpse into what type of food the professors were eating and what materials they used in everyday life. Were they able to get food from Lansing? Were they relying heavily on the agricultural products and animals that were already at the College? How did their diet compare with the refuse excavated from Saints’ Rest?

None of these questions will be answered on Thursday. We will be performing an archaeological survey in order to identify any sites. This is done by digging shovel width holes, called Shovel Test Pits (STP), every five meters. If we have a cluster of STPs that include archaeological material, we would consider that a site, and revisit it at a later date to perform more extensive excavations. This way, we can gather information about a large area in a short period of time, and make sure that our larger excavations are more specific.

Unfortunately, there is no public access to the site, so drop in visits won’t be possible. However, we will be posting pictures from our excavation on Twitter and Facebook, so please make sure you are following us!

Author: Terry Brock

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