Another Person’s Trash (Midden) is an Archaeologists Treasure

Another Person’s Trash (Midden) is an Archaeologists Treasure

As you may know from my previous blog posts, I have been working on analyzing the faunal remains from Campus Archaeology excavations. My current research project focuses on the Saints’ Rest trash midden, excavated in several seasons by CAP near the location where Saints’ Rest once stood. Because of the sites’ use as a small public dumping area, the artifacts recovered are expected to reflect the daily life of those living at and nearby Saints’ Rest dormitory. The end goal of this research project, in conjunction with research by Lisa Bright, Amy Michael, Jeff Painter, and Susan Kooiman, is to better understand the everyday lives of the early MSU students.

This work would not have been possible without a trip to the comparative collection at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center. I was able to finish the identifications, including the trickier bones, thanks to the help of Dr. Terrance Martin! Below are a few photos of the archaeological bones compared to the comparative collection skeletons that confirmed their identification.

Pig mandible compared to archaeological specimen (Image courtesy of Autumn Painter).
Arm steak bone compared to comparative skeleton cow humerus (Image courtesy of Autumn Painter).
Comparative pig cranium compared to archaeological specimen identified as a portion of the zygomatic arch on the skull.

Now that I have completed the analysis of the faunal (animal) remains uncovered during the excavation, I can begin to interpret the data. From the trash midden, I analyzed four hundred and eighty eight bones, weighting a total of 6655.53 grams! Out of those, I was able to identify 129 bones to an animal family and/or species level. The most prevalent species, accounting for 63% of all identified bone specimens was Bos taurus, otherwise known as cow. Other identified species include domestic pig (Sus scrofa), sheep/goat (Ovis/Capra), domesticated chicken (Gallus gallus), and sucker fish (Catostomidae), as well as one unidentified shell! The remaining 359 bones were unidentifiable mammal bone fragments.

Saints' Rest Midden Identified Specimen Table by Percentage.
Saints’ Rest Midden Identified Specimen Table by Percentage.

Below are several diagrams, including cow, pig, and sheep/goat skeletons. Within these diagrams, I have highlighted the elements that are present within the Saints’ Rest Midden. As you can see, there are many more cow skeletal elements than pig or sheep/goat including bones from head to (almost) tail. The pig elements were limited to skull, teeth, and a rib, while the sheep/goat bones include only a portion of an eye orbit and scapula.

Cow skeleton with highlight bone elements present with Saints' Rest Midden
Cow skeleton with highlighted bone elements present with Saints’ Rest midden.
Pig skeleton with highlighted bone elements present with Saints’ Rest midden
Sheep/Goat skeleton with highlighted bone elements present with Saints’ Rest midden.

Preliminary calculations of the minimum number of individual species indicate that there were at least two cows, one pig, one sheep/goat, one chicken, and one sucker fish. Possible species of sucker fish include a common sucker (Catostomus sp.) or redhorse sucker (Moxostoma sp.). The fish bone comes from a species that would typically be found in freshwater rivers and lakes and could have been found locally near MSU (Michigan DNR; Lucas and Baras 2008). Many cow bones showed evidence for butchering, including saw marks and cut marks (29 bones, 38%). At least four bones within the faunal assemblage were cut very distinctly, creating round-cut steaks (see image of round-cut steak below).

Image of round-cut steak. Image Source.

All of this information is beginning to give us a glimpse into the food consumption and deposition patterns of the early MSU students and staff. The next step, besides analyzing bones from more deposits, will be to incorporate my findings with those of other CAP researchers in order to form a more complete understanding of the lives of the first MSU students and staff. Stay tuned to learn what we uncover as we combine all of our lines of evidence!

Author: Autumn Painter


Michigan DNR:,4570,7-153-10364_53405-214015–,00.html

Round-cut Steak Image:

Migration of Freshwater Fishes by Martyn Lucas and Etienne Baras. John Wiley & Sons (2008)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *