The Ritual Landscape of Michigan State University

The Ritual Landscape of Michigan State University

Last week I attended the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting, held this year in Washington D.C. This was a particularly pertinent meeting for Campus Archaeology because a symposium was held in honor of Dr. Lynne Goldstein. As she nears retirement and the end of her tenure as professor and CAP Director, it was evident from the symposium that her influence on the field of archaeology is far from over. The impact of her mentorship to students and the collaboration with colleagues was felt throughout every paper.

One theme that prevailed throughout the symposium was landscape and the ritual use of space. Dr. Goldstein has written extensively about mortuary patterns (how, where, and why people bury their dead) and regional analysis to evaluate patterns of settlement and ritual land use. Papers from MSU’s own Dr. William Lovis and Dr. Jodie O’Gorman, in addition to former Campus Archaeology fellow Dr. Amy Michael, all paid tribute to Dr. Goldstein’s legacy by considering their own research from this spatial perspective.

This got me thinking: what is the ritual landscape of Michigan State University, both past and present? And how might we see this archaeologically?

Dr. O’Gorman discussed how migrating populations may maintain certain rituals from their place of origin, while also engaging in new rituals in order to integrate both into the social and natural environment of their new homes. This is reflected in the environment of a college campus. Students come to MSU from across Michigan, the US, and abroad bringing their own rituals and personal items with them. However, once students arrive on campus, they form and engage in a united identity: that of an MSU student. This identity can then be enacted through rituals that are often closely tied to specific locations across the campus landscape.

Football Revelry ca. 1910
Football Revelry ca. 1910. Image Source
MSU tail gaiting today. Image source.
MSU tail gaiting today. Image source.

Sports comprise an important part aspect of MSU identity. Football games and tailgating are important rituals at MSU. While football itself might not leave behind the much in the way of archaeological remains (besides a giant stadium), tailgating certainly might. Archaeologists often find refuse pits with large amounts of food refuse and broken pottery, the remnants of ancient feasting events, or large meals accompanying special occasions or ceremonies. Many ancient societies held community-wide events that left significant archaeological signatures, such a large amounts of broken pottery and food refuse. Today, the area around the tennis courts on the MSU campus are the hub of student tailgating, a form of feasting, and will likely someday be a treasure trove of interesting finds (at least those items missed by MSU’s otherwise stellar clean-up crews). If tailgating or other sport-related revelries were historically held elsewhere on campus, we may find evidences of these activities during our campus surveys.

Sacred Space during the early days of the campus
Sacred Space during the early days of the campus. Image source
Sacred Space today
Sacred Space today. Image source

The “Sacred Space” is the large open area north of Beaumont Tower, which is the unofficial “center” of campus.  New construction has been banned in this area since the 1870s. Although students certainly use this space, and in the future we may find refuse of their presence there, we would not expect to find much in the way of trash pits or construction refuse dating to after fits establishment (although the pre-1870s archaeology of this area is quite rich). This is common of many ancient city center plazas, where city-wide ceremonies were held. Sometimes the absence of structures or other archaeological evidence is the strongest indicator of ceremonial space as they are kept clean and clear of structures to allow room for ceremonies and their participants.

Sparty Statue - Image Source
Sparty Statue – Image Source

Graduation is arguably the most significant ritual enacted on a college campus. Graduates routinely get their pictures taken next to the Sparty statue on north campus, and may even hold more significance in this milestone than the location of the actual graduation ceremony. Sparty is what archaeologists call a “monument,” or large, immovable objects that visually mark space with significance and meaning. Monuments are common in the ancient world, from the burial mounds of the Midwest, to the obelisks and temples of ancient Egypt and Greece.

The Rock.
The Rock. Image Source

The Rock, a more informal monument on campus, is a large boulder which various student groups take turns painting, either promoting their student group or serving as a way to express solidarity, protest, and/or discontent with current events. It is so much a symbol an important symbol of MSU heritatage that someone wrote a whole book on it! Students sometimes camp out to ensure their chance for painting the rock, so we may one day be able to see this refuse archaeologically. A few years ago, a chunk of the hundreds of layers of paint fell off, revealing an enthralling stratigraphy representing decades of student voices and creativity. One artist made “Spartan Agate” jewelry from it, allowing alum to wear a piece of MSU archaeological history around their necks.

 Mary Mayo Hall, a stop on the Apparitions and Archaeology Tour, is said to be haunted

Mary Mayo Hall, a stop on the Apparitions and Archaeology Tour, is said to be haunted. Image source

CAP’s yearly Apparitions and Archaeology Tour is inspired by ghost stories associated with various buildings and features across the campus. These spectral legends are closely tied to landmarks on the landscape but leave no archaeological trace. These represent aspects of the past that archaeologists want to know but struggle to uncover: myths and legends. Reflective of a culture’s ideology, oral histories and myths often prove elusive to archaeologists unless recorded in the written records. Even in the age of print and social media, these ghost stories might have simply been passed down from generation to generation of students without official recordation, eventually forgotten, had they not been recorded by CAP for our famous tour.

One way oral history and archaeology can converge is through public outreach. So, I turn the rest of this blog over to you, dear readers! If you are a current or former student, faculty, or staff member, what are the places on campus that are most special to you? Are there areas of ritual or ceremonial significance that you know of (used by a specific student group, etc) from the past or present that Campus Archaeology should know about or document? Share your stories in the comments!



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