Campus Archaeology in the Time of COVID-19

Campus Archaeology in the Time of COVID-19

Greetings from Dr. Camp, the Director of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program.

This summer has been one of great concern for our community and nation as well as one where we have had to rethink how we approach Campus Archaeology amid a global pandemic. Under normal circumstances, our staff, which usually includes 6-8 PhD students, would be out on construction projects across campus during the summer. We spend our late winters and springs researching the areas of campus slated for construction so we know what we may find once the ground has been broken. We often do surveys of the landscape and, if we find artifacts or architecture, excavation before construction starts to see if they may be additional artifacts or cultural resources on the area slated for construction. We completed our research in the winter and spring for construction planned this summer, but then COVID-19 descended on our state and community, forcing nearly all workers on MSU’s enormous campus home to work remotely.

Despite the stress and uncertainty of the situation, our outgoing Campus Archaeologist, Autumn Painter, immediately adapted to the situation at hand and figured out creative, safe ways to keep Campus Archaeology running and our staff busy. Under Painter’s leadership, our staff put together fantastic research papers, reports, and innovative digital projects that we will be unveiling this coming year in lieu of the in-person outreach events we usually do. Despite our staff being locked out of their buildings and laboratories this summer, Painter made labwork happen by delivering the labwork to our staff’s doorsteps (with no contact, of course, and following all safety protocols).

Autumn Painter retired as our Campus Archaeologist this past July after serving two years in the role (we miss her already!) and putting in many years of time into Campus Archaeology as a fellow and undergraduate. We wish we could have celebrated her retirement in person, but we hope to do so when it’s safe. Jeff Burnett, a current PhD student and historical archaeologist in our department, is our new Campus Archaeologist, and he will be introducing himself in a blog post later this semester.

As our readers can probably guess, some archaeology cannot be done remotely. Archaeology is considered essential work due to federal compliance regulations, so many professional archaeologists have never stopped working in the field during the pandemic. This includes a few of us in Campus Archaeology. In late May, MSU began working on Service Road to install and extend utility lines. Within days of the project’s start, they hit a substantial archaeological midden, or, in non-archaeological jargon, a trash dump or landfill.

If you look closely below the pipe in this photo, you will see a dark-colored soil. This was a layer of ash containing artifacts that were found across most of the construction site.

We received permission to have two of us – me, the Director of Campus Archaeology, and one Campus Archaeologist (Autumn or Jeff), work on the site. We completed the appropriate COVID-19 trainings and followed COVID-19 safety guidelines, including wearing a mask while out on the site, taking our temperatures before we came to the site and when we arrived at the site, and using our own field equipment instead of sharing it.

This is just a snapshot of the artifacts we recovered from Service Road this summer.

I shared my experience of working on this site with MSU’s Alumni University participants on my YouTube channel this past August. These videos touch upon what it is like to work on a construction project as an archaeologist, what does stratigraphy mean, how to excavate a delicate artifact, and what happens to artifacts once they are taken away from the construction site.

Dr. Camp, Director of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program, on a rainy day at the construction site.

Though it was disappointing to not have our entire crew out investigating the site, we were very thankful for the entire construction crew on-site who were active participants in the project. They helped pull artifacts that they uncovered and put them aside so we could collect and study them. Mike Serafini of Strata Environmental Services, Incorporated corresponded with us daily to let us know how the work was proceeding and if they were hitting more of the archaeological midden during construction, which was a great help to us. Everyone on the site worked as collaborators and partners, sharing their knowledge of historic artifacts with us. It made our work easier given the restrictions and limited staffing we faced. We are so very thankful for all of the people with whom we worked and met this summer amid a stressful time.

Since we were not permitted to work in our CAP lab in McDonel Hall, Dr. Camp and other CAP staff’s yards and homes became makeshift labs to clean and process the artifacts recovered this summer from Service Road.

We look forward to sharing our discoveries from this site with our followers this coming year as we continue to document MSU’s rich heritage. We also plan to follow through on our commitment to focusing on the diverse people who have been connected with MSU and to the promises we made in our blog earlier this summer. While we are not able to do in-person outreach events this fall, we have developed some exciting new digital content that will hopefully keep you (virtually) connected to MSU. We miss our beautiful campus and are looking forward to the day we can return in-person regularly. For now, we leave you with some photos of our discoveries this summer. Keep an eye out for more artifacts on our other social media platforms!

We recovered lots of applied color label glass bottles, which have to be cleaned carefully to avoid washing or removing the label off of the vessel!
We recovered a wide variety of ceramic patterns and styles that will be fun to identify and date.


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