Archives as a portal to the past

Most people think of archaeology as the dirty business of excavation. In part, that’s true. But it’s important to recognize the importance of archival research, which should be initiated before a trowel ever strikes the soil. Many field projects take weeks or months of preparation—large field projects may even take years. For the archaeologist, it’s vital to know what previous research has occurred in your area of investigation, which cultural groups have occupied the landscape however briefly and which cultural resources are likely to be discovered or impacted.  From the perspective of Michigan State University’s Campus Archaeology Program, that means taking advantage of the Michigan Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) in Lansing and Michigan State University Archive & Historical Collections among other repositories both on and off campus.

Often the first stop in archival research is the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA). This work can be considered the nuts and bolts of archival research: the record search and review. SHPO houses cultural resource records—these are not available to the general public as they may show locations of vulnerable archaeological sites. Additionally, the OSA houses corresponding USGS maps and technical reports. These reports are of primary interest to archaeologists as they identify previous research and can aid in identifying sensitive areas and developing a work plan.

As an historical archaeologist, I am interested in using stories of the past to illuminate life in the present. In order to accomplish this task, I often rely upon the University Archive.  The University Archive contains a wealth of information for a variety of research including but certainly not limited to archaeology. This on-campus repository and others like it, including the State Archive in Lansing, houses a variety of official documents, letters, journals, diaries, photographs and other ephemera, many of which may also be available in digital format. These are particularly helpful to archaeologists researching the recent past, including the lives of students on MSU’s campus.

Recently, I was researching campus life as part of preparation for the upcoming Campus Archaeology Field School. I discovered some of the personal correspondence by one of the University’s first students, Charles A. Jewell III (Charles Adolphus Jewell Family 1811-1980 Folder 3 Box F.D. Collection UA 10.3.5).

Charles Adolphus Jewell III, Image courtesy of The Michigan State University Archive Charles A Jewell Letters UA 10.3.5 Folder 3

Charles A Jewell, III graduated with the first MSU,  then Michigan Agricultural College, graduating class in 1862. Like many of the students today, Charles wrote home to his parents about his frenzied study and stress over final exams “I am well and have been working like a nailer to prepare for examinations and can find no time to write letters” (November 6th, Folder 3). The life of this student was about keeping his parents happy and bringing home good grades. Not much has changed for students in that regard! Charles’ letters home described decorating his room and acquiring a clock and lamp, apparently coveted items as he was so excited by them, he exclaimed to his father it felt “like keeping house to have a clock. We got us a lamp the other day.” (March 2nd, Folder 3). Can you imagine being a college student with neither clock nor lamp?

The next batch of letters home from Charles, however, did not describe his life as a student at Michigan Agricultural College. By this time, the Civil War had broken out and Charles was writing home from various forts and training camps as part of the 18th Michigan Infantry. His unit was activated in August 1862, shortly after Charles’ graduation. No battles were fought  on the Michigan Agricultural College campus, but that fact does not preclude the physical and material manifestation of the war’s impact in student lives. Charles A. Jewell’s experience testifies to that.

The Michigan State University Archive’s Civil War site is an excellent resource for learning more about these important participants as we commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the war between the States. In this 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, it is worth remembering MSU’s role in the Civil War much of which is only visible through the archive.

Author: Kristin Sewell



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