A Historical Perspective on Graduate Education at MSU

A Historical Perspective on Graduate Education at MSU

Chittenden Hall, current home of The Graduate School. At the time of photo, Chittenden was the Department of Forestry. Photo courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections. As it stands today, graduate education makes up a substantial and integral part of Michigan State…

CAP Lab Open House

CAP Lab Open House

Last Tuesday, November 12, 2019, Campus Archaeology hosted their first Open House. For two hours, Campus Archaeology opened our lab doors to the public. Campus Archaeology strives to have a standing relationship with the community through our numerous outreach events each year, as well as…

Emphasizing Laboratory Work in Archaeology: A New Outreach Activity

Emphasizing Laboratory Work in Archaeology: A New Outreach Activity

MSU’s Campus Archaeology Program is well known in our community for our public outreach events and our archaeological excavations. These activities allow our archaeologists to be visible members of our MSU community and gets us out of our laboratories so we can teach and dig! However, most of the work we do at CAP occurs behind the scenes, after excavations end and between outreach events we clean and catalog artifacts, we analyze these collections and research sites, the artifacts and historic landscapes we excavated, and we write about those projects. We want to share that side of our work with the community just as we do the excavations and the researched artifacts and have been working to develop outreach activities to bring the lab to the public.

Our idea was to produce a game which let people reconstruct ceramic vessels out of broken sherds, letting us talk about how most of the artifacts we find during excavations are fragmentary, not the whole vessels they see in the display boxes. We also thought it would help us demonstrate how archaeologists turn these fragments into whole objects, how difficult it can be, and how it helps archaeologists learn. We wanted to have a version of this game ready for Michigan Archaeology Day.    

Early 20th Century Mercer Pottery Co. “Bordeaux” Pattern

One common bit of lab work archaeologists do is reconstruct the ceramic pottery we find during our excavations. Only rarely do we find intact vessels or tableware, most often the objects we find are highly fragmented. Having only fragments makes it difficult to identify what the ceramic would have been used for (usually determined by its form and material) and when it would have been used (can determined by decoration). A great blog post by former CAP fellow Jeff Painter demonstrates the connections between refitting and identification for historic ceramics.

Archaeologists use artifacts to ask questions about the people who would have used them, to ask the most interesting questions we need try to get the most detailed information as possible. To transform the fragments into complete or nearly complete ceramics archaeologists work to refit, or reconnect, the pieces. It can be similar to working on a puzzle, except our puzzles are three-dimensional, most of the pieces are missing, and you have to use lots of glue – better not make a mistake or leave gaps!

Our Goals

Archaeologies actually get really excited when fragments of the same vessel fit together, or cross-mend, because we know we can use this information to better understand the site and the people who lived, visited, or worked there. We wanted our puzzle game to convey this experience, both the joy that comes from completing a refit and the new insights that come from seeing an intact vessel compared to a pile of fragments.

Our Design

To achieve our goals, we decided we would break actual, though non-archaeologically sourced, ceramics and use magnets to allow users to refit them without glue. We believed having actual ceramics which would hopefully hold their shape would best show the vessel’s form. To assist in this, we planned to prompt prospective puzzlers to guess if it was a plate, bowl, cup, chamber pot, etc. before they completed the refit and then ask the same question afterwards.

Our Build

We had to start out build by first breaking our newly purchased ceramics. Wearing safety googles and gloves, we dropped these into the sinks in our lab. Surprisingly, each one broke on the first drop, though the finer ceramics (porcelains) were so highly fragmented that they could not be used. Our suggestion is using other ceramics or possibly dropping them from a lower height, we will try this next time.

Next, we sanded the edges down so the edges would be smooth and safe, ceramics can cut like glass!

After that we drilled holes into the now smoothed edges, dropped in a small amount of super glue, inserted 0.1 inch diameter disk magnets, and added a coating of glue to the outside to help secure the magnets. It was important to ensure the magnets on the edges we wanted to refit were polar opposites, otherwise they pieces would repel and never cross-mend. Once or twice the small margents flipped on us and we had to extract and re-set them. We also experimented with putting magnets on one edge and ferrous metal fragments on its opposite, which saved time and drill bits, but was less secure then having magnets on both sides.

Playing the game

The game worked! The people who came to our table during Michigan Archaeology Day seemed to really enjoy the puzzle, though some were frustrated trying to figure out how it fit together, a feeling all archaeologists can empathize with. We hope they gained a better sense of what archaeologists do in the lab and all the work which occurs after excavations. Though we did not do an official survey, participants seemed to make more informed guesses as to the vessel’s form. When it was a pile of fragments many said they had no idea, but after working on it they often stated that our shallow bowl reconstruction looked like a bowl or it looked like a plate.


This design is a working prototype and throughout the construction process we learned that there is plenty of room for improvement.

  • The first area is that we need to locate softer paste ceramics, today’s kitchenware and porcelain are fired at incredibly high temperatures, meaning that their paste is incredibly hard, we quickly exhausted our supply of drill bits.
  • Secondly, and related to the first, we needed more magnets, especially for using curved bodied vessels, to ensure they hold up on their own. Because the ceramics we used were so hard, we put fewer magnets than we probably should have.
  • Thirdly, we need to make sure to drill the magnets deeper into the fabric of the pottery. If they extend to far out the pieces being to offset and large gaps appear. In addition to the refit appearing less fine, it also artificially increased the difficulty of the puzzle and reduced the structural integrity of the mended fragments.  
  • Lastly, people told us they were disappointed that we didn’t provide the entire ceramic for them to refit. Only having a portion of a vessel is a common frustration for archaeologists, but it was not one we were really expecting the puzzlers to feel and not something that we prioritized in our design. Our decision to use a section of the ceramic was related to the difficulty of drilling into the paste and the related time constraints. We will make sure our next version of this game includes ceramics which are more, if not entirely, complete.  


If you are looking forward to trying our new outreach activity and seeing how we have improved it the Campus Archaeology Program will be at MSU’s Science Fest in April 2020. Hope to see you there!

MSU at the Midwest Archaeological Conference

MSU at the Midwest Archaeological Conference

Next week is the annual Midwest Archaeological Conference (October 10-12, 2019) in Mankato, MN. Below is a list of dates and times of all MSU presentations. This includes past, present, and retired MSU graduate students and faculty. Included is a poster on the Campus Archaeology…

Introducing our CAP Undergraduate Interns

Introducing our CAP Undergraduate Interns

This year we have two undergraduate interns working in the Campus Archaeology Program lab. These two students both attended the summer 2019 archaeological field school. Below you can read a little more about them! Reid Ellefson-Frank is an undergraduate student at MSU working towards a…

Introducing Our 2019-2020 CAP Graduate Fellows

Introducing Our 2019-2020 CAP Graduate Fellows

Person wearing wearing flannel shirt over orange t-shirt holding camera

Benjamin Akey: Benjamin (they/them/theirs) is a first-year doctoral student and graduate research assistant studying historical archaeology. They received their BA in Anthropology from University of California Santa Cruz in 2018, where they focused on the performance and negotiation of class and ethnic identities through patterns of alcohol consumption in the Santa Cruz lime industry. They currently focus on issues of identity and subject formation among diasporic communities at late-19th and early-20th century sites of industrial labor. Benjamin joined CAP as a fellow in Fall 2019, and is looking forward to opportunities for public outreach/education and collections management. 

Man wearing orange safety vest and hard hat looking at a historic flag pole base in construction site

Jeff Burnett: Jeff is a second year Anthropology PhD. student. His past studies have focused on the archaeology of the African Diaspora in North America, with an interest in the process of freedom and how social constructs affect lived experiences. He is also interested in the production of historical knowledge and the utility of collaborative archaeology to challenge this production. Jeff is excited to start his second year in the Campus Archaeology Program and plans on working with the artifacts recovered in CAP’s 2018 and 2019 excavations of the Toolan house. Jeff joined CAP as a fellow in Fall 2018.

Woman bent over holding archaeological screen while standing on tarp

Rhian Dunn: Rhian is a first year biological anthropology doctoral student, focusing in forensic anthropology. Her research interests include human variation and aspects of the biological profile, particularly ancestry estimation. This year, Rhian has joined CAP and hopes to get more experience in archaeological surveying and with identifying historical artifacts. She is also interested in using ArcGIS to explore spatial distributions of artifacts found at MSU. 

Woman with dark brown hair and glasses in blue collared shirt smiling

Grace Shu Gerloff: Grace (She/her/hers) is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology. As a sociocultural anthropologist, Grace’s doctoral research focuses on identify formation for Asian American adoptees in the Midwest. This is Grace’s first year as a half-time CAP fellow. She is looking forward to engaging in community outreach and using her experience in education to make connections with the mid-Michigan community and bring awareness to the history of the space that Michigan State University occupies. 

Woman using total station to map artifacts.

Amber Plemons: Amber is a fourth year Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, focusing in Biological Anthropology, and a returning CAP fellow. Her research focuses on understanding the causative forces of human variation in craniofacial morphology, specifically the impacts of climate and genetics. This year, Amber will be helping to build a database for CAP artifacts recovered and housed at Michigan State University. Additionally, she will continue her work with the Girl Scouts organization to teach the future women of archaeology and help them earn their archaeology badge!

Summer 2019 Re-CAP

Summer 2019 Re-CAP

Campus Archaeology had an exciting summer field season, from the archaeological field school to field crew work across campus. We also hosted a class for Grandparent’s University and painted the MSU Rock! Below you can read more about each project. Archaeological Field School This summer…

Color Me Excited! Munsell visits MSU Campus Archaeology Program

Color Me Excited! Munsell visits MSU Campus Archaeology Program

During the last week of our undergraduate archaeological field school, Art Schmehling and Laura Weeks from Munsell came out to visit our excavation, show us a few of their products, and see how we typically use their soil color book. The products they brought and…

Looking Forward to 2019-2020

Looking Forward to 2019-2020

As the end of my first year as the Campus Archaeology Program Director is coming to a close, I wanted to share some reflections and thoughts about our work. First, I wanted to say that I have been very lucky to work with our CAP Fellows, who are so engaged and enthusiastic about the work they do and about CAP.  They are the backbone of our program and put a public face to the profession of archaeology.

What I also greatly appreciate about CAP is how we form partnerships across campus with a variety of groups and units. These collaborations range from working with the MSU Eat at State ON-THE-GO Food Truck, MSU Grandparents University, MSU Science Festival, Infrastructure, Planning, and Facilities (IPF), MSU Archives, and the MSU Paranormal Society to deliver outreach to our campus community, MSU alumni, and visitors to MSU. We also take CAP’s work off campus, bringing exhibits and outreach materials to events like Michigan Archaeology Day and local libraries and schools. CAP is unique in that it is able to engage people from all walks of life and interests beyond the ivory tower of academia.

Our reach is broad. As the new CAP director, I plan to continue to expand our sphere of influence. One example of this is our recent visit to MSU’s W. K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS). KBS was donated to MSU (or MSC as it was known in the past) by W. K. Kellogg, who is best known for being the founder of the Kellogg Company. Kellogg had many interests beyond the cereal that bears his name. He became fascinated with birds after hearing a lecture at a sanitarium and went on to build what is today the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary at the Kellogg Biological Station. He imported an international menagerie of birds to his sanctuary and then donated it to Michigan State College (now MSU) in 1928. Since then KBS has been an innovative research station that is of interest to ecologists, biologists, ornithologists, farmers, and, now, archaeologists.

From left to right, top to bottom: CAP Fellow Jack Biggs, Campus Archaeologist Autumn Painter, Campus Archaeology Program Director Dr. Stacey L. Camp, and CAP Fellow Jeff Burnett.

Kara Haas, who serves as the Science Education & Outreach Coordinator for the W. K. Biological Station, and several other staff and volunteers at KBS gave us an engaging tour of the sanctuary and property. We saw architectural drawings of the property, fed trumpeter swans, located some extant archaeological features associated with KBS’ earlier days, and went on a fascinating tour of Kellogg’s ornately decorated and designed manor house. The CAP crew was also treated to a delicious meal at the dormitories attached to the manor.

Trumpeter swans at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary.

The W. K. Kellogg Manor House.

I am hoping that this trip might generate future research projects for CAP, undergraduate students, and youth in Michigan. This is just one of the many examples of the type of partnerships we seek to build across campus, across the region, and across the state of Michigan. I look forward to continuing to share our new adventures as we learn about the people who once lived on and inhabited MSU’s properties.

The Kellogg Bird Sanctuary on a rainy day with trumpeter swans in the background.

The most interesting artifact from MSU’s historic campus? The “Moor” artifact, 10 years later

The most interesting artifact from MSU’s historic campus? The “Moor” artifact, 10 years later

If you’ve been following CAP for a while you’ve probably seen us post about the “Moor” artifact: a small piece of mortar sporting the letters “Moor” in handwritten cursive script. Despite its unassuming appearance, what makes this artifact so fascinating is the incredible story behind…