Aren’t Bowls Just Bowls? Not for the First Students at MSU

As part of my on-going research project for Campus Archaeology, I have been focusing so far on the dinner wares from the early period of the campus (1855-1870).  These dishes, which come in many shapes and sizes, have greatly informed our understanding of meal times and how students dined on a Victorian Era campus, as well as the lessons they learned from such practices.  Like many of you, while I can understand the overall picture of what these meals were like, I have little knowledge of the role individual dishes played.  Until now.  As a prehistoric archaeologist focusing on the function of ceramic vessels, it is only natural that I return to my roots and explore how the dishes that we have recovered on campus functioned within the context of these meals.

As a graduate student who subsists primarily on ramen, pizza, and quesadillas, I own two sizes of plates, and one size of bowl for my meals, alongside one or two larger plates and bowls for serving food.  Suffice it to say that when we stumbled upon archival records of the types of dishes owned by the university in the 1860’s, I had no idea what many of the names represented.  After some digging, I came upon some sources related to the etiquette of table settings.  These provide not only the names of various dishes, but some general descriptions of their shapes and dimensions and how they were used, perfect for young archaeologists ignorant of the finer details of polite society.  While most of these sources are from the mid-twentieth century, a few decades after the height of the Victorian Era, I think it is safe to project these descriptions back in time as etiquette surrounding dinner parties and other such events seems to have changed little during this time gap.

I will now transport you back to MSU’s campus in 1861, where you are a student and I am the steward of the campus boarding hall.  Today, your lesson is on the proper use of dinnerware for entertaining and how certain dishes are to be used (Imagine your own fancy time-travel montage here).

Boarding Hall Inventory April 1861. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Boarding Hall Inventory April 1861. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Dinner Plates- A plate that averages 9.5 inches in diameter, it is the most common dish                 and is used to serve the main course at any meal.  In formal place settings, it                       forms the central focus.

Bread Plates- This smaller plate is used for eating and holding bread and butter.  It is                     meant to isolate bread so that sauces or juices from other food items do not make               the bread saturated and unsatisfactory.  It is typically located to the top left of the                 dinner plate within place settings.

Tea plates- This is a smaller plate, around 7 inches in diameter, that can have multiple                     purposes. It can be used in the absence of a saucer to hold a tea or coffee cup,                 but can also be used to hold bread or dessert items as well.

"Berlin Swirl" Plates recovered from West Circle Privy dating to 1860s.

“Berlin Swirl” Plates recovered from West Circle Privy dating to 1860s.

Soup plates- A larger, shallow dish with an average diameter of around 9 inches and has a wide rim.  One is on average 1.5 inches deep.  In appearances, this dish is like the             combination of a plate and a bowl, and is used to serve thicker, chunkier soups                   and stews that retain heat well and consequently, do not need to be as insulated.

Bowls- Of a similar size and shape to soup plates, bowls are deeper, averaging closer to               2 inches in depth.  These are used to serve creamier, broth-like soups, as well as               some dishes that are eaten with a fork, such as pasta.

Fruit Saucer- These small dishes average around 4 to 6 inches in diameter and are round             1 inch deep, with a narrow yet pronounced rim.  Often used to serve fruit or other               food items with sauces or juices, this dish is meant to keep those juices isolated                 from the other parts of the meal.

Bowls recovered from West Circle Privy and Saints Rest Rescue. Left to right: Floral Design, Davenport Scalloped Decagonal, and Wedgwood Fig. All date to 1850s-1860s.

Bowls recovered from West Circle Privy and Saints Rest Rescue. Left to right: Floral Design, Davenport Scalloped Decagonal, and Wedgwood Fig. All date to 1850s-1860s.

Profile view of bowls.

Profile view of bowls.

Tureen- Larger, kettle-shaped vessels with two handles instead of a spout that come with a ladle.  These are used to serve soups or other liquefied dishes into smaller                       individual vessels such as soup plates, and are often decorative pieces meant to               catch the eye of those dining.

Tea/coffee cups and saucers- small cups averaging around 3 inches in height and                         diameter, which are coupled with small plates with upcurved edges and a small                   well that is perfectly designed to hug the base of the cup.  Saucers average around             6 inches in diameter and 1 inch deep.  Used to serve hot and slightly warm                         beverages, most versions of these vessels owned by MSU are more suited for                   coffee, as they are more cylindrical in order to better hold in the heat of the                           beverage.  Tea cups are often wider with a more flared rim, as tea is typically                       served slightly cooled.

Berlin Swirl handless cup and matching saucer. Recovered from West Circle Privy

Berlin Swirl handless cup and matching saucer. Recovered from West Circle Privy.

While not exhaustive, these descriptions provide clear examples of the functional specialization inherent in these different vessels and in how they were used.  It is no surprise that such dinner sets were a hallmark of the middle and upper classes, as owning a set of dishes, including all the specialized parts, that could feed a family of five or six would require more money than many people could afford at this time.  Such specialization was not limited to plates and bowls either, but also included drinking vessels and the silverware.  Be glad I did not decide to explore the differences between the fish fork, the fruit fork, the dessert fork, and the salad fork!



Biddle, Dorothy, and Dorothea Blom
1936   The Book of Table Setting.  Doubleday, Doran, and Company, Inc., New York.

Goldman, Mary E.
1959   Planning and Serving Your Meals.  McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York.

MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural Boarding         Hall.

Sprackling, Helen
1960   The New Setting Your Table: Its Art, Etiquette, and Service.  M. Barrows and                Company, New York.

Yellowstone Publishing, LLC
2015   Etiquette Scholar: Etiquette Encyclopedia.  Electronic document,, accessed November 30, 2016.

Zooarchaeology: The Study of Animal Bones and How it is Done

What is zooarchaeology and how is it actually done? This is a question that I get a lot when I talk about my research. Zooarchaeology is the study of non-human animal remains; specifically this involves the identification of animal species from archaeological contexts. However, it’s not as simple as just looking at a bone and easily knowing what it is right away! Typically, within archaeological contexts, animal bones are highly fragmented, leaving the zooarchaeologist with small pieces of an animal skeletal element. This fragmentation could be from both human and natural processes including: the butchering process, disposal practices, trampling, exposure to scavenging animals, and/or weathering.

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

So how are zooarchaeologists supposed to figure out what the broken bones are if they don’t look like a normal skeletal element, like an entire femur or scapula? To determine the identifications of archaeological animal bones, zooarchaeologists use a comparative collection. A comparative collection is a collection of identified animal bones by species and skeletal element.

Step One:

The first step in analyzing animal remains is to sort the bones by animal class: mammal, fish, reptile/amphibian, and bird. It is possible to separate bones by animal class because each animal class is different, and can be determined visually by zooarchaeologists.

Step Two:

After the animal bones are sorted by class, the next step is to sort them by skeletal element (if possible). These first two steps allow for easier use of comparative collections for specific identifications.

Step Three:

Zooarchaeologists then take the sorted animal remains one item at a time, and based off of their initial evaluations compare each bone to the bones of previously identified species within the comparative collection. For example, if I have a bone that is thicker and/or larger than most of my mammal animal remains from a prehistoric archaeological site that is located in an area that has a lot of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), I would start by looking at the deer comparative skeleton to identify the bone.

Comparative Collection

Photo of comparative collection section – Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center, Springfield, IL

Campus Archaeology

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Conducting zooarchaeological research at MSU is a little more difficult than you would expect because there is not an established zooarchaeological comparative collection. However, I have been working with the MSU Museum for the past year on developing one! While it is not finished, we have selected complete skeletons that have been reviewed and deemed fit to be included in the comparative collection. After I finish as much analysis as I can using the MSU Museum comparative collection, I will take the remaining unidentified animal bones to Springfield Illinois, to use the collection at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center.

Currently, I am in the process of pulling out the animal bones recovered during the Campus Archaeology excavations of site from the Early Period of MSU’s history (1855-1870). Below are some photos of the bones that I will be analyzing in the coming months!

With these identifications, we are able to estimate the number of individuals that are found, the seasonality of the resources exploited, meat cuts based off of butchering methods, or even how different pieces of meat from the same animal are distributed. Stay tuned to learn about the results of the animal bone analysis and the methods we use to make our interpretations!

Seasons’ Eatings! Seasonality of Food Acquisition and Consumption on the Early MSU Campus

Behold the Seasonal Bounty!" (source:

Behold the Seasonal Bounty! Image Source

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the long winter holiday season, and as we don our elastic-wasted pants and prepare to eat until we hate ourselves, there seems no better time to, once again, talk about food. As you sit down to your holiday meal this week, take some time to think about the food traditionally served at Thanksgiving. Some of the signature dishes include items such as cranberries, yams, apples, squashes, and pumpkins. These are late-autumn harvest foods, and they demonstrate how deeply food traditions are embedded in the seasonality.

What is seasonality, you may ask? The term refers to foods, usually fruits and vegetables, that are only available during the season of the year in which they ripen or are harvested. In our modern world of industrialized agriculture and global markets, it is easy to forget that people were once at the mercy of the nature for their food. In the past, fresh fruits and vegetables were not available all year round like many types of produce are now. Today, once-seasonal foods can now be grown in climates that produce year-round or in specialized greenhouses, and then distributed across the world via modern transportation. That’s not to say that we are not completely unaffected by seasonality, but societies in the past, including the early MSU population, were affected by it to a much greater degree.

College Hall & Boarding Hall (Saint's Rest) 1857. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

College Hall & Boarding Hall (Saint’s Rest) 1857. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

During MSU’s Early Period (1855-1870), the boarding houses, or dining halls, faced the challenge of feeding hundreds of students based on the availability of local resources. Routinely transporting foods in from long distances would likely have been generally too difficult and costly during most of this early period. A report from 1874 notes that there was a railroad to Lansing but none to campus, and all roads leading into campus were very poor. Therefore, acquiring food from MSU’s own fields, gardens, and livestock, and purchasing additional foodstuffs from local farmers and stores would have been the preferred and necessary means by which to procure food.

I and other CAP fellows have been mining account books from the early days of the college and boarding halls to determine early food purchasing habits. In three separate receipt books, all spanning the general time frame between 1866 and 1874 (which captures the end of the Early Period and the beginning of the Expansion Period), food seasonality patterns become strongly apparent.

The boarding house bought berries exclusively between July and September, while cherries are purchased almost every year, only in the month of July. Other summer items purchased only in summer months include plums, tomatoes, beets, radishes, summer squash, and salsify, a root vegetable that tastes like oysters (what a treat!). Grapes and pears, which are available in the fall, were both purchased in November, and turnips, and autumnal vegetable indeed, were procured in August and September. Dried fruit, dried apples, and dried peaches, however, were purchased mostly between February and April, although dried peaches were also bought in July. Therefore in the absence of fresh fruit, it seems dried alternatives were sought to supplement the daily nutrition of students and faculty.

Boarding Hall Provisions Account. Salsify purchase highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Boarding Hall Provisions Account. Salsify purchase highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Salsify. Sadly, it does not instantly turn things into salsa." (Source:

Salsify. Sadly, it does not instantly turn things into salsa. Image source

Other seasonal items were also noted in the account books. Maple syrup was purchased in March and April, when sap would be flowing freely through the Michigan maple trees. MSU diners happily guzzled down cider as the apples ripened and the weather turned chilly from September to November. And of course, MSU maintained holiday traditions as well. Pumpkins were bought annually in October, either for decoration or consumption, and large numbers of turkeys were procured in November. Even our earliest students were lulled into tryptophan comas following their Thanksgiving feasts.

So let us follow in the footsteps of our predecessors and dine upon the season’s ripest and most delectable comestibles. Let the starch of yams and squashes fill our bellies, the juice of cranberries stain our tongues, and the grease of turkey glisten upon our hands and faces. ‘Tis the season, the season for eating!



Kuhn Collection, Folder 11, Box 2533, Vol. 108, Collection UA17.107, “Boarding Hall Account Book, 1866-1871”.

Madison Kuhn Collection, Folder 11, Box 2531, Vol. 82, Collection UA17.107, “Cash Account with Boarding Hall 1869-1874”.

UA 17.107, Vol. 32, “Accounts 1867-1873”.

Madison Kuhn Collection, Folder 10, Box 2410, UA.17.107; “Student Life at MAC 1871-1874” by Henry Haigh.

MSU @ AAA 2016

The annual American Anthropological Association meeting begins this week in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We have several presentations, sessions, forums, and workshops involving members of the MSU Anthropology program. Check out the presentations listed below in alphabetical order of lead presenter. The full searchable schedule can be viewed here.  If I have missed any MSU presenters or organizers please let me know and I will update the list.

MaryKate Bodnar

  • Session: Navigating Biomedical Hegemony and Health Inequalities
  • Friday November 18th, 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM.

Lisa Bright

  • Session: Discovering Evidence of Care from the Four Fields of Anthropology: Health and Reproduction
  • Thursday November 17th, 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM
  • Presentation: Bioarchaeological Evidence of Caregiving from a Historic-Era County Hospital (4:30 PM – 4:45 PM).

Elizabeth Drexler

  • Session: Human Rights Vernacularizations: Celebrating the Work of Sally Merry
  • Saturday November 19th, 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM.

Jennifer Goett (co-organizer Laurie Medina)

  • Session: After Recognition: Indigenous and Afrodescendant Territorial Rights in Latin America (5-0840).
  • Saturday November 20th, 2016. 1:45 PM – 3:30 PM.

Lynne Goldstein

  • Workshop: How (and Whether) to Find an Academic Job
  • Thursday November 17th, 8:00am – 12:00pm.

Lynne Goldstein (with Lisa Bright and Jeff Painter)

  • Session: Ceramic Ecology XXX: Current Advances in Ceramic Research
  • Friday November 18th, 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM.
  • Presentation: Sherds of Spartans Past: Ceramics from the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program (4:15PM – 4:30PM)

Rowenn Kalman (co-organizer Michael Walker)

  • Session: Evidence of Inclusion and Equity: Engaged Anthropology and the Sustaining Impact of Anne Ferguson’s Scholarship and Mentorship
  • Friday November 18th, 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM.

Seven Mattes (Organizer: Akihiro Ogawa)

  • Session: Space, Self, and Language in East Asia
  • Sunday November 20th, 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM.

Mindy Morgan (co-organizer Ira Bashkow)

  • Session (Roundtable): Voicing the Ancestors: Readings in Memory of George Stocking (3-0030).
  • Date: Thursday November 17th, 8:00am – 9:45 AM.

Norder John

  • Session: Eco-Subjectives: Resisting Environmental Inequality Through Indigenous and Local Community Coalition-Building
  • Saturday November 19th, 10:15 AM – 11:45 AM
  • Presentation: Rivers of Wisdom, Islands of History: The Poises of Sustainable Indigenous Knowledge Communities through Heritage and Environmental Resource Management (11:15AM – 11:30AM)

Radonic Lucero

  • Session: After Recognition: Indigenous and Afrodescendant Territorial Rights in Latin America
  • Saturday November 19th, 1:45 PM – 3:00 PM
  • Presentation: Whose City? Indigenous Peoples and the Interrogation of Public Space in Northwestern Mexico (2:00 PM – 2:15 PM)

Let’s Make Botany Hip Again, Part 2: Experimenting with Experimenting

Beal in the botanical garden. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Beal in the botanical garden. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

In my previous blog post, I discussed Professor Beal’s pioneering hands-on teaching strategies and his efforts in building the College’s first botanical laboratory. As I delved into research about the botanical laboratory and Beal, it became apparent that the lab was not Beal’s only, or most sacred teaching space; during his tenure at Michigan Agricultural College, Beal turned campus itself into an extended laboratory of sorts. This post focuses on Beal’s work in the fields of botany and forestry, and how these contributions changed the landscape of agricultural research and, quite literally, the landscape of this campus.

In researching the botanical laboratory, I discovered a large collection of reports and bulletins on Beal’s work. Academics are all too familiar with the adage “publish or perish,” but at MAC, there were also legal imperatives for professors to publish. As part of the 1861 legislative act transferring control of MAC to the State Board of Agriculture, the College was charged with conducting scientific experiments to promote education and progress in agriculture, and with publishing results in annual reports. These records provide us with a sense of what MAC professors, including Beal, were doing and thinking about during this time.

Much of Beal’s research was inspired by real-world problems. During his first 13 years at MAC, Beal “mingle[d] considerably with the farmers in the interest of horticulture to learn their needs and modes of work and thought.” Drawing on the work of Charles Darwin, Beal experimented with selection and hybridization of various crops to improve their yield and quality. In 1878, Beal cross-pollinated different strains of corn, increasing corn production by 53 percent. Beal corresponded with Darwin himself about this line of study, evidenced by letters in the MSU Archives.

Man excavating a bottle from Beal’s seed vitality experiment. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Man excavating a bottle from Beal’s seed vitality experiment. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

One of the experiments Beal reported, a long-term seed vitality study, would turn out to be his most famous. Just before the first botanical laboratory was built in 1879, Beal buried identical bottles of seeds at a secret location on campus. The goal of the experiment was to retrieve one bottle every five years and test how many sprouted. The last bottle is due for excavation in 2100. It is currently the world’s longest continually monitored scientific study.

Not all of Beal’s ideas were so inspired. One experiment was called “Feeding the leaves of plants with soup” and it was exactly what you’re thinking. In what I can only describe as an attempt to generate carnivorous tomatoes, Beal made a soup from “a quart of water and a hand-sized piece of meat,” then applied the soup daily to the leaves of the tomato plants. Instead of nourishing the plants, as he had predicted, the soup produced dead spots that gave the plants a “sickly appearance.” With an almost tangible shrug, Beal wrote, “Perhaps the soup was too strong; probably the plants do not like food served up in this form.”

Beal’s various research reports make clear that much of his research was conducted outside of the laboratory around campus and in the extensive arboretum and “wild garden” he planted. It appears he conceptualized these campus spaces as extensions of his botanical laboratory and invaluable spaces for experimentation and observation.

Close up map of campus, 1880. U is the botanical laboratory. The trees north of L are the arboretum. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Close up map of campus, 1880. U is the botanical laboratory. The trees north of L are the arboretum. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

The arboretum began in 1874 as two rows of swamp white oaks near where Mary Mayo and Campbell Halls now stand. By 1880 there were over 275 species of shrubs and trees across two acres of land. Beal often published on his observations in the arboretum, including which species of trees flourished and their rates of growth. Perhaps an even more impressive feat was the wild garden. Planted in 1877, it contained over 700 species of flowering plants. The work of planting, labeling, and maintaining the garden was undertaken almost entirely by students with Beal’s oversight. Specimens from the garden, which was located just outside the first botanical laboratory, were regularly used as materials for Beal’s classes. While the organization of the garden has changed over the years, it is currently the longest continually maintained university garden in the nation and a pleasant place to wander as one escapes the library.

During the period of operation of the first laboratory, the legal push for agricultural research intensified. The Hatch Act of 1887 gave federal funds to state land-grant colleges to establish Agricultural Experimental Stations and required publication on agricultural research. MAC professors received part of their salaries from Experimental Station funds and were expected to devote a third of their time to experiments.

Man in the botanical garden, 1875. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Man in the botanical garden, 1875. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

To put it lightly, Beal was not enamored of the pace of this directive. While he published some experimental results, he often used the platform instead to promote education and conservation. In an 1891 bulletin titled “Why not plant a grove?” he wrote, “These few pages on forestry have not been written to secure the applause of those who see little use for a bulletin unless it contain some new truths brought out by conducting careful experiments.” Instead, Beal expressed his concerns about deforestation, urged farmers and landowners to plant trees, and drew on his own experiences with the arboretum in explaining the best methods of doing this.

Reflecting on my research into Beal’s research, it is clear the first botanical laboratory served as the center of botanical research and education at MAC. However, as I hope I have illuminated in this post, these efforts neither began nor ended with the building itself. From his arrival at MAC to his retirement, Beal claimed campus spaces as sites for teaching and scientific observation. That said, the construction of the second botanical laboratory apparently came as a welcome relief after two years of sharing space in the agricultural laboratory. When its cornerstone was laid on June 22, 1892, Beal held a ceremony at which prayers were read and his wife Jessie sang a hymn. Perhaps it was the prayer, or perhaps it was its construction in brick, but the building still stands today as part of Laboratory Row. 


True, Alfred Charles. A history of agricultural experimentation and research in the United States 1607-1925 including a history of the United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1937.

History of Beal’s Botanical Garden

 Beal, William J. The Agricultural College of Michigan Bulletin No. 45, Department of Botany and Forestry: Why not plant a grove?

Beal, William J. A Brief Account of the Botanic Garden of the Michigan State Agricultural College, 1882.

MSU Archives & Historical Collections

UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records

  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1878
  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1879
  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1880
  • Michigan Board of Agriculture Department Reports, 1880: Report of the Professor of Botany and Horticulture
  • Report: Michigan State Agricultural College Experiments and Other Work of the Horticultural Department (1880)

Rim Diameter for President!: An Archaeological Distraction for Your Anxious Election Day

Hopefully, like me, you have already voted today and are awaiting the results.  While we all wait anxiously to hear what the next four years will be like, let me distract you with some good, old fashioned archaeology.  In my last blog post, “Let’s Dine Like it’s 1872!,” I explored archival evidence for a diverse set of college-owned dinner wares within the Saint’s Rest boarding hall, signaling that the college at this time followed the Victorian ideal of mealtime as one of education and conspicuous presentation.  Since that time, we in the Campus Archaeology lab have been classifying and measuring dinner wares from the Early Period (1855-1870) of campus that were recovered through various archaeological excavations.  What we have found matches quite closely with the information seen in the archival documents, but also presents us with aspects that were left out.

"Berlin Swirl" pattern plate. We have this pattern produced by two manufacturers. Photo source: Lisa Bright

“Berlin Swirl” pattern plate. We have this pattern produced by two manufacturers. Photo source: Lisa Bright

For this work, we have been identifying specific vessels, which were then analyzed for a number of characteristics.  While this work is still underway, we do have some preliminary results to share.  During this time, most of the college-owned vessels were white ironstone dishes, which were much cheaper alternatives to the fancier, porcelain dish sets so popular with the upper class.  While these dishes were not colorful, many of them have different embossed designs on the rim, such as the Berlin Swirl pattern, a wheat pattern, or a scalloped decagonal pattern.  A few were plain white dishes with no designs at all.  Many of these dishes have maker’s marks, all coming from pottery manufacturers over in England, such as Davenport, J. and G. Meakin, Liddle Eliot and Sons, and Wedgewood.

"Wheat Pattern" plate produced by J.&G Meakin. Photo source : Lisa Bright

“Wheat Pattern” plate produced by J.&G Meakin. Photo source : Lisa Bright

"Fig Pattern" plate produced by Wedgwood. Image source: Lisa Bright

“Fig Pattern” plate produced by Wedgwood. Photo source: Lisa Bright

Thanks to further archival research done by CAP fellow Autumn Beyer, we can presume that these different designs do not represent different functional sets owned by the college, such as dinner sets, tea sets, or lunch sets, but instead represent different purchasing episodes.  In the purchasing records from MSU in 1862, we have evidence that the college did not buy all of their dishes at one time, but were buying a small number of them each month (MSU Archives: Kuhn Collection Volume 91-Agricultural Boarding Hall).  As the student population grew and as dishes broke, the college needed to acquire more, possibly buying them from different grocers.  This might be why different dish patterns are represented, as different grocers could have had different selections.  The stock of the grocers may also have changed based on the availability of different imported dishes and what was popular for that year, so it may have been difficult for the college to buy replacement dishes that matched their original set.

Small "Scalloped Decagonal" bowl produced by Davenport. Image source: Lisa Bright

Small “Scalloped Decagonal” bowl produced by Davenport. Photo source: Lisa Bright

Rim diameter and vessel height data also provide further evidence that a number of different vessel types and sizes were present.  Among the plates, at least four sizes were represented.  While there is some minor variation due to refitting, incompleteness, and different manufactures, plates tend to group around a 6.5 inch diameter small plate, a 7.5 inch medium plate, a 9.5 inch large plate, and an 11 inch very large plate or small platter.  Two diameters of bowls were present, small bowls that were only 5.5 inches in diameter or smaller and larger bowls with diameters around 9.5 inches.  These bowls also had different depths. Of the large bowls, some had depths of 1.5 inches while others had depths of 2 inches, suggesting that these bowls had different functions.  The small bowls all tended to be shallower, with depths of around 1 inch.  Besides bowls and plates, other dishes represented include saucers, handle-less cups, deep casserole-like dishes, and other serving dishes that were more fragmented and difficult to identify.  While different styles of cups and saucers were represented, all of them tended to be the same shape and size, only differing in their embossed designs.

"Scalloped Decagonal" serving dish. Most likely made by Davenport but no makers mark present. Image source: Lisa Bright

“Scalloped Decagonal” serving dish. Most likely made by Davenport but no makers mark present. Photo source: Lisa Bright

This archaeological data further corroborates the information found in archival documents and demonstrates the power of using these tools in tandem.  When only archival resources were used, it was clear that the college owned a number of dishes of various types that were used as dinner ware, a dining style typical of wealthier Victorian Era families.  What these sources did not make clear was the type of dishes that were used.  Were they expensive porcelain dishes or cheaper ironstone?  Were they plain dishes or decorated with elaborate glazes or painted designs?  Archaeological data, on the other hand, can tell us more about the types of dishes used, how cheaply they could be purchased, and what they looked like, but it cannot inform us about the total amounts of dishes and dish types that were present, or how the college went about procuring these items.  Together, the use of both archival and archaeological information helps to paint a more complete image of what life was like for the first students that attended MSU.  Dining was a much more elaborate affair than it is now, involving the use of numerous specialized dishes that were meant to educate students about proper behavior and to demonstrate their middle-class status.  MSU, despite not having great amounts of money, must have believed this practice to be important for the well-being and education of the students; therefore, they invested hundreds of dollars into buying cheaper versions of these dishes.  Based on the great variety of designs present, the college must have had a difficult time finding dishes that matched when it came time to replace or expand the number of dishes.  Overall, by combining these two types of data, it can allow archaeologists to create a more accurate and life-like vison of the past, one where the anger of those who had to replace broken dishes and could not find the same type of designs can reverberate through history.



MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.

Here Fishy Fishy: Fish Importation in the 1860s

As I have been going through the purchasing records for the Agricultural Boarding Hall at the MSU Archives, I’ve noticed some interesting purchases that I did not expect to run across. These are the purchasing notes for imported fish, including Lake Superior Whitefish and Halibut. I am particularly interested in the importation of the Lake Superior Whitefish because I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right across the street from Lake Superior. Growing up in Marquette Michigan, Lake Superior Whitefish was a staple in our house and is very common at local restaurants in town. I was surprised to find it purchased by Michigan State during the Early Period! The archival records show that during the 1860s, not only was MSU was purchasing Lake Superior Whitefish, but that they were doing it throughout the year. During the Early Period of MSU (1855-1870), I was expecting that almost all food resources that MSU utilized would be local, because of the difficult nature of transporting more exotic/distant food. To be able to transport fish from Lake Superior to MSU, the fish would have to be either transported on ice (more difficult to do during the summer months) or they would have been salted to preserve them.

1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint's Rest) - lake superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint’s Rest) – lake superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Before I dive into the history of fishing on Lake Superior, here is a quick background information on Lake Superior Whitefish. Lake Superior whitefish are a member of the trout/salmon family (Salmonidae). The reason whitefish were and still are such a popular fish is due to its tasty flavor, convenient size, and their habit of schooling that allows for easier mass catching (DNR). Whitefish hatch in the spring, and grow rapidly, allowing them to reach over 20 pounds and can live over 25 years (DNR).

Whitefish - Image Source: DNR

Whitefish – Image Source: DNR

Fishing for Lake Superior Whitefish has a long history in the state, and commercial fishing on Lake Superior has had some major changes throughout Michigan’s history (Goniea DNR; Minnesota Sea Grant). Small steamer ships are no longer required for transporting fish to the market (Holmquist 1955). Now it is possible to drive the fish catch downstate along the highways throughout Michigan, many of which follow the Great Lake shorelines. One part of commercial fishing that has not changed is the most common method of fishing: gill nets. However, there are now different laws that govern the size of the mesh used by fishermen as well as fishing seasons (Holmquist 1955).

The steamer "Hiram R Dixon" fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source

The steamer “Hiram R Dixon” fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source

Through the 1890s, whitefish were the most popular/mainstay within the Lake Superior commercial fishing, but through the early 1900s, the species almost became extinct. Now with the help of more restrictive fishing methods and artificial propagation, whitefish populations are at adequate levels for commercial fishing once again (Holmquist 1955). According to Holmquist (1955) a second attempt of large-scale fishing on Lake Superior occurring around 1860, when a commercial operation was opened at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is possible that this push in commercial fishing during this time influenced Michigan State’s purchasing of imported fish in addition to the more typical local resources.

Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source

Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source

While MSU farms and local businesses provided the majority of the food resources consumed by campus residents during the Early Period, it has been exciting to learn about the non-local resources that are being purchased for the boarding halls. While the purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish does not appear to be a constant throughout the 1860s (archival records indicate sporadic purchasing during three separate years), it is interesting that there was an inclusion of food that would have been more difficult to acquire. Students and faculty were treated to a more varied diet than what their local surroundings could produce. The purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish during this time shows the appreciation of great resources and the wonder of the Upper Peninsula before the building of the Mackinaw Bridge!



MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.

Commercial Fishing on Lake Superior in the 1890s by June Drenning Holmquist (1955):


Tom Goniea (DNR) – The Story of State-licensed Commercial Fishing History on the Great Lakes:,4570,7-153-10364_52259-316019–,00.html

Minnesota Sea Grant – Lake Superior and Michigan Fisheries: A Closer Look:





Four Pickles for Dinner? Trials and Tribulations of Archival Research and Tips for Success

History is fleeting yet enduring. We hardly ever realize that we are making it, but the remnants of our historic actions can sometimes remain long after they are done. Things casually jotted down, random papers and notes tucked away—these are items we don’t realize that someone may use for information in the future. Fortunately for Campus Archaeology, the Michigan State University Archives serves as a repository for these bits of history, housing both official records and other written information collected from MSU alum and faculty emerita.

As lovely as such resources are, the often pose a problem for researchers. Diaries and notebooks, etc. were not written for the public and may only make sense the author. More official records, such as account books, weren’t necessarily private, but still bear the marks of individuals living in certain times and places, which doesn’t always translate for later generations.

In my efforts to recreate diet and foodways on the early MSU campus (1855-1870), I have been begun recording the food purchases in account books for the boarding houses. Boarding houses and clubs were the original cafeterias, so they are key to understanding early MSU food culture. However, the documents I have surveyed thus far, dating to between 1866 and 1871, have given me as much trouble as information.

Here are some of the issues facing researchers using historic archives:

  1. Illegibility:  Most handwriting prior to the last couple decades was in cursive, particularly in official records. Some record-keepers’ handwriting is clear and perfectly legible, but most of the time, this is not the case. As we move further away from using and reading cursive in the modern era, our untrained eyes find further difficulty with deciphering it. This problem will only continue to worsen, as many elementary schools have ceased teaching cursive writing.

Exprep on extracts from Saints Rest account books. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

2. Outdated Terms:  Some of our problems with reading past documents can be attributed to the use of terms that are no longer commonplace. Early on I ran into a word I could not read (see photo), but upon a text conversation with Lisa, we decided the word may be “exprep”. Googling this phrase didn’t turn up anything useful, and we concluded that it may have stood for external preparation (hiring an outsider to prepare something). Later I ran into the phrase “express in tea”, referring to postage for a tea delivery. I thought perhaps I had misread it the first time around, but the last letter of the previous entry simply does not look like two esses. I remain confused! (And please help if you can!)

Express on tea seen in Saints Rest accounts book. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Express on tea seen in Saints Rest accounts book. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

3. Incomplete information: One issue I have been running into with the receipt books is the lack of itemization of food purchases. Sometimes entries are very specific (e.g., “4 3/12 dozen eggs”), while others simply say “Pd Bill to Hentch for meat” without specifying the amount or type of meat that was purchased. Often the bookkeeper would simply reference the person paid without indicating the goods for which they were paid. This means that we are only able to get information about some food goods being purchased and not others.

So, how can you deal with the issues we face when researching in the archives? Here are some tips:

  1. Talk to an archivist:  This is the most obvious and probably most useful tip of them all. If you are having problems reading something, then it’s likely that the archivist has encountered the same problem and is much more experienced at reading and interpreting old records. This is a resource I have yet to tap—I’m  saving up all of my problems so I only have to bug them once!
  2. Discuss with friends:  Visiting the archives with friends can make the tedium a little less painful, plus you can ask them if they can decipher a word that has you flummoxed. If you go alone, you can take a picture (with permission of the archives) and send it to a friend for help.
  3. Revisit:  Take note of words you can’t read and revisit them later. Sometimes looking at them again or after you’ve seen a certain word or term written more clearly can help you read it the second time. I kept thinking I was seeing the word “sand” but later realized that it actually said “lard,” which makes more sense for a boarding house…
  4. Utilize alternate resources: Since certain documents often include only one type of information, you must draw on other resource types for context and other types of data. The account books list only foods purchased, so how foods were prepared, the recipes used, and students’ perception of the food are still unknown. I will be drawing on a variety of other sources for this information, so stay tuned…

These methods, however, cannot solve everything. One entry in the boarding house account book said “four pickles for dinner.” Did they really just buy four pickles? Or did they forget a word? Pounds? Jars? Barrels? And why were these pickles specified to be used for dinner? Was it a special dinner?! Or were pickles banned during lunch?!? Oh 1870 account book keeper, why do you vex me so?!?

Mystery word in Saints Rest account book. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Mystery word in Saints Rest account book. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Some remnants of history may always remain a mystery.


Kuhn Collection Vol. 108, Boarding Hall Account Book 1866-1871

Rock Me Like a Hurricane (Lamp shade): Kerosene Lamps on Campus

Examples of Kerosene Lamps with Hurricane Shade - Image Source

Examples of Kerosene Lamps with Hurricane Shade – Image Source

During the west circle historic privy excavation, 773 fragments of hurricane oil glass lamp shades were found. Lamps that use these shades are characterized by a wick dipped into the fuel source that would have been surrounded by a glass globe. Glass lamps may initially seem like a fairly routine find, which of course they are to an extent. But, consider the role of electricity in your own life. Now, imagine what studying must have been like in a small dorm room with the only light coming from an oil lamp! Clearly the students’ all-nighters would have been interrupted by the tending of the lamps.

Female student in dorm room 1896 - oil lamp can been seen on her dresser. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Female student in dorm room 1896 – oil lamp can been seen on her dresser. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Rule 81 from the 1868 M.A.C. Regulations. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Rule 81 from the 1868 M.A.C. Regulations. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The rules of the Michigan Agricultural College from 1868 clearly state that, “Filling a lamp with kerosene when it is burning, or in the evening or night is forbidden under penalty of suspension or expulsion.” However, as we know from the presence of clay pipes and alcohol bottles found in campus excavations, students often subverted the rules. I imagine many a lamp was kept burning as students hurriedly tried to get through the material they needed to know for a tough botany or chemistry course. Though the early campus buildings were constructed of mixed materials, the rules regarding lamps were clearly designed to cut down on fire hazards in dorm rooms.

Ancient Roman Oil Lamps, 1st-5th century AD - Image Source

Ancient Roman Oil Lamps, 1st-5th century AD – Image Source

There is archaeological evidence for the use of oil-lamps for thousands of years, while the kerosene-fueled lamp was introduced around 1850 (1). Ancient Romans used lamps made of stone, shell, or ceramics and fueled by the abundantly available olive oil (2-3). Oil lamps appear in Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Christian texts, usually referencing lighting some spiritual way or the light as a source of direction (1).

I am sure we are all very grateful for the widely available electricity we enjoy today, but in other rural parts of the world kerosene lamps are still used today where electricity is too expensive or inaccessible. Kerosene as a fuel source rivals even the amount of U.S. jet fuel consumption per year! While kerosene lamps like the ones found on campus consume about 77 billion liters of fuel per year, the U.S. airlines report usage of about 76 billion liters of jet fuel per year (4).

Interestingly, CAP has only found oil lamps at the sites of the historic privy (associated with Saints’ Rest) and the site of Beaumont West which is associated with College Hall. These locations make sense as students would have been occupying these spaces after the sun went down. Recently, the City of Boston Archaeology Program (5) located a complete oil lamp at the bottom of a privy dated to 1835. CAP has had no such luck with finding an intact lamp, which is not unexpected since one careless knock into a table could have sent a lamp flying and glass shattering. We have been able to reconstruct some of the lamp shade fragments, but their presence in the privy associated with the old dormitory lends credence to the idea that the lamps ended up here due to breakage. Perhaps it was all to common for students at Saints Rest to make their trip back to the dorm in the dark, after accidentally breaking a lamp shade, and hiding the evidence down the privy shaft.







Privy Seed Germination Experiment: Introduction to Intern Becca Albert’s Project

Hi, I’m Becca Albert, and I’m a CAP undergrad intern this semester.  I participated in the 2015 field school, volunteered in the CAP lab last year, and worked on the field crew last summer. My internship project for this semester includes testing to see whether seeds found in the West Circle privy in June 2015 will germinate. These seeds were identified as raspberry seeds (id courtesy of Dr. Katie Egan-Bruhy) it will be difficult to determine what species they are until they grow (if they grow!) The privy is dated to campus’s Phase I (1855-1870), with diagnostic artifacts dating to the 1860’s and 1870’s. University archival records of the Board of Trustee meeting minutes from 1875 indicate that Beal ordered around 300 raspberry bushes to be planted on campus. Whether these were for botanical experiments or for food sources is unknown, however it is unlikely that these weren’t used as a food source, as foraging for berries in the area and farming was a great contributor of food for the students. Financial records from Saint’s Rest also indicate that the boarding hall was purchasing upwards of 130 quarts of berries a week during the summer. Again, no specific species is indicated, but this does provide archival evidence of berry consumption. These seeds were found in association with a flower pot, so although these could have been digested, these could also have been the product of a failed botanical experiment.

Seed from the privy under magnification. Image source: Amy Michael

Seed from the privy under magnification. Image source: Amy Michael

The seeds I am using for my experiment were first separated from 10 grams of night soil by hand and then weighed. The total weight of all the seeds was 0.2 grams, so not a very hefty sample size. These seeds were evaluated under a stereomicroscope to make sure what we picked out were actually seeds, and were counted. The total number of seeds from this sample was 174 seeds – that’s about .001 of a gram for each seed. To test whether these seeds germinate, we will be using two experimental methods. The first method is a simpler experiment, like one that you might try as an elementary school experiment – this follows some of the thinking for an experiment I tried with Lima beans in third grade! Several seeds will be placed in between some damp paper towels, which will then be placed on a plate, and sealed into a plastic bag. This bag will then be placed somewhere warm, like on top of a refrigerator, and will be checked periodically to see whether some of the seeds germinate. The sealed plastic bag will allow the moisture and humidity inside the bag to stay constant, however after a week or so, these paper towels will be replaced with new moist paper towels both to prevent mold, germinated seeds from attaching to the paper towel, and to increase the humidity inside the bag periodically. These methods are adapted from this article from the SFGate Home Guides Website, however many modes of basic seed germination follow steps similar to these.

Man digging up seeds for viability experiment, likely H. T. Darlington. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Man digging up seeds for viability experiment, likely H. T. Darlington. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

The second method is one that is more scientifically rigorous, and includes following methods that are used in Beal’s famous seed longevity experiment. Beal’s experiment essentially asks the question of how long can a seed lie dormant before it cannot germinate. This experiment is in its 137th year, with the next experiment occurring in 2020. The previous testing year for the Beal seed experiment reported three species as germinating, with around a 46% success rate for one species, a 2% success rate from a second species, and a 4% success rate for the third species (Telewski 2002). CAP is working under the assumption that the privy was likely damaged in the 1876 fire that destroyed Saints Rest, making these seeds 3 years older than the Beal seeds.

My experiment includes placing approximately 50 seeds in a growth chamber for a specified day/night cycle, humidity, and temperature. The seeds themselves are placed in a pre-determined soil mixture and kept in damp soil. The seeds will be checked periodically to see if germination occurred, and to keep the soil damp. Following the methods used for Beal’s experiment will not provide an opportunity to test their methods, but is also an homage to the man who provided a lot MSU’s more interesting early history.

Several scientists around the world have been able to germinate seeds from prehistoric contexts (Sallon 2008, Yashina 2012). Archaeologists in the United States have found seeds in historic privy excavations however, germination experiments have not been attempted because they are generally larger assemblages with a variety of species and a greater importance has been placed on determining the species present (Trigg 2011, Meyers 2011, Beaudry 2010, Dudek 1998). If these seeds germinate, it would be an interesting addition to the germination of seeds well past their prime.

Stay tuned for updates as the experiment progresses!


MSU Archives & Historical Collections:
– Madison Kuhn Collection Volume 82, Folder 11, Box 2531, Collection IA 17.107 (Records for July 1870).
– UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records. Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1875

Meyers, Ciana Faye, 2011. The Marketplace of Boston: Macrobotanical Remains from Faneuil Hall. Thesis.

Beaudry, M. C, 2010. Privy to the feast: eighty to supper tonight. Table Settings: The Material Culture and Social Context of Dining in the Old and New Worlds AD, pp. 1700-1900.

Dudek, Martin G., Lawrence Kaplan, and Marie Mansfield King, 1998. Botanical Remains from a Seventeenth-Century Privy at the Cross Street Back Lot Site. Historical Archaeology, pp. 63-71.

Meyers, Ciana Faye, 2011. The Marketplace of Boston: Macrobotanical Remains from Faneuil Hall. Thesis.

Sallon, Sarah, Elaine Solowey, Yuval Cohen, Raia Korchinsky, Markus Egli, Ivan Woodhatch, Orit Simchoni, and Modechai Kislev, 2008. Germination, Genetics, and Growth of an Ancient Date Seed. Science 5882(320), pp. 1464.

Telewski, FW and JAD Zeevaart, 2002. The 120-yr period for Dr. Beal’s seed viability experiment. American Journal of Botany, 89(8), pp. 1285-1288.

Trigg, Heather, Susan Jacobucci, and Marisa D. Patalano, 2011. Parasitological and Macrobotanical Analyses of a Late 18th Century Privy, Portsmouth New Hampshire.

Yashina, Svetlana, Stanislav Gubin, Stanislav Maksimovich, Alexandra Yashina, Edith Gakhova, and David Gilichinsky, 2012. Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000 y-old fruit tissue buried in Siberian permafrost. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(10) pp. 4008-4013.

How to Germinate with Paper Towels.