This academic year has allowed me to explore several digital methods I had little to no knowledge about. This is partially due to my teaching position at MSU in the Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research (LEADR). While in this position, I …
This past summer has been one of the busiest, if not the busiest, summers of my time as director of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program. While we did not have a field school as we generally run them every other year, a remarkable discovery was …
by Juan Carlos Rico Noguera
Michigan State University (MSU) CAP “is a program that works to mitigate and protect the archaeological resources on Michigan State University’s beautiful and historic campus.” CAP is also an initiative that contributes to the public understanding of MSU’s history, enabling more profound and meaningful connections between this public university, its students, and the international community that populates it. Outreach is the primary way CAP has communicated MSU’s cultural-material history to the public. New fellows won’t take long before sitting behind tables filled with cultural objects, ready to answer questions from curious people interested in the relationship between material culture and the past and the spirit(s) of MSU. In short, CAP prices itself to protect MSU’s cultural heritage while engaging with outreach to socialize MSU’s history rooted in archaeological findings and analysis.
In my short experience as a CAP fellow, I can say CAP identity is not self-promotion; it is an accurate description but also a modest one. CAP has a richer meaning for me because CAP is not only defined by the services it provides to the MSU community but also by the possibilities it offers to the people who work under its wing. I am inclined to say CAP is a strategic site to connect the many sub-disciplines of American anthropology’s complex and exciting world with archaeological practice. This is profoundly important if we acknowledge archaeology as a vital expression of anthropology as a whole and recognize that anthropology at the graduate level is not exclusively pursued by anthropology majors. In other words, through my eyes, MSU CAP is also a facilitator of encounters between different subfields in anthropology, an excuse for graduates with no archaeological background to discover what it is like to work as an archaeologist and to appreciate the contributions that the subfield makes to our overall understanding of the human experience. It is also an opportunity for archaeologists in the program to see themselves in a mirror of otherness, fascination, and even stupefaction.
The lab as a site of encounter
To say that a lab is a site of knowledge production is obvious, but for many anthropologists that statement never transcends the frontier of a cultural consensus. While writing this post, I cannot stop thinking that if I had not been accepted to the CAP program, I would have never had the opportunity to work in a laboratory. A socio-cultural anthropologist has little to do with one, especially in a post-positivist climate where standardized data collection and analysis methods are under suspicion. In addition, anthropology is a very plural discipline that unfortunately only stays together by documents and administrative rationales suggesting that archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology are one and the same. In MSU, the four-field divide is so stark that almost every major field sits at different buildings.
The first time I entered the CAP laboratory, I was very nervous. Laboratories have always been foreign to me. A laboratory in English is twice as foreign. In that opportunity, fellows collected materials to exhibit at the Michigan Archaeology Day. Everyone was working with haste. With a list in their hand, an apparent sound understanding of the lab’s geography, and swift and precise movements, returning fellows collected the objects they needed. In my case, I did not even know where to stand. Like everyone else, I had a list in my hand, but I did not know where to find the things listed there. The list that I hoped would be a comforting map to navigate the lab and demonstrate my value as a fellow proved to me very quickly that I had some things to learn first. The list was demanding me to find a trowel. I immediately realized I did not know what that was. When I could get a hold of myself, my work was no longer needed. The objects for the presentation were ready and packed. Now, I always carry a pin in the shape of a trowel on my jacket for academic presentations. It reminds me of my encounter with archaeology, and it is my way of communicating I believe in the value of well-rounded anthropologists and a bridged discipline.
After my first visit to the CAP lab, I have been there many other times. Campus archaeologist Ben Akey has been leading an attempt to catalog the many objects the CAP has collected in recent years. They have also generously mentored me in historical archaeology and the cataloging process. After cataloging with Ben, I cannot overstate how impressed I am with archaeology as a field. Every nail, glass fragment, bottle, and bone are like pieces of an exciting jigsaw puzzle, probably the most challenging I have ever encountered. The catalog of artifacts systematizes each jigsaw puzzle piece to facilitate the analytical work of researchers interested in composing an empirically informed image of our shared past. Working with artifacts, brushes, catalogs, and databases has been novel for me in more ways than one. The most striking of those is reconciling an obvious part of human life we usually take for granted: the importance of objects, their qualities, and trajectories in defining the human experience. The importance of objects is not a mystery for cultural anthropologists, but before entering the CAP lab, I had never worked around them; I never thought about their provenance or classification, and I am profoundly happy by the opportunity CAP provides to do it.
Stupefaction: hoarding vs. faith in science and resources
Encountering archaeology in a lab for the first time also brought a cultural shock. I found myself cataloging and saving tens of nails that, to my neophyte criteria, were the same thing. Those nails were distributed in different places, and registering their presence was important, but should we keep them? I also found myself cataloging hundreds of indefinite glass fragments, meaning it was impossible to assume, at least in the cataloging phase, what they were a part of (bottles, windows, portraits, etc.). Coal fragments, envelopes, plastic pieces, and all sorts of unintelligible things were in my tray, waiting to be classified, packed, and saved. Is somebody going to make sense of all those things that, for most mortals, are just rubble? Are we really going to learn something worth the effort and the resources we invest in, or are we just committing to a scientifically informed hoarding practice? I have received a passionate answer: yes, rubble can tell many things under the appropriate gaze and methods.
I believe faith in science and funding that could seduce a scholar to systematically look into the MSU campus archaeological record are the main drivers of what I privately call “rubble cataloging.” I am willing to join the faith, especially after learning with Ben about historical archaeologists’ efforts to build virtual catalogs to facilitate comparison and sense-making. It is also important to think about how cataloging “everything possible” could be a measure to fight selection bias. Still, I am not convinced about how sustainable or useful that practice is. The faith that transforms rubble into meaningful windows to the past must fight against the same random sample techniques used in archaeological excavations? I don’t think so, but I have yet to witness what the proper funding and an expert scholar can do with all the small things I have cataloged.
But while science and enough funding happen, rubble cataloging has an important role to play. Should we think about rubble cataloging in a way that is not solely related to knowledge production? What about rubble cataloging for teaching and outreach? Regarding outreach, it is possible to circle back to knowledge production. Could we think of citizen rubble cataloging? I am convinced rubble cataloging can be productive because I have found it productive. The discipline of systematizing information has already invited me to think in a different way about my archive of ethnographic data. Now, I am constantly thinking of how to make it comparable and public in a safe, ethical, and productive way for the anthropological understanding of what makes us human. The constant work with objects in the lab has also enabled me to understand in a new way what archaeology is, why it is important, and the challenges it faces. It is possible citizen rubble cataloging may help the public better understand archaeology and why it is important to support it, just as I have.
 “MSU Campus Archaeology Program,” MSU Campus Archaeology Program, accessed December 10, 2023, https://campusarch.msu.edu/.
 The Campus Archaeology Program has partnered with student organizations like the MSU Paranormal Society to explore MSU’s cultural heritage in a way that connects with the interests, concerns and hobbies of MSU students.
 It is important to acknowledge the most radical critiques to the scientific endeavor are not as influential today as they were during the nineties and the first decade of the twenty first century. I believe that is a positive development since science, as a social endeavor with social consequences, is only as good or as bad as the values that inform the overall scientific process and the outcomes its practice produces.
 Michigan Archaeology Day is a time in the year (in October) in which professionals and archaeology afficionados meet to discuss recent findings in Michigan and to keep the archaeological community alive through meaningful engagement between experts and citizens.
Holly Long I love tea; I drink it every single day. It is warm, hydrating, and is known for healing properties. But the tea leaves most drink today are imported and are not indigenous to North America and are rarely grown here. Tea leaves, not …
Construction along Service Road in 2020 found a mid-20th-century midden. The artifacts found were associated with the history of temporary post-World War II student housing on Michigan State’s campus. After the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the GI Bill, became law, college enrollment increased …
This last summer, I had the amazing opportunity to be a part of CAP Crew, the group of MSU Archaeology (or archaeology-curious) students that conduct the compliance archaeology during the summer. Although, there is significantly more paperwork and lab work than there is fieldwork – alas, such is the life of an archaeologist. So, by the time we began work on the “Spartan Solar” project, we were all itching to get our trowels dirty.
The “Spartan Solar” construction project is planned by MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, and encompasses ~100 square acres of pastures between Jolly and Bennett off of Hagadorn. CAP researched the historical background of the area and identified several areas of high historic sensitivity. This brought those of us that were working on CAP crew away from non-air-conditioned classrooms and endless artifact forms (thank goodness) and finally out “into the field”.
When we got out there, we spent a few days walking and driving around each pasture to identify which area we would conduct our survey that season. Next, we established a survey grid in the pasture between Beaumont Road and Cattle Drive. Shovel test pits (STP) were placed at 15m intervals and when we found a significant level of materials in an STP, we dug radials at 7.5m intervals in cardinal directions from the positive STP. We excavated 61 shovel tests from June 22 to July 12, 2022. As someone who had dug very few STPs before the summer ’22 season, there was a decent learning curve when it came to digging efficiently.
Digging somewhere that is actively being used to raise animals is always super fun – you get to have many cute and fuzzy coworkers. Perhaps the highlight of the season was watching the farmers move a herd of cattle from one pasture to another, right through where we normally parked our cars!
As is typical in archaeological field work, one of our STPs was interesting enough to warrant us opening a full unit on the second to last day of the season. It seems that all the “cool” stuff hides until we are nearly out of time, which is frustrating and leaves you wanting a longer season! We spent the last day and a half excavating unit 1, taking turns practicing our shovel skimming in the different quadrants. Eventually, the amount and size of artifacts became too dense, and our trowels came out (finally). Even though hearing the word “archaeology” tends to make people think of Indiana Jones, we are certainly no treasure hunters. That said, it is always rewarding to find more than dirt and rocks!
In CAP this year, we’ve been brainstorming about public outreach activities. We’ve been focusing on activities for kids – who sometimes need a little extra help engaging with archaeological materials. This is my first year as a graduate student at MSU, and my first year …
Archaeology, Communities, and Civil Rights: A Review of the 2022 Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference
As we near the end of the semester, I want to reflect on one of my favorite experiences of fall 2022: the Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference! This year’s conference was organized by: Dr. Michael S. Nassaney, Professor Emeritus of Western Michigan University; our own Director …
While cataloguing artifacts from Service Road, we stumbled across an intriguing piece of a milk glass jar featuring an applied color label with bright red and blue hues. I say it was intriguing because many of the artifacts we have left from Service Road are unlabeled or small fragments, providing few clues beyond their shape of what they once held or were used for. So it was no surprise that the faint etchings of letters and color on this container drew my eye – however, my intrigue quickly turned into bewilderment when I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what those letters said!
The mix of fading and unique font produced the perfect storm, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the bottle was missing most of its bottom, with only “DE / .A.” still visible. While this did clue us in that this bottle was “MADE IN U.S.A.”, if a maker’s mark existed, it was lost along with the whole back side of the jar. So we knew the letters were the key to solve this puzzle!
After some debate with another CAP fellow on whether the last two letters were a “ZA” or were not letters but “2A,” and the use of some eye drops to see if that would help clear up my vision, we decided it was time to try another strategy. First, we tried using the UV light method that Aubree, another CAP fellow, introduced in her blog last year – however, while we have seen great results on other artifacts, it wasn’t able to do the trick for us with this particular label. So we moved on to Plan B: holding up a good ole iPhone flashlight behind the label to provide some back light. And it worked!
We could now make out what we thought was an “R U T M Z A.” Although Plan C, or a quick google search, helped us realize we were a little off, as google suggested that what we were really looking for was in fact “NUTMEG” – and it was right! (And maybe a bit too smart for its own good!) And with that, our now our artifact is no longer a mystery, but one of a set of Dutch stylized spice jars, often purchased by collectors today.
To complement our struggles reading the label, our archival research similarly led us down a few rabbit holes, as these jars have been attributed to a few different companies, including McKee Tipp City and Hazel Atlas. However, after matching our artifact to a picture of a spice jar for sale online with its brand label still in place, we realized that they were likely made as part of Frank’s Dove Brand, by the Frank Tea and Spice Company, which produced spices, food extracts, food colorings, apple butter, sauces, olive oil, and olives – quite the array of goods! Originally started in 1896 by three brothers in Cincinnati, Ohio, who aimed to replace the purchase of bulk goods with smaller, self-sized products, you might be more familiar with their Frank’s® RedHot® buffalo sauce, a popular product still in stores today!
As for our artifact, and the production of nutmeg jars of the Dutch style, the trademark logo dates between 1938 and 1996. Although a big range, this overlaps with other dates we’ve found of other Service Road artifacts and gives us some insight into ingredients used for cooking – we can only imagine some of the nutmeg recipes used by the person who threw away this jar!
Greetings! This is Dr. Stacey Camp, Director of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program. This past year has been one of constant change for our program. We have a new Campus Archaeologist, Ben Akey, after saying goodbye to our last Campus Archaeology, Jeff Burnett. We have …