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 …
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!
This past summer, the Campus Archaeology program had the opportunity to offer a field school to archaeology students from MSU and across the state—our first field school since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Directly taking part in ongoing CAP research into life in the …
While looking through the artifacts recovered from the 2020 Service Road project, the CAP crew found an interesting green glass bottle fragment. After further investigation, I found that this fragment was the remaining portion of a Sprite bottle made by the Chattanooga Glass Company (as …
During archaeological excavations, some of the most ubiquitous artifacts unearthed are ceramic sherds that were once part of bowls, plates, vases, or other decorative pieces. It is relatively easy to appreciate the skills and techniques that go into the creation of meticulously crafted ceramic vessels. Even in the cases of plainer wares whose value comes from their utilitarian style, there is still an immense amount of training and proficiency required by the individual at the potter’s wheel.
The CAP archaeological collections contain thousands of ceramic sherds that exhibit exquisite designs, motifs, and the utmost finesse in their creation. Within these assemblages are fragments from a few terracotta flowerpots that absolutely do not display any of these characteristics. AT ALL. WHATSOEVER. In fact, these vessels look like they had the “help” of Patrick Swayze as they were on the potter’s wheel, all the while “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers crooned in the background. In other words, these flowerpots look like they got “Ghosted”. Although this description may sound disparaging, it is truly not intended to be as such. In fact, it is the belief of the author that this flowerpot fiasco, this terracotta transgression, this clay catastrophe, this misshapen malady of moistened minerals (I have more) actually brings the human aspect back into the cultural and historical significance of these forgotten faux pas.
These flowerpot fragments were found during the 2015 excavation of the Saints’ Rest privy, the outhouse associated with the first dorm on campus that burned down in 1876. Based on other artifacts found within the privy, it is obvious that it was used as a convenient disposal area for unwanted or broken items, most of which date to the mid-late 19th century (see numerous other blogs on the CAP website discussing the privy finds). It appears that this was the same fate that befell the terracotta flowerpots discussed here, and one in particular. It is unknown whether they were dropped down the privy because of cracks in the vessel walls, or possibly due to disappointment in how they came out of the kiln. However, their presence in the undisturbed midnight soil meant that one of the vessels could be fully reconstructed by the author.
While most flowerpots have straight walls that terminate at the rim, the one seen in the 3D model above clearly bulges near the base, giving it a somewhat lumpy appearance. The bulging indicates that the pot started to collapse while the clay was still wet. Wide and spiraling grooves about the width of a finger can be seen on the internal surface. These grooves probably occurred as the potter tried to pull the clay upwards to both widen the pot and make it taller, but accidentally applied too much force. As a result, the walls near the base became too thin and weak to support the weight of the thicker and wetter clay above. In other words, this sad vessel was doomed to collapse.
Compounding the weakened walls are two areas just above the bulges where the walls are slightly pinched in. These are located roughly on opposite sides of the pot from one another. This suggests that the pot was stuck to the bat (the spinning disc where the clay is thrown) and the potter grabbed it with a little too much force to remove it. Subsequently, indentations were formed with their thumb and another finger on opposite sides of the pot. It is also equally possible that grabbing the pot off the bat caused the bulging in the walls. The already weakened walls near the base were on the brink of collapse, but the catalyst for their failure may have occurred as it was removed too forcefully from the bat.
Other interesting aspects of this flowerpot are the presence of thumb- or fingerprints as well as (likely) unintentional textures made by the wet hands of the potter that were still covered in sticky clay. This could have been made in the process of removing the pot from the bat or placing it on a shelf to dry. However, as these marks are not all over the pot, it is clear that they were not intentional and could have easily been smoothed off. It is in the author’s honest opinion that after the collapse of the walls, the potter probably saw these fingerprints and other marks and thought “I’m too angry to care about making it look pretty at this point…”
Lastly, and despite the numerous ‘unintentional traits’, the rim of the flowerpot has decorative grooves and is smoothed and rounded off. This was likely done in the ‘leather hard’ stage where the clay is still wet so that it can be sculpted, but dry and sturdy enough that it will not collapse (any further). Although not perfect and following the narrative the author is unjustifiably weaving, these finishing touches suggest that maybe the potter had an emotional cooling off period while it was drying. Perhaps they decided to finish and take pride in their work despite the flaws that almost made them want to throw the collapsing pot on the studio floor.
There is no way of knowing who the individual was that made this flowerpot, but they clearly left their mark. Many of the artifacts we find in archaeological digs so rarely have such a personal touch to them. Artifacts on display at museums generally represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement, unmatched skill, or the finalized and perfected form of an object. The “mistakes” and “works in progress” do not usually receive the spotlight.
It is very unlikely that this flowerpot was ever sold or even given as a gift (unless it was to a family member…a very close family member who loved it because of who made it…not necessarily because of the way it looked…). This means it was possibly used by the actual person who made it, specifically because it looked “Ghosted” (i.e. no one else would probably want it). Accompanying this misshapen flowerpot are the emotions that the potter could have felt had while making it. They may have been just learning how to work with clay, so this vessel represented the exploration of a new hobby and the joy of being able to create something. Conversely, it may represent anger and frustration as they saw their hard work begin to collapse in front of their eyes. The author can also confirm that both these emotions occur simultaneously as a very similar scenario played out when they took a beginner’s ceramic class many years ago. Whatever the case, this frumpy little flowerpot has a much more human connection than the vast majority of the artifacts in the CAP collections. This is especially true because it has the literal fingerprints of its creator on it.
While this misshapen goblin of a flowerpot might not have the sophisticated execution compared to some of the more artisanal examples in the CAP collections, it undoubtedly has much more personality. Its life history can be more readily interpreted since its flaws are closely connected to the emotions its maker likely felt. Whatever the reason for being unceremoniously placed (or perhaps ritually deposited) in their final resting place, these ceramics with spunk bring a fun and more easily understood human component to the cultural history of Michigan State University.
Here at Michigan State we welcome winter as we return to classes and our labs. I would like share what we have been up to over break and provide a preview of what CAP will be working on this semester. What We Did Over The …
A Salty Tale I wanted this blog to be about patents, not Ruth Van Tellingen. Or should I call her Ruth Bendel? Or Ruth Elizabeth Thompson? I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we delve into Ruth’s life, let’s review the concept of patents as they …
When COVID hit our campus, CAP was forced to rethink how we perform our community outreach. We needed new, innovative ways to engage and educate the public without requiring them to meet in large groups. One of the ways we did this was to transition our outreach to digital platforms. This led us to create a series of tours about MSU’s history through the archaeology and archives.
CAP is working with the Geocaching Adventure Lab smart phone application to create seasonal adventures around MSU campus based on different themes. Each tour will have 5 stops for explorers to visit and learn interesting facts about each location, as well as about any excavations CAP has performed at that site. Our first adventure tour, entitled Walking Through MSU’s Culinary Past, is being released today! This tour teaches explorers about the history of MSU’s foodways, including various aspects of food production and consumption.
The walking tour comprises five stops, including the Old East Lansing Dump, Beal’s Lab, the West Circle Privy, the Gunson home, and the MSU Dairy Store. Each stop has a georeferenced location allowing the Adventure Lab app to map users to each stop. You can visit the Old East Lansing Dump to learn about how campus residents consumed alcohol during prohibition or community dinners that took place at Gunson’s house.
When approaching each location, explorers will be presented with a brief history of the site followed by the archaeological connection. We describe any excavations that took place at the site, as well as the artifacts recovered and their significance to MSU’s culinary past. Explorers will also be presented with archived photographs of the site, such as the historic Gunson home and Diary Store, and images of the excavation and artifacts. Additionally, we included 3D models of notable artifacts associated with each location.
The tour will end at the MSU Dairy store where explorers can partake in MSU’s cuisine by stopping in to get a delicious ice cream! All of the stops are easily accessible from sidewalks and do not require locating any tangible objects away from the sidewalks. Explorers will simply navigate to the location and explore the digital resources from their phones!
Access our tour directly though the QR code linked here or search for the tour on the Geocaching Adventure Lab app! We hope this will be a good way for students, alumni, and local alike to get outside safely and learn about the work we do around campus. Please feel free to suggest tours you would like to see in the future! Have fun exploring Spartans!
Here at Campus Archaeology, we love outreach – just this past week, we presented at both Michigan Archaeology Day and at our annual Apparitions and Archaeology Tour! (Thank you to those who stopped by!) We love outreach so much because we are passionate about archaeology …