The Many Faces of Cowles House, MSU’s Oldest Building

This summer, Cowles House, MSU’s oldest standing building, is due to get a facelift. As part of this remodeling, crews will remove a few trees from around and inside the building and expand the west wing.  In preparation for this work, I have been researching the history of this building, as well as what previous CAP excavations have recovered in the area.

Completed in 1857, Cowles House was one of four homes built to house the earliest faculty members and administrators of MSU.  Some of the most prominent individuals in MSU’s history, such as Williams, Abbot, Beal, Bessey, Hannah, and McPherson, all lived in this house during their tenure at the college (Brock 2009; Kuhn 1955).  From 1857-1874, Cowles House served as the residence of the college president.  After 1874, Cowles House, then known as Faculty Row No. 7, functioned as the home of the professor of Botany (Beal 1915:35, 267;

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920. Image Source.

During these early decades, Cowles house was not only a place of residence, but was also a hub of campus entertainment. Early on, no organized social life existed on MSU’s campus.  Students instead gravitated towards faculty homes, where faculty and staff would regularly host small get-togethers (Kuhn 1955:127). The Abbot’s, who lived in Cowles House during their time at the college, frequently invited students and guests into their home. As documented by Kuhn, Abbot had students come to his home weekly to read and discuss literature.  They also entertained on the weekends: “On Saturday nights the Abbot home was open to students; twenty or thirty would gather about the fire to eat apples and to talk of politics, of ethics, and of literature” (Kuhn 1955:90).

By the early 1900s, Cowles House had been repurposed to serve a broader function.  On a 1927 map of campus (MSU archives:, Cowles House is labeled as “Secretary’s House,” indicating a switch from residential space to a more administrative one.  I have not been able to discover more about what this label entails, such as if the house was entirely office space during this time, but it is clear that the space was no longer reserved for faculty use.

In 1941, under the Hannah administration, Cowles House once again became the home of the president of the university.  As such, the building underwent major renovations after the end of World War II, during which much of the building was rebuilt and a new wing was added to the west end (Kuhn 1955:402).  Recently, Cowles House has functioned as an entertainment and banquet space, as recent presidents have decided to live off campus (Brock 2009).

A View of Cowles House Today

A View of Cowles House Today. Image source

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Cowles House has been of great interest to Campus Archaeology due to its location within the Sacred Space.  As little has changed in this part of campus, this area has the potential for preserving intact archaeological deposits from the earliest days of campus.  CAP has conducted numerous surveys around the building, including in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2014 (CAP Reports 7, 11, and 15), but we are yet to find any clear features or concentrations of materials. Instead, only a diffuse scatter of artifacts has been found around the building. Brick fragments, window glass, nails, and other construction debris are the most common objects found, while a few ceramic sherds, animal bones, bottle glass, and two golf balls have also been recovered. In general, this record is likely the result of construction and remodeling episodes, mixed in with trash from everyday life.  While CAP has tested extensively around the building, we have not investigated every area, and plan to survey and monitor intently as renovations take place this summer.  We are always on the look-out for that rare deposit that can provide us insights into the lives of the early MSU faculty and presidents!

References Cited

Beal, W.J.
1915   History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors.  Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing

Brock, Terry
2009   “Survey Spot: Cowles House”  Blog posted on CAP website, Sept. 9, 2009.

CAP Report 7
2009   Music Building and Cowles House Survey.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 11
2011   Walter Adams Field Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 15
2012   West Circle Steam I Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

Kuhn, Madison
1955   Michigan State: The First Hundred Years.  The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

MSU Archives and Historical Collections:

Gone but Not Forgotten: Campus Buildings that No Longer Exist.  Online Exhibit.

Map of MSU Campus and Buildings, 1927.

Sorting the Admin Artifact Assemblage

Archaeology is like a puzzle- only you don’t know what picture you’ll end up with and some of the pieces are either broken, burnt or missing. As you may have read previously, on our last day of summer excavation, Campus Archaeology discovered a potential trash pit with hundreds of historic artifacts in it (Read that post here). It was located between the Administration building and the Red Cedar River. It is an area that could tell us quite a bit about historic MSU, and definitely a location we will investigate further in the future. After the field season ended, the artifacts were taken back to the lab for cleaning.

So what happens then? How do we begin to understand what all these artifacts mean? Do they belong to a trash pit or was it accidental loss of materials? Was it the refuse from a single building or activity, or from many buildings and activities? What exact time period was the material deposited in? Who did it potentially belong to?

Before we start trying to figure out the picture that this puzzle makes, we first need to examine all the pieces.

2014-11-20 11.16.18-1

Assemblage from Admin, being sorted into broad categories, via author

The first step is to divide the artifacts into broad categories like glass, ceramic, and metal. By sorting them into these categories we start to see patterns or unique artifacts. After that, we divide them further. For glass, we look at whether it is window glass or bottle glass. The easiest way to do this is to place the glass flat on the table- if it is completely flat, it is likely window glass, whereas if it has any curve it is more likely to be bottle glass. For ceramics, we sort out by the ceramic type such as whiteware, stoneware or porcelain. For metal, we sort them into functional categories, like door related hinges and keys or building related nails and screws.

Once we’ve got the broad categories complete, we can begin to see patterns among them. We start finding pieces of ceramic that match and belong to the same pot. We separate specific decoration types to see if they preferred patterns or plain ceramics. We divide the bottle glass into milk bottles, decorative cut glass bowls, or lab equipment like test tubes and thermometers. This is the part of the process that is the most frustrating but also in many ways is the most exciting. At this stage, you begin to understand what the assemblage means, who might have created it, and where it belongs. Sometimes you get lucky and a couple pieces fit together to make a more complete bottle or pot. Other times it is exhausting as you find that nothing fits or you can’t identify what an artifact is.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be working with this collection to understand it better. Right now, we’re still sorting, trying to make connections, and comparing what we’ve found here against other material found on campus.


Winter is Coming: The Cold Days of CAP

It’s official, winter is coming. Scratch that, it’s here. I woke up this morning to a snow dusted car and icy roads (bonus points for avoiding the fishtailing 4×4). In the best years I’m an extreme, fair weather fan of winter. By the end of August I’m usually looking forward to the cooling weather, changing leaves, and enjoying the beauty of freshly fallen snow…for about 6 weeks. By the time January roles around I’m already cursing the frigid temperatures and dreaming of the sun and sweat of summer archaeology. After last winter’s arctic blasts and record breaking snow falls, I think my tolerance this year is at an all time low. I commute an hour to campus, so the winter of 2014 was downright traumatizing.

While winter is clearly not my favorite season, and definitely not an exciting one for Michigan archaeology, it is a good time to catch up on everything. CAP had a busy summer with the discovery of the Vet Lab, shovel testing People’s Park, and an excavation of a trash pit on the LAST day of digging. The fall was equally busy with planning for our Apparitions and Archaeology Halloween event and creating the historic panels for Chittenden Hall (these will soon be displayed in  Chittenden so stop by and check them out). While I’m not looking forward to the winter weather, I am looking forward to the slower winter months.

That is not to say that we wont be busy at CAP, everyone is still working diligently on their projects. But during the cold winter months we have more time to cozy into the archives and keep warm in the lab. This may be a sad statement, but I’m excited to catch up on reports and lab work. To, not only finally have the time to devote to these endeavors, but to have enough time to do them well. I am never quite relaxed and comfortable until everything is in its proper place, labeled, cataloged, and filed.  I love fieldwork as much as the next archaeologist, but it’s calming to know that everything we find in the field properly cataloged and available for research, and not just thrown onto a shelf, never to be studied again.

Over the winter it’s my goal to finish the accessioning. Since we received official Site numbers from the State last year, we’ve been accessioning our artifacts through the MSU Museum. It is a tedious process to go through and label all the artifacts we’ve found since 2005, but it’s great to familiarize myself with every single artifact CAP has excavated. Other CAP fellows Blair and Lisa will be helping me on the accession project throughout the winter.

I should enjoy the winter while it lasts, because before I know it we’ll be planning our Summer 2015 Field School and preparing for another whirlwind summer.

Updates on the CAP Typoloogy

Hello CAP blog followers! Thank you for your patience as I get back into blogging. This semester I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Kiluna Rosali so I had to delay my first post for a bit. Nevertheless this semester I am finishing up the CAP typology from last year. Here is a look at our progress to far and our goals for this semester.

Photo courtesy Shanti Zaid

Photo courtesy Shanti Zaid

As you may remember, CAP receives new budding archaeologists every year. These new students come from a spectrum of interest and experiences with archaeology and field work in particular. Therefore, CAP has set out to establish a type collection to introduce new students to the range of artifacts found during campus excavations. This collection is comprised of some of the common building materials, samples of the various bottles found, as well as bone fragments, ceramics, and personal items used throughout MSU’s history.



So far we have been able to identify key artifacts from sites such as Morrill Hall, the Brody Complex, and areas throughout the Sacred Center. These artifacts are re-labeled to reflect their initial provenience. We will then and put them on a separate, easily accessible shelf for students to become familiar with prior to setting out into the field. The collection will be used to help the students identify potential artifacts during shovel tests, walk throughs, and full scale excavations.

This year I am teaming up with Ciera Uyeunten, an anthropology major with an interest in artifact photography. Ciera will use photography skills to ensure that we have a digital version of the type collection. This version would be very useful in the field for on-site assistance. We also plan on creating a user friendly digital map with the associated artifacts along with pictures of the historic campus sites. This map will allow users to not only identify artifacts from specific areas on campus but also see some of the photos from different periods of campus life to get a sense of the activities from each site.



We are very excited to bring this project to the next level and look forward to more  updates throughout the semester!



Accessioning MSU’s Archaeology

Numbers are important for archaeologists. We number each excavation we do, each hole within our surveys, and every single bag of artifacts we fill. These numbers help us keep organized. We can match the bag numbers with the site numbers, shovel test numbers with specific artifacts, and survey areas with map locations. On MSU’s campus we are constantly digging, and we need these numbers. Over the next year we will be dealing with some very important numbers: accession numbers.

Josh working in the lab to clean artifacts for cataloging,  via Katy Meyers

Josh working in the lab to clean artifacts for cataloging, via Katy Meyers

Accessioning is the process of creating a permanent and unique record of an archaeological. The accession number is the way of identifying the particular collection. After collections are identified, the accessioned assemblages then become formally integrated into a museum that will assume the obligation of care and management. In order for a collection to be accessioned, every item within it must first be inventoried and described within a catalog, then the objects within it must be assigned unique identifiers related to the accession number, and all archaeological documentation related to the collection.

Each number represents a specific collection from a single dig, or a specific survey, or can include a number of surveys or digs that take place at the same site. For example, we will be asking for a single accession number for each of the different buildings. Any material from that particular building will be organized into a single collection. However, if there are artifacts that are from the same survey but drastically different sites, like a historic and a prehistoric, they will be put into separate accessioned groups.

Over this next semester, I will be going through all of our excavation and survey records to create an argument for why they each are important and should be accessioned. This is an exciting project that we are undertaking, and one that is extremely important for the program.



Rainy Day Work: Integrating GIS and the Artifact Catalog

The large amount of rain East Lansing has experienced over the past three weeks has deeply affected the construction and archaeology on campus.  This delay in work has allowed us at the Campus Archaeology Program to turn our attention to the other side of archaeology: finds and analysis.  Back here at our homebase in MSU’s Consortium for Archaeological Research, we’re working on analysis and interpretation of our artifacts and integrating this with our maps.

Artifacts cleaned and ready for cataloging

Artifacts cleaned and ready for cataloging

Artifacts found on this campus vary from types of ceramics and metal fixtures found within homes to industrial pipes and building materials.  After the dig, the collected finds are returned to the lab and processed.  This means that all of the finds are washed and dried.  Following this process, members of our team work to identify the artifacts and input them into a database.  Our team notes the type of artifact and the presence of identifying characteristics such as decorative styles, any wording or maker’s mark (trademark stamps), and/or if the piece is a specific part of a vessel such as rim, handle, or base.  This allows us to look at just what types of things were being used in the early days at Michigan State College.

In the meantime, another type of analysis is occurring upstairs in the archaeology computer lab.  It is here where a slightly more technologically literate group (with skills I personally envy) works on the digital side of Campus Archaeology.  Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) members input the location of our digs on to real satellite images of the area.  This creates a multilayered map with extensive information on the site.  At current, these maps show the location of all our shovel tests (ST) (a surveying technique where a small pit is dug to sample the area).  Each shovel test is associated with the archaeological project site it is within, who dug it, and a positive or negative indication of whether finds were collected.  This process helps us located the areas of early activity on Michigan State’s campus.

So far these two important processes have been separated.  While the rain has kept us off site and stuck indoors, we have been inspired to initiate an integration of the two forms of analysis into one helpful mapping system.  Our goal is to create a more robust and useful purpose for the Campus Archaeology Program’s GIS maps.  The result of this will be the creation of a way to integrate the catalogue of artifacts into the map.

In order to represent the artifacts in the GIS system our team needed to come up with a list of artifact types that not only fully incorporates the variety and cultural relevance, but also is not overwhelming to the system.  This took a rather tedious meeting and lots of debate in order to develop the shortest and most complete list.  We debated whether we should focus on broad types such as pottery or metal, or more specific types like whiteware, stoneware or pearlware. A second debate was whether we should assess them by presence or absence, a technique that works well if something is broken within the pit, or by the frequency of finds, which works well with lots of little artifacts. We also debated how to classify artifacts, like whether we should separate items by function or material used, which becomes problematic with items like buttons that are all different materials but same function. We came up with a semi-finalized list of around 25 artifact types will be inputted in to the GIS system.   From here, each ST will be associated with either a presence/absence or item amount for each of the 25 types.

Once this is done we will be able to use the GIS maps to show where artifacts were collected, and further look at the location and concentrations of artifacts by statistical analyses. This process, which is one of the most intensive off site projects, will with all hopes be fruitful to the knowledge of your Campus Archaeology Team.

Meet Our Summer Team!

We’ve been out doing our first two weeks of excavation at Jenison Field House and within West Circle Drive. So far we’ve found a number of interesting artifacts including an old gin bottle from brooklyn and a layer of burnt bricks possibly related to the Old Williams Hall. Before we get too far into the season, here are some introductions to our summer team!

Bethany, Josh, Katie, and Marie from right to left at Jenison Field House (Katy out of the frame because she was taking the photo)

Bethany, Josh, Katie and Marie from right to left at Jenison Field House (Katy out of the frame because she was taking the photo!)

Katy Meyers: I have been the Campus Archaeologist for two years, and this will be my last summer in this position. Over the past two years heading up the CAP teams I have excavated across the campus, gotten to do a dig at the first dormitory at MSU (Saints Rest) and excavated the Morrill Boiler Building found under East Circle Drive. In addition to this, I am currently a 3rd year PhD graduate student in Anthropology at MSU, and my research focus is on bi-ritual cemeteries in the UK. I got my start in archaeology through video games like Tomb Raider, and summer trips to my parent’s cabin where I got the chance to run up and down a gully finding fossils and early 20th century artifacts from the early cabins in the area. While my research does focus on cemeteries and funerary processes, I have done work on a number of historic and prehistoric sites throughout the Midwest and Northeast. I have truly loved being part of Campus Archaeology because it allows me to add to the history of MSU, and help create connections between the current and past campus.

Katie Scharra: I am a recent graduate of Michigan State University.  Originally, I began a program in Microbiology.  After travelling during my sophomore and junior years to Europe and exploring different cultures I had a change of interests.  I wanted to look for an academic program that took my interest in science and applied it more culturally.   This brought me into the Anthropology department where I began to study mortuary archaeology.  In the future, I would like to apply both my microbiology and anthropology degrees with a PhD in Bioarchaeology. In order to gain experience in field methods and to keep up my archaeology skills during my current gap year I joined the Campus Archaeology team.  Over the past year, I have worked on a few digs across campus and worked with the artifacts.   In the spring I was involved with cleaning and interpreting the artifacts recovered from the October 2012 excavation of Saint’s Rest, the first dormitory on campus.  During this project, a partner and I organized the finds in to a classification based on use (i.e. home goods, school items, building materials). This allowed to us to have a look in to the more realistic lives of the first Spartans.  We presented our findings and the 2013 University Undergraduate’s Research Forum.  This summer I am looking forward to continuing investigation into the changing landscapes and lifestyles of campus.

Bethany Slon: I am an undergraduate student majoring in Anthropology, and this fall I will be starting my senior year at Michigan State University, anticipating graduation in December.  I started working with Campus Archaeology in the summer of 2012 as a volunteer, and the following fall semester I began work as an intern under the direction of Dr. Goldstein and Katy Meyers.  My research involved looking at the early years of the Women’s Building (now called Morrill Hall) and gathering information about the first female students who lived in this dorm.  The MSU archives was very useful with my study; they provided me with scrapbooks made by the female residents of the Women’s Building, in addition to maps, photos, and plenty of other information.  I eventually presented this information at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum, linking it to Campus Archaeology and what the demolition of Morrill Hall means to us.  This summer I am working again with Campus Archaeology, this time to monitor construction and make sure nothing of historical or archeological value is destroyed or missed. I eventually want to become a bioarchaeologist, specializing in Central American locations.  I’ll be attending MSU’s Dr. Wrobel’s field school this summer in Belize, where I will be doing research on caries of the ancient Mayan population that used to live there, giving me both experience and knowledge I’ll need for the future.  Graduate school is also in the plans for me, though where I’ll be going is yet to be decided.  Archaeology has always been a passion of mine, and I am lucky to have found this experience with Campus Archaeology, both to broaden my skills as an archaeologist and to do what I love.

Josh Schnell: I am a freshman here at MSU, majoring in Anthropology and Religious Studies, with a specialization in Latin American Studies. I have been working with Campus Archaeology since February of 2013 when I began an internship learning how to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software in an archaeological context. This summer, as a member of the Campus Archaeology Survey Team I will be digging during and monitoring various construction projects to ensure our campus’ cultural heritage is not lost. I am an aspiring bioarchaeologist with a strong interest in mortuary practices, and I also volunteer in MSU’s bioarchaeology lab. A strong fascination with ancient cultures is what first drew me to archaeology as a potential career in middle school, and ever since then I have been dedicated to protecting, investigating, and educating others about our past. As President and Webmaster of the Undergraduate Anthropology Club at MSU, I have a strong interest in building a social foundation and creating an environment where other anthropology students can learn, collaborate, and help each other. I hope that through working with the Campus Archaeology Program this summer I will gain experience in conducting Cultural Resource Management work in the field, as well as expand upon general archaeological field skills.

Marie Schaefer:  I come to the Campus Archeology Program from a more cultural anthropology background.  However, I have always thought to be a good anthropologist you need to have a least a basic understanding of all the subfields of anthropology (cultural, archeological, linguistics, biological). This is especially true if you are going to be working with any Native American tribes or conducting any applied anthological projects in which you might be working with anthropologists and others from all different backgrounds. As a result, I have searched out opportunities to gain an understanding of the different perspectives of anthropology.  After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a BS in anthropology I went to Northern Arizona University for my masters where I had the opportunity to conduct a needs and asset assessment with Hopi women for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office on why Hopi women’s traditional knowledge is not being passed down to the next generation and suggestions on how to stem the tide of this knowledge loss. Currently I am in the PhD program in anthropology at Michigan State University with a very applied focus to my work which focuses on how indigenous knowledge and Western scientific knowledge can be integrated in order to assist in the creation of sustainable futures for indigenous people. The CAP program offers me a unique opportunity to not only learn more about the amazing history of a land grant university but also to gain a deeper understanding of the work of anthropologists in order to serve as a bridge between tribes and archeologists.

What do you do with melted glass?

Artifacts cleaned and ready for cataloging

Down in the Campus Archaeology lab we are dealing with an interesting problem. Two of our volunteers, Katie and Dana, have been diligently cleaning and cataloging artifacts from the work we did this past Fall. As most of you know, we excavated the Northwest portion of Saints Rest, the first dormitory. Since the building burned down,  numerous artifacts were affected by the fire. This complicates the identification process, especially when it comes to identifying the glass. Usually differentiating between window glass and bottle glass isn’t difficult. You place the piece on a table, and see if it has any curve to it. Window glass is completely flat, bottle is not.

Warped and burnt glass from Saints Rest


So what do you do when your glass sherds are warped out of shape, color is changed due to the fire, and there are no clear indicators as to what it may have been? That is the question we are dealing with. We are currently examining the glass to try to make sense of the bending and warping in order to better interpret it. Hopefully we will be able to organize some of it.

Anyone know of any resources on identifying burnt artifacts? Any tips for identifying warped glass?

Connecting Text to Artifacts

Historical archaeology is often defined by the use of both archaeological and documentary evidence. The two lines of evidence don’t always complement one another, sometimes they can be quite contradictory. One example of this on campus is the presence of smoking pipes from the 19th century, although the texts from this period state that smoking wasn’t allowed. Another problem is that what ends up in the archaeological record and what we’re interested in learning isn’t what it discussed in texts. One of the things we hope to discover is where the trash pits for the 19th century campus are located. We’d be able to find lots of artifacts there that could help us understand early campus life. However, no one talks about the location of trash pits because it was so obvious back then that it didn’t need to be discussed or written down.

Sometimes we get lucky and are able to use texts to better interpret the artifacts we’re finding on campus, or vice versa. Luckily our campus has the MSU Archives and Historical Records which preserves and maintains documentary evidence since the 1850’s. We have access to everything from the first maps, diaries of students, scrapbooks, and letters from parents, students and faculty. It is our job at Campus Archaeology to connect these seemingly disparate pieces of evidence together with the artifacts we find in order to understand what people were really doing on campus. Here are some examples of connecting artifacts and archives done by our intern Paige from last year (see her posts on this material here).

Hair excavated from Sleepy Hollow

Hair excavated from Sleepy Hollow

During the 2011 Campus Archaeology field school we recovered some cut human hair. We could tell it was simply hair clippings from a barber because all of the pieces had sharp edges, they were all roughly the same size, and were clumped together. We didn’t know what this could represent- were students helping each other to cut their own hair, was there someone on campus to do it for them? When we began researching this ‘artifact’ we discovered a short advertisement in “The Eagle”, the campus newsletter from the 19th century. The article dates to September 10, 1892, and that year roughly falls within the time period we believe the hair came from. The article notes “Jackson the Lansing barber has a chair in room 75 Wells Hall, is at the college every Friday afternoon and evening to do work in his line”. While we don’t know whether this specific barber led to this specific haircut, it does tell us that students were getting some basic amenities on campus rather than having to venture into East Lansing to get them.

You can see ‘The Eagle’ newspaper clipping here, image from MSU Archives and Historical Records.

Inkwell from 2010 field school

Inkwell from 2010 field school

Another example is an inkwell found during the 2010 field school in the same area, meaning it also dates to the late 19th century. Inkwells were a fairly common item, especially on a college campus. Despite that, they were also necessary objects and given the limited budget of students would have been fairly important. This bottle in particular is a Harrison’s Columbian Inkwell and was very popular in the mid-19th century. This one was recovered in fairly good condition, which may mean that by the time of discard it was no longer popular and the user was ready for something more up to date. However, we know that they were important and wouldn’t be discarded without good reason. Another article from “The Eagle” in May 5, 1893 records the theft of one. It states “Someone had the nerve to steal the new ink-well from the outside desk in the Secretary’s Office on Tuesday evening. When conditions are such that the office furniture has to be chained down, it is time steps were taken to detect and punish the parties guilty of this petty thievery”. Who knows, perhaps a student decided it was time to upgrade so they pinched one off the secretary’s desk and discarded their old one in the trash!

You can see the snippet from ‘The Eagle’ here, thanks to MSU Archives and Historical Records.

Connecting the artifacts with archives makes our interpretations of the past much richer, although we must be very careful to avoid privileging one form of evidence over the other. In the upcoming summer we will be addressing an archival mystery. We know that Professor Beal changed the landscape of campus in the 19th century, but it is unknown exactly what he did or how he did it. This summer we will get the chance to explore the areas he changed and will hopefully be able to get an idea of how the campus looked previously and what the archives mean.

What’s in the CAP lab?…. An Insider’s Perspective Part 3

This is the final installment on my series about how the archaeology lab is an interesting place and lab skills should be a part to the every archaeologists tool kit. This last part will focus on some of the cool artifacts that we currently house in the CAP lab. Again, this may seem simple to some, but this insider’s perspective may help newcomers over the hump of post field work archaeology. The lab is pretty simple. It’s space, basic equipment and fun artifacts can greatly enhance their overall archaeological experience.

So where do artifacts come from? Of course they come from site surveys and excavations, but did you know that sometimes artifacts come right from local backyards? While archaeologists are typically hesitant to keep artifacts without proper provenience, everyday folks often find interesting things in their own backyards and donate them to the nearest archaeologists. This results in a variety of artifacts that can contribute to local history and become part of artifact collections.

While we typically encourage people to leave the objects in the ground so that proper assessment of it’s value can be done prior to bringing it into the lab, occasionally people will bring in all kinds of things they consider valuable for some reason or another. Kind of like antiques roadshow except we don’t pay you! So, how does the lab handle these kinds of situations? We attempt to get any and all possible information from the owner to determine its archaeological value and whether or not we should keep it. Then we label and record it according to this conversation and decide to keep it here or not. This may seem pretty intimidating but this is very rare and all you have to do is direct them to your supervisor, they are more likely than not used to this sort of thing.

However, the majority of artifacts come from archaeological research. What are some cool finds from our research thus far? Building materials. The benefit of archaeology on an expansive site that has been continuously occupied since the end of the industrial revolution is that there is no shortage of building materials. Plus due to MSU’s long history of sustainability, as Amy Michaels reminds us, they constantly recycled buildings and building materials as the campus expanded over the 20th century. So let’s get started!

Bricks collected on MSU’s Campus, photo by B Zaid

If you’ve followed CAP work over the years you know that there is no shortage of bricks in our labs. We have large bricks, small bricks, brick shards, bricks of all sorts of colors, and made in a variety of ways. Bricks are everywhere. CAP has a lot of bricks. MSU’s recycled buildings leaves a layer of brick debry across a large part of campus. Aside from interpretive identification through age and technology, the bricks make up the foundation, excuse the pun, of the CAP artifact collection. So if you are interested in post industrial brick building techniques and tidbits, let us know, because we have a lot of bricks!

Artifacts, cleaned but not bagged, photo by B Zaid

If building materials were constantly recycled, then our next category of artifacts, a personal favorite of mine, is pretty easy to identify: metal! Well, mostly nails but metal nonetheless. We have unidentified metal chunks, metal construction materials, latches, keys, even a bullet casing! The CAP collection has all sorts of metals. The nails are particularly interesting because there is much to learn from nails. First, beyond the size, the type of nail head (square or circular), the shape of the end, and the smoothness of its side can all help determine the date and type of manufacturing through modest observation. Also, archaeologists have come up with theories to determine the size of fences and buildings through an assessment of the sheer quantity of nails. Nails are typically made of iron or steel but can vary along a wide spectrum depending on if they were hand or machine cut! I know I’ve said enough already about nails, but next time you walk into a building, sit on a chair, or even open up your laptop, consider the role nails play in your everyday life.

There are a variety of other artifacts in the CAP lab and you can peruse our blogs for the many different descriptions and interpretations of our finds. This post was simply to end our discussion on the nature of the CAP lab. Labs can be much more complicated and often they are, but this lab is a friendly place made up of simple organizing materials. It is a repository for the artifacts that we come across through a variety of means.

So if you have already spent a few summers in the field but haven’t worked in the lab, give it a whirl! Sign up for lab work this year and explore a whole new element of archaeological research. You never know what you might find!