Campus Archaeology Program at Michigan Archaeology Day 2012

Next weekend, on Saturday, October 6th, Campus Archaeology Program will be making a special appearance at the State Historical Museum’s yearly Michigan Archaeology Day. The theme for this year is “Hot Iron and Cold Winters,” and will highlight the Fayette Historic Town Site, an immigrant iron town in the Upper Peninsula founded by the Jackson Iron Company in 1867. This time period is analogous with the foundation of our university.

From 11:00 am to 3:00 pm, there will be presentations, demonstrations, and exhibitions from different universities and societies to show what archaeologists are up to in the state of Michigan. As you make your way through the museum, the exhibition tables are set up chronologically according to time period in human history.

I had the opportunity to see the behind the scenes construction of the event and was able to go into the private rooms where there are human remains and a Native American weapon that was found in the Upper Peninsula and was carbon dated at 20 AD. Everyone is working very hard to make this an informative and interactive day.

The Campus Archaeology Program’s graduate fellows will be there with our exhibition which will have some of our best prehistoric and historic artifacts from MSU’s campus, a poster showing who we are and what we do, a visual activity for children, and more. This is a great opportunity for the public to learn about thousands of years of Michigan history and for us to show the important and interesting things that we are uncovering on our historic campus. We look forward to seeing you there.

Click here to visit the event’s official website.

Our Facebook event page is here.

Michigan Historical Museum’s Facebook page is here.

Historic Boiler House Uncovered on North Campus

Historic view of central campus

Historic view of central campus

Construction: a word dreaded by most individuals, especially during these summer months when it seems to be the most prevalent. Like many other people, archaeologists dislike construction for the fact that it makes it extremely difficult for us to get to work; however, construction can be an archaeologist’s best friend believe it or not. Last week, Campus Archaeology was called in when the construction workers hit a historic wall foundation in between Morrill and Eustace Cole Halls while working on the West Circle steam loop.  As dreadful as construction can be, it sometimes is able to open up doors into discovering more of our archaeological past.

Historic Boiler House foundation found between Morrill and Eustace Cole Halls

Historic Boiler House foundation found between Morrill and Eustace Cole Halls

To the construction workers, it looked like a boring wall. To us, well, it looked like a boring wall too – but only at first glance. When we first began our work, the wall was a mystery.  There is no evidence of any structure in that location on any type of historic map of campus. After a few days of clearing away giant piles of dirt, detailing every stone of the wall, and drawing very intricate profiles, we were able to learn a little bit more about the history of this historic foundation.

With the help of the University Archives and Historical Collections, we were also able to find an old image of the university from 1903 with a large boiler house located in the exact location where the wall was uncovered as well as an unnamed building on maps that it could possibly be. When we first saw the image, we were all shocked that no one had noticed this building before seeing as though there was a HUGE smokestack attached to the structure. The boiler house dates from 1900-1904, and was used to heat Morrill Hall.

Profiling the historic foundation

Profiling the historic foundation

Although just a foundation, we can tell a lot about what possibly happened to the building from what now remains. From the looks of it, after the structure was demolished, the foundation was covered by the road rather than being completely removed. The wall runs northwest to southeast, and on the north end we’ve uncovered a series of bricks, mortar, and a large pipe, perhaps materials used in a road made of brick before the paved road near Morrill was constructed. We also excavated in hopes of finding evidence of a builder’s trench, but came up short of anything. In archaeology however, it is sometimes the absence of such things that can offer insight as well. The fact that there is no builder’s trench, along with evidence of the wall tapering off on the south end and the brick structure on the north end, leads us to believe that this area was highly disturbed throughout the years. This old boiler house was most likely destroyed and forgotten until now. Although, just a simple wall, this historic boiler house foundation gives us another glimpse into MSU’s past and how it operated in historic times.

We are still conducting research with the help of the University Archives and Historical Collections to try and learn a little bit more about the boiler house. In the mean time, you can check out the State News and their stories regarding the boiler house excavations!

The State News :: Unknown building found near Morrill Hall

The State News :: Possible 20th-century boiler room discovered

Site Reports

The Campus Archaeology Program spends the winter months doing a couple of things: getting ready for excavations in the spring and summer, and writing up reports for the projects that were completed over the previous year. These reports discuss what it was we found at a site, provides some basic site interpretation about what we think the objects are, and ties them into a larger picture of what happened at that site over time.

Each of these reports concludes with “Recommendations” section, which presents our interpretation of the cultural and historical value of the site, and how future development on that site should proceed in regards to the material record. Because of this, we also make sure that these reports are submitted to the Physical Plant.

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be posting these reports in our Research section, where they are available to download. We want these to also be available to the public, so that you can see what work is being done, and how we go about establishing our conclusions. It is, after all, your past that we are examining!

“you aren’t expecting to find anything, are you?”

One of the most stressful parts of being Campus Archaeologist is the task of monitoring construction projects. Monitoring is necessary under a couple of circumstances. Occassionally, such as at the Brody Complex where I was earlier this week, the archaeological deposits are located much deeper then we are able to reach through traditional means.


Since our business is time constrained by the project timeline, it is more practacle to excavate these materials while the construction is being conducted.

Another scenario is one where our archaeological survey did not find anything, although the historical documentation indicates that something should be visible. Site monitoring allows us to be on hand in case something is discovered. A third scenario is when a project has been started without our knowledge, meaning that no archaeological survey was conducted.

What makes monitoring stressful is that construction work is always under a deadline. Just the presence of the archaeologist puts contractors in a defensive position: I represent the potential for the project to be haulted, which makes the deadline more difficult to meet, which costs more money. Mentioning my title at planning meetings is typically met with a look of fear and the question: “you aren’t expecting to find anything, are you?” Decisions about what needs to be recorded and what can be destroyed need to be made in the moment, and often, the methods used place getting the data recorded quickly ahead of getting it the best possible way. The latter often takes longer.


I am not suggesting that contractors and construction workers are not accommodating, they often are. They typically assume that I want to find artifacts, which means that I want to hold up the project. Often, that is not the case. Sometimes, I am only looking for certain types of data: a wall profile, or the boundary of a large feature. I am doing my best to accommodate their work as much as they do mine.

One of the best strategies has been through education. I spend a lot of time talking with the construction workers about why I am there, how archaeology works, and what I can learn from the dirt and artifacts. They are often very interested in what I am learning, and, since most of them have more experience digging on campus than I do, typically provide me with information about other possible sites around campus. This has been extremely helpful, and has provided a way for the Campus Archaeology Program to interact and educate a population of people that are typically ignored by the University community.

On the flip side, I am learning a large amount about aspects of construction management that I would have otherwise ignored. It has provided a new found respect for the hard work and service that these individuals provide our community. This effects my work, since it provides an even greater appreciation for the workers who built and constructed the historical landscape that I excavate and study everyday, and a realization that buildings at institutions of higher education are not only for those who reside inside them, but also for those people who built them in the first place.

The history in historical archaeology

Much (although not all) of the archaeology that is done at the Campus Archaeology Program is what is called Historical Archaeology. This type of investigation deals with what is considered the “historical” period, or, in America, the period after European Contact with the “New World”. It is at this point that written accounts about this continent become abundant. Often, Historical Archaeology is contrasted with Prehistoric Archaeology, which deals with the material past of cultures that predate contact.

Historical Archaeologists view the written record in a slightly different way than historians. From our point of view, the written account is an artifact in and of itself. All artifacts are products of human manipulation: a projectile point is a piece of rock manipulated to become an arrowhead, a nail is a piece of metal manipulated to join wood, and a document is a piece of paper used to convey information or to communicate. All were products that existed in one form, but were manipulated by humans to become and to do something different. This is an artifact.

The written word, therefore, carries the bias of the person who created it. It carries within the written form the bias of its historical context. For example, documents written by the founders of Michigan Agricultural College will refer to “students”, which carries a different meaning to them than it does to us. Our students can include any person, regardless of gender, class, or race, whereas their students were upper class, Euro-American men. Using historical documents, therefore, must be approached with as much caution as any other piece of material culture that is pulled from the ground. The historical record should never, ever be considered “fact”. It is always evidence.

The Campus Archaeology Program works with the University Archives and Historical Collections in order to gather much of our historical data. The Archive is the repository for the University’s documentation and historical record, in the same way that the MSU Museum houses pieces of MSU’s material culture. Often, trips to the Archive for the Campus Archaeologist includes looks at old maps and photographs, in order to get an idea as to where old buildings were located, what materials they were made of, and how the landscape may have differed. Since the Campus has (and still does) undergone so much change in such a rapid period of time, the Archive allows an opportunity for us to gain an idea as to what was located where.

Additionally, the Archive presents us with written records: land sales let us know who may have owned the property before MSU; diaries provide an insight into the lives of the earliest students. The latter is important because it may help us link the artifacts we find with the people who used them, or the activities they preformed while at the College. Sometimes, the material record does not match up with the historical record. The best example being the rules banning alcohol and smoking on campus. Our excavations at Saints’ Rest, MSU’s first dormitory, turned up alcohol bottles and smoking pipes…some things are a constant for college students!

Also, there are parts of the material record that the historical record doesn’t take into account. Much of our work on campus has been excavating trash deposits from the earliest periods of campus. These do not show up on maps, photographs, or in diaries. People typically hide their trash from view, and certainly from posterity. A person’s trash is often more truthful then what they write down. Much can be learned about eating habits, nutrition, and ways of life through these deposits, and can give a greater insight into issues such as class, gender, and race than the often biased view of the written record.

Our partnership with the MSU Archives and Historical Collections has been greatly beneficial for our Program, and has allowed us both the opportunity to investigate more thoroughly the cultural past of Michigan State University.

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