MSU’s Campus Archaeology Program is well known in our community for our public outreach events and our archaeological excavations. These activities allow our archaeologists to be visible members of our MSU community and gets us out of our laboratories so we can teach and dig!…
Over the past couple of months, Campus Archaeology has been in communications with Girl Scout Regional Program and Event Specialist, Bethany Wilson, to develop an archaeology badge for girl scouts across Michigan. We are elated about our new partnership! These annual events will be a…
Those who follow us know that outreach is a big part of what we do in the Campus Archaeology Program. Every year, CAP participates in several public outreach events including Michigan Archaeology Day, Grandparents University, ScienceFest, and more. These events are important because it gives…
This summer was an eventful one for the Campus Archaeology Program field crew! We monitored construction, conducted several pedestrian and shovel test surveys, excavated one test unit, conducted lab analysis, and helped with the IB STEM archaeology camp and grandparents university. Plus, we uncovered an…
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:
- 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.
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!)
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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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…
- 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?!?
Some remnants of history may always remain a mystery.
Kuhn Collection Vol. 108, Boarding Hall Account Book 1866-1871
As students begin to file out of campus, the orange cones start lining up as a sign of the upcoming summer construction projects. This will be my second summer as Campus Archaeologist and I feel much more prepared this year to expect the unexpected. We’ve…
In a couple weeks, from April 15 to April 18, the Society for American Archaeology Annual Conference will be occurring in San Francisco, CA. There is going to be great representation of members of Campus Archaeology and the MSU Anthropology Department. Daggett, Adrianne  SYMPOSIUM:…
My previous posts this semester have focused on Campus Archaeology’s involvement in community and educational outreach and the pros and cons of these types of activities.
Last Friday, members of Campus Archaeology gave an in-school presentation for MSU Science Festival at East Olive Elementary in St. Johns. There were two sessions for fourth and fifth graders, with kids split into groups of four or five for each. We modified many of our previous activities to function as mini-stations in order to better fit with learning objectives and the structure of the event. Overall, this outreach event was a success, and gave us a better idea of how to approach these types of community engagement and what events we should be focusing on.
For this event Kate, as Campus Archaeologist, began with an overview of what is archaeology and what archaeologists do (“think humans, not dinosaurs or fossils”). This introduction proved useful for many of the students, as it got them to think about the artifacts as more than just being “cool” but to view them in terms of past people. This was evident from many of their thoughtful answer when we asked them questions about the artifacts.
We modified our “match the old and new artifact” game to give only a few examples, and have them identify old and new and then brainstorm reasons why artifacts would change through time and how archaeologists use this knowledge to help answer questions about the past. Our stratigraphy map and sticky tape artifacts demonstrated how archaeologists find artifacts and how they interpret them in terms of chronology.
We also had an “artifact assemblage” station, using artifacts that were found on campus in order to explain how archaeologists identify past human behavior through artifacts. The assemblage included a horseshoe, brick fragments, test tubes, and faunal remains to represent the Old Vet Lab on campus. The students then hypothesized why these items would be found together. Many used their knowledge gained from other activities, such as the stratigraphy game, to think about how the story would change based on where the objects were found in the ground. There were so many creative answers and students seemed to enjoy that they could come up with so many options!
Finally, we used the “garbage game”, which consists of sifting through modern trash in order to hypothesize who the person was who created the trash. We asked if the kids could figure out if the person was male or female? What they liked to eat? What the persons hobbies were, etc…? We got a lot of “crazy cat lady” as an answer, which may say something about me, since it was my trash.
Overall, it was agreed that this event functioned much more smoothly than past outreach opportunities. This is because it was much smaller groups, in a set amount of time, and with multiple activities that challenged their thinking. Additionally, because the participants were all of the same age group, it was much easier to alter activities to fit their age range. We now have a better idea of how to approach these types of outreach opportunities in the future.
Thanks again to East Olive Elementary!
MSU Science Fest will take place on campus April 15th-19th. For more information visit: http://sciencefestival.msu.edu
This coming Thursday CAP has a meeting with MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF) and Granger construction to discuss the upcoming summer construction projects. Most importantly, Phase 4 (final phase) of the North Campus Infrastructure Improvement, a.k.a the steam tunnel project. This project began in…