Zooarchaeology: The Study of Animal Bones and How it is Done

What is zooarchaeology and how is it actually done? This is a question that I get a lot when I talk about my research. Zooarchaeology is the study of non-human animal remains; specifically this involves the identification of animal species from archaeological contexts. However, it’s not as simple as just looking at a bone and easily knowing what it is right away! Typically, within archaeological contexts, animal bones are highly fragmented, leaving the zooarchaeologist with small pieces of an animal skeletal element. This fragmentation could be from both human and natural processes including: the butchering process, disposal practices, trampling, exposure to scavenging animals, and/or weathering.

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

So how are zooarchaeologists supposed to figure out what the broken bones are if they don’t look like a normal skeletal element, like an entire femur or scapula? To determine the identifications of archaeological animal bones, zooarchaeologists use a comparative collection. A comparative collection is a collection of identified animal bones by species and skeletal element.

Step One:

The first step in analyzing animal remains is to sort the bones by animal class: mammal, fish, reptile/amphibian, and bird. It is possible to separate bones by animal class because each animal class is different, and can be determined visually by zooarchaeologists.

Step Two:

After the animal bones are sorted by class, the next step is to sort them by skeletal element (if possible). These first two steps allow for easier use of comparative collections for specific identifications.

Step Three:

Zooarchaeologists then take the sorted animal remains one item at a time, and based off of their initial evaluations compare each bone to the bones of previously identified species within the comparative collection. For example, if I have a bone that is thicker and/or larger than most of my mammal animal remains from a prehistoric archaeological site that is located in an area that has a lot of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), I would start by looking at the deer comparative skeleton to identify the bone.

Comparative Collection

Photo of comparative collection section – Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center, Springfield, IL

Campus Archaeology

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Conducting zooarchaeological research at MSU is a little more difficult than you would expect because there is not an established zooarchaeological comparative collection. However, I have been working with the MSU Museum for the past year on developing one! While it is not finished, we have selected complete skeletons that have been reviewed and deemed fit to be included in the comparative collection. After I finish as much analysis as I can using the MSU Museum comparative collection, I will take the remaining unidentified animal bones to Springfield Illinois, to use the collection at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center.

Currently, I am in the process of pulling out the animal bones recovered during the Campus Archaeology excavations of site from the Early Period of MSU’s history (1855-1870). Below are some photos of the bones that I will be analyzing in the coming months!

With these identifications, we are able to estimate the number of individuals that are found, the seasonality of the resources exploited, meat cuts based off of butchering methods, or even how different pieces of meat from the same animal are distributed. Stay tuned to learn about the results of the animal bone analysis and the methods we use to make our interpretations!

Seasons’ Eatings! Seasonality of Food Acquisition and Consumption on the Early MSU Campus

Behold the Seasonal Bounty!" (source: https://janebaileybain.com/2011/11/24/thanksgiving-traditions/)

Behold the Seasonal Bounty! Image Source

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the long winter holiday season, and as we don our elastic-wasted pants and prepare to eat until we hate ourselves, there seems no better time to, once again, talk about food. As you sit down to your holiday meal this week, take some time to think about the food traditionally served at Thanksgiving. Some of the signature dishes include items such as cranberries, yams, apples, squashes, and pumpkins. These are late-autumn harvest foods, and they demonstrate how deeply food traditions are embedded in the seasonality.

What is seasonality, you may ask? The term refers to foods, usually fruits and vegetables, that are only available during the season of the year in which they ripen or are harvested. In our modern world of industrialized agriculture and global markets, it is easy to forget that people were once at the mercy of the nature for their food. In the past, fresh fruits and vegetables were not available all year round like many types of produce are now. Today, once-seasonal foods can now be grown in climates that produce year-round or in specialized greenhouses, and then distributed across the world via modern transportation. That’s not to say that we are not completely unaffected by seasonality, but societies in the past, including the early MSU population, were affected by it to a much greater degree.

College Hall & Boarding Hall (Saint's Rest) 1857. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

College Hall & Boarding Hall (Saint’s Rest) 1857. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

During MSU’s Early Period (1855-1870), the boarding houses, or dining halls, faced the challenge of feeding hundreds of students based on the availability of local resources. Routinely transporting foods in from long distances would likely have been generally too difficult and costly during most of this early period. A report from 1874 notes that there was a railroad to Lansing but none to campus, and all roads leading into campus were very poor. Therefore, acquiring food from MSU’s own fields, gardens, and livestock, and purchasing additional foodstuffs from local farmers and stores would have been the preferred and necessary means by which to procure food.

I and other CAP fellows have been mining account books from the early days of the college and boarding halls to determine early food purchasing habits. In three separate receipt books, all spanning the general time frame between 1866 and 1874 (which captures the end of the Early Period and the beginning of the Expansion Period), food seasonality patterns become strongly apparent.

The boarding house bought berries exclusively between July and September, while cherries are purchased almost every year, only in the month of July. Other summer items purchased only in summer months include plums, tomatoes, beets, radishes, summer squash, and salsify, a root vegetable that tastes like oysters (what a treat!). Grapes and pears, which are available in the fall, were both purchased in November, and turnips, and autumnal vegetable indeed, were procured in August and September. Dried fruit, dried apples, and dried peaches, however, were purchased mostly between February and April, although dried peaches were also bought in July. Therefore in the absence of fresh fruit, it seems dried alternatives were sought to supplement the daily nutrition of students and faculty.

Boarding Hall Provisions Account. Salsify purchase highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Boarding Hall Provisions Account. Salsify purchase highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Salsify. Sadly, it does not instantly turn things into salsa." (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/salsify

Salsify. Sadly, it does not instantly turn things into salsa. Image source

Other seasonal items were also noted in the account books. Maple syrup was purchased in March and April, when sap would be flowing freely through the Michigan maple trees. MSU diners happily guzzled down cider as the apples ripened and the weather turned chilly from September to November. And of course, MSU maintained holiday traditions as well. Pumpkins were bought annually in October, either for decoration or consumption, and large numbers of turkeys were procured in November. Even our earliest students were lulled into tryptophan comas following their Thanksgiving feasts.

So let us follow in the footsteps of our predecessors and dine upon the season’s ripest and most delectable comestibles. Let the starch of yams and squashes fill our bellies, the juice of cranberries stain our tongues, and the grease of turkey glisten upon our hands and faces. ‘Tis the season, the season for eating!



Kuhn Collection, Folder 11, Box 2533, Vol. 108, Collection UA17.107, “Boarding Hall Account Book, 1866-1871”.

Madison Kuhn Collection, Folder 11, Box 2531, Vol. 82, Collection UA17.107, “Cash Account with Boarding Hall 1869-1874”.

UA 17.107, Vol. 32, “Accounts 1867-1873”.

Madison Kuhn Collection, Folder 10, Box 2410, UA.17.107; “Student Life at MAC 1871-1874” by Henry Haigh.




Here Fishy Fishy: Fish Importation in the 1860s

As I have been going through the purchasing records for the Agricultural Boarding Hall at the MSU Archives, I’ve noticed some interesting purchases that I did not expect to run across. These are the purchasing notes for imported fish, including Lake Superior Whitefish and Halibut. I am particularly interested in the importation of the Lake Superior Whitefish because I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right across the street from Lake Superior. Growing up in Marquette Michigan, Lake Superior Whitefish was a staple in our house and is very common at local restaurants in town. I was surprised to find it purchased by Michigan State during the Early Period! The archival records show that during the 1860s, not only was MSU was purchasing Lake Superior Whitefish, but that they were doing it throughout the year. During the Early Period of MSU (1855-1870), I was expecting that almost all food resources that MSU utilized would be local, because of the difficult nature of transporting more exotic/distant food. To be able to transport fish from Lake Superior to MSU, the fish would have to be either transported on ice (more difficult to do during the summer months) or they would have been salted to preserve them.

1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint's Rest) - lake superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1861 Purchasing records for the boarding hall (Saint’s Rest) – lake superior whitefish highlighted. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Before I dive into the history of fishing on Lake Superior, here is a quick background information on Lake Superior Whitefish. Lake Superior whitefish are a member of the trout/salmon family (Salmonidae). The reason whitefish were and still are such a popular fish is due to its tasty flavor, convenient size, and their habit of schooling that allows for easier mass catching (DNR). Whitefish hatch in the spring, and grow rapidly, allowing them to reach over 20 pounds and can live over 25 years (DNR).

Whitefish - Image Source: DNR

Whitefish – Image Source: DNR

Fishing for Lake Superior Whitefish has a long history in the state, and commercial fishing on Lake Superior has had some major changes throughout Michigan’s history (Goniea DNR; Minnesota Sea Grant). Small steamer ships are no longer required for transporting fish to the market (Holmquist 1955). Now it is possible to drive the fish catch downstate along the highways throughout Michigan, many of which follow the Great Lake shorelines. One part of commercial fishing that has not changed is the most common method of fishing: gill nets. However, there are now different laws that govern the size of the mesh used by fishermen as well as fishing seasons (Holmquist 1955).

The steamer "Hiram R Dixon" fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source

The steamer “Hiram R Dixon” fished regularly along Lake Superiors North Shore. Image Source

Through the 1890s, whitefish were the most popular/mainstay within the Lake Superior commercial fishing, but through the early 1900s, the species almost became extinct. Now with the help of more restrictive fishing methods and artificial propagation, whitefish populations are at adequate levels for commercial fishing once again (Holmquist 1955). According to Holmquist (1955) a second attempt of large-scale fishing on Lake Superior occurring around 1860, when a commercial operation was opened at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is possible that this push in commercial fishing during this time influenced Michigan State’s purchasing of imported fish in addition to the more typical local resources.

Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source

Fishermen in a Mackinaw boat raising their nets. Image Source

While MSU farms and local businesses provided the majority of the food resources consumed by campus residents during the Early Period, it has been exciting to learn about the non-local resources that are being purchased for the boarding halls. While the purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish does not appear to be a constant throughout the 1860s (archival records indicate sporadic purchasing during three separate years), it is interesting that there was an inclusion of food that would have been more difficult to acquire. Students and faculty were treated to a more varied diet than what their local surroundings could produce. The purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish during this time shows the appreciation of great resources and the wonder of the Upper Peninsula before the building of the Mackinaw Bridge!



MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.

Commercial Fishing on Lake Superior in the 1890s by June Drenning Holmquist (1955): http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/34/v34i06p243-249.pdf

DNR: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_18958-45680–,00.html

Tom Goniea (DNR) – The Story of State-licensed Commercial Fishing History on the Great Lakes: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_52259-316019–,00.html

Minnesota Sea Grant – Lake Superior and Michigan Fisheries: A Closer Look: http://www.seagrant.umn.edu/fisheries/superior_michigan_fisheries





Feast your Eyes on This: Banquets and Changing Cuisine at MSU (or: How I Wish I Could Time Travel to 1884 and Eat All the Cake)

During a recent visit to the MSU Archives, I was beginning my search through records pertaining to food and came across a rather interesting folder containing programs for various MSU and other local banquets. These programs all featured menus for the event, and demonstrate changes in taste and cuisine over time. Naturally, they piqued my interest.

Class of 1886 program banquet cover

Class of 1886 Banquet Program – Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The first menu is for the “Class of ’86 Banquet” held on August 1, 1884. This banquet seemed to be quite a grand affair. It was held at the Lansing House Hotel in downtown Lansing, which became the Downey Hotel a few years later and was the premier luxury hotel in the area (it was later torn down and the famous Knapp Building was built in its place). The menu for the banquet was extensive; topping the menu was “Chicken Salad, a la Mayonaise” and “Lobster Salad.” Cold dishes included items familiar to us now, such as sliced turkey, chicken, and sugar cured ham, as well as some less familiar fair—“boned turkey with Jelly,” “Beef Tongue, Spiced” and “Pressed Beef”. Boned turkey is a whole turkey carefully de-boned and baked or boiled for a long period of time, served cold over a savory jelly made of calves’-foot (yum!). Spiced beef tongue is much as you would imagine. Variations have been popular in parts of Latin America, where it is know as “lengua”, but tongue has rather fallen out of typical modern American cuisine. Pressed beef is made when a joint of silverside beef is boiled, pressed, sliced and served cold.

1886 Banquet Menu - Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1884 Banquet Menu – Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

“Relishes” on the menu include something called “Chow Chow”. This relish is around today in the southern US, and consists of some combination of tomatoes, cabbage, onion, carrots, bean, asparagus, cauliflower, and peas, which are all canned and pickled together.

Now here’s where things get really exciting: Under the “Social” category on the menu are listed ten, yes, TEN, different types of cake. Cake is one of my favorite foods, so this is my kind of party. Most of the flavors are typical, although you may not recognize “white mountain cake,” which is 3-layer white cake flavored with lemon, frosted between layers and over the outside (YUM). In addition to the cake were “Desserts” such as various ice creams and fruits.

1886 Banquet Dance Card - Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1884 Banquet Dance Card – Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The other half of the interior Banquet program listed the order of dances with a space to fill in your partner for each one—a dance card. The owner of this program had but one blank filled in; he was to do the Grand March with Grace Boosinger. Curiosity prompted an internet search of her name, which turned up the alumni update section for the Iota Chapter (Michigan Agricultural College) of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity in 1892. It reported that H.E. Thomas married Grace Boosinger (“his old freshman girl) on July 12, 1982, and that he had been “re-nominated as circuit court commissioner.” Harris Thomas was a mover and shaker – he began his career as a lawyer but served as president of multiple companies later on and even served as a US Postmaster. He and Grace lived in Lansing their whole lives and are buried here as well. It seems he only had one name on his dance card for a reason…

But I digress. Let’s jump ahead to 1926, from which we have a program for the “All-College Night Banquet… Celebrating Jointly the Sixty-Ninth Birthday of the Founding of the Michigan State College and the Opening of the New People’s Church.” The menu this time is a bit simpler with fewer options, and approaching closer to the types of food we might expect at a banquet today. Menu items include fruit cocktail, veal birds, mashed potatoes, gravy, head lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, rolls, butter, ice cream, cupcakes, and coffee. Veal birds are pounded strips of veal rolled or wrapped around a stuffing, and while perhaps not a staple of American cuisine, one can find modern recipes for them online.

1926 Banquet

1926 Banquet Program – Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1926 banquet menu

Menu from 1926 Banquet – Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections











The menu for a banquet held by the Michigan State College Board of Publications in 1939 grows even closer to modern feasting fare. The spread consists of cocktail, baked ham, au grautin potatoes, corn, spring salad, assorted rolls, coffee, and fresh strawberry sundaes. I would expect to find this exact menu at certain catered events today.

1939 Banquet Card - Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1939 Banquet Card – Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

1939 menu banquet

Menu from 1939 Banquet – Image Source: MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Over the course of fifty-five years, it is interesting to see evolving food preferences on the MAC/MSC/MSU campus. Early banquets featured a wide variety of foods, many of which were labor-intensive for preparation, and included a number of dishes not readily familiar to the modern palate. They were also heavy in meat, which was considered a symbol of wealth. The 1884 MAC banquet seems to have been an attempt by the class or college to display or at least mimic the upper class traditional of “conspicuous consumption.” Display of a wide variety of foods, especially meat, which was expensive, was a tradition dating back to medieval times.

Moving into the 20th century, the variety of food offerings became narrower, the options generally easier to produce en masse. There is a trend of simplicity and subtle flavors during the pre-war era, expressed in fare such as potatoes, salad, and rolls. Also, it is presumable that as class sizes grew on campus (including the addition of women), that budgets were tighter and food choice had to be more economical. There are likely a variety of other factors influencing these differences, which I hope to investigate further in the future.

We still know little about the food traditions of the early MAC period (1855-1870), neither in terms of daily student and faculty diets in the campus boarding facilities, nor of special event food traditions. This will require digging deeper into the archives and using archaeological evidence to recreate the earliest diets of our academic predecessors. I, for one, have both my trowel and my fork ready to dig in.







The Rainbow of Delta Tau Delta, Volume xvi, No. 1 (1892). Hall, Black & Co., Minneapolis, MN. Accessed online at https://books.google.com/books?id=xy8UAAAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA63&lpg=RA1-PA63&dq=grace+boosinger&source=bl&ots=v8DscJy94J&sig=7p0QwCCrJrEH1aivfMEzCCVuBls&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiopc3T1rzPAhVQ6WMKHdprBOsQ6AEINzAE#v=onepage&q=grace%20boosinger&f=false




For the Love of Food: Digital Outreach, Animal Bones, and Early Food Habits on Campus

Analyzing and interpreting past food practices has always been one of my passions. This year for CAP, I will be working with Susan Kooiman to explore and recreate the food environment during the Early Period of MSU’s campus (1855-1870), as explained in Susan’s previous blog post. While Susan will take on more of the background research of this period, I am going to delve into the animal bones uncovered through Campus Archaeology excavations. I began my training as a zooarchaeologist while earning my Master’s degree at Illinois State University. Most of my experience has been with prehistoric animal remains and I am very excited to work with the animal bones recovered from Campus to better understand food production, preparation, serving, and consumption at Michigan State!

Women with cows on campus, 1908 - Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Women with cows on campus, 1908 – Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Standard Cuts of Meat (1908) - Image Source

Standard Cuts of Meat (1908) – Image Source

I will first begin by sorting the animal bones by animal class: mammal, bird, fish, and reptile/amphibian. After this initial sorting I will use a osteological comparative collection to conduct my identifications. From previous initial zooarchaeological analysis, we know that there are many different butchering marks present on many of the mammal remains. This will be one of my focuses during analysis. I hope to be able to determine what types of cuts of meat were being produced on campus, or if there were students learning butchering practices.

In addition to conducting a faunal analysis on the remains from the privy and Saints Rest excavations, I will be working on creating a website for this project. While we are in the initial stages of the project, we are working on formulating how we want to portray this project online. Currently, we would like to highlight the various aspects of food practices at MSU during this period including cooking, sustainability, production, ceramics, animal bone analysis, and food reconstruction. In addition to discussing our results from this project, we will also be documenting each step of our research. Our hope is to create videos showing how we learn about MSU’s history, from searching through archival records, visiting with MSU’s farms, to animal bone analysis. I can’t wait to see where this project takes us!

Animal bones, some butchered, from the West Circle Privy - Image via Lisa Bright

Animal bones, some butchered, from the West Circle Privy – Image via Lisa Bright

Food for Thought: Documenting Early Food Habits at MSU

I love food. Ask anyone. I didn’t begin my archaeological career studying food, but my interest in ancient pottery eventually brought me around to the study of cooking and diet. It is not surprising, then, that my passion for eating ultimately led (albeit indirectly) to research focusing on culinary traditions and behaviors.

I love studying food because its central role in both our biological and social lives makes it an ideal, dynamic, and engaging topic of anthropological inquiry. Our daily schedules are constructed around meals, and food is often the centerpiece of holidays and celebratory events. The consumption of food brings people together, like families at mealtimes or friends meeting up for dinner. Shared food preferences can help bridge gaps and form bonds between strangers—a mutual love of barbeque chicken pizza may serve as the foundation of a new friendship. But regional or ethnic differences in food traditions can also divide—people from Chicago and New York may argue about which style of pizza is the best.

Students eating in their dorm circa 1914 - Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Students eating in their dorm circa 1914 – Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

When Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright first mentioned her idea, recreating a meal based on archaeological food remains found in a historic privy on campus, my interest was piqued. The brick-lined privy, located near the MSU Museum, was discovered and excavated by CAP in the summer of 2015. It contained a variety of interesting items, from dolls to broken dishes and various bottles. Also in this privy were discarded food remains. Privies were perfect places to throw smelly food leftovers and bones since they are already quite malodorous. And some remains, such as seeds, were probably deposited there…by some other means (you might call it “delivery method #2”).

Women cooking class at school of human ecology 1890-1899 - Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Women cooking class at school of human ecology 1890-1899 – Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

This year, fellow CAP fellow Autumn Beyer and I will be using the food remains from the privy and the Saints Rest excavations to explore and recreate the food environment of the MSU campus during the Early Period (1855-1870). We will be exploring the archives for information about early MSU food production, acquisition, purchasing, preparation, serving, and consumption. Autumn, a trained zooarchaeologist, will conduct in-depth analysis of the animal bones from the collection, of which primary identifications of cow, pig, chicken, and fish have been made. Other food remains include egg shell and raspberry seeds. We may even try to sprout one of the raspberry seeds with the help of CAP intern Becca Albert!

A perusal of CAP blogs from throughout the past year will show that we have already researched many of the types, origins, and prices of some of the dishes found in the privy, which helps us connect the food being cooked to how the food was served. A bottle of flavoring extract was also present in the privy (check out my blog on this item from April!), so we know that campus cooks were beginning to dabble in adding synthetic flavoring to dishes.

Ultimately, we hope to work with MSU Food Services to recreate a meal based on the remains in the privy and create an educational video documenting the process. Autumn will also spearhead creating a website for the project, which she will detail in upcoming blogs.

Horticulture Students 1884 - Image from MSU Archives & Historical Collections Flickr

Horticulture Students 1884 – Image from MSU Archives & Historical Collections Flickr

Understanding the foods prepared, served, and consumed by nineteenth-century students and faculty at MSU will help us recreate what life was like during the earliest years of MSU. Archaeology is all about connecting the present to the past, and what better way to make these connections than through our stomachs?

Historic Sustainability and Food Practices at MSU

As I continue to work on the sustainability project, I will be sharing excerpts from the draft that I am writing. Last week I came across a very helpful bound volume detailing receipts for food services from 1864-1874. Dr. Manly Miles kept a ledger of all prices paid for food produced on campus, which allows us to examine how costs and demand changed over this ten year period. Each customer (often, the names of notable faculty members appear!) order was recorded and end of the year costs of the college were declared in these volumes. I am still reading through the script handwriting, which is at times a slow procedure, but I am interested to see how the Civil War impacted the sale of foods on campus.

Below is a portion of the manuscript I am writing on campus sustainability in the past. One section of the paper deals with food and agriculture, so in light of my recent discovery of Dr. Miles ledger, I have decided to share that part of the paper this week:

Serving food at the Union Cafeteria, 1941, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

In 1883, dining clubs were developed to more efficiently feed the growing campus community. These clubs allowed students to pool boarding fees and collectively purchase and prepare food, a portion of which was sourced from the campus farms. During large conferences such as the annual Michigan Farmers’ Institutes, the dining clubs would accomodate campus visitors. Dining clubs continued in Period 3 (1900-1925), with advertisements in the MAC Record demonstrating that at least some meat was beginning to be sourced from local off-campus butchers. Advertisements around the turn of the century also indicate that local eateries were established as a result of a growing student population. Period 3 saw an increase in university extension work with outreach focusing on gardening and food sustainability at the household level.

In a pamphlet for the Michigan Farmers’ Institute meeting of 1910, it is noted that meals could be procured for 25 cents each at the college boarding clubs. Two restaurants supplied food for visitors as well, one of which, called Ye College Inn, was in the basement of Abbot Hall. By 1923, the annual pamphlet for attendees of the Institute noted that meals were widely available on campus at the Women’s Building, Dairy Building, and the Armory, presumably in response to increasing student enrollment. Food service on campus appeared to expand rapidly in the third and fourth periods and by 1951, the union cafeteria was serving meals for one dollar each.

During Period 4 (1925-1955), both the Depression and World War II dramatically affected student life on campus. Many struggled economically with the costs of college and moved off campus to rent inexpensive rooms in town. During these difficult times, MSU faculty and administration encouraged victory gardening. This return to campus-based food sustainability benefitted students who were able to purchase fresh, local foods for as little as $2/week (approximately $33/week today). In 1936, the university began to buy houses intended as co-ops where students could live, budget, and cook together. Historical photographs from this time period show university officials biking to work, clearly promoting fuel conservation during wartime.

In a letter dated May 20, 1929, Professor EL Anthony stated that during his term at the college (1921-1928), there was a general agricultural depression though the dairy industry did not suffer as greatly as livestock and grains production. Anthony noted that prior to 1925, the dairymen in Michigan had produced all products required by state consumers. Additionally, a number of dairy products were exported out of the state, especially butter. After 1925, the demands of the consumers surpassed the dairy production operations in Michigan and it became necessary to import dairy products.


Update on the Sustainability Project

Throughout the course of this semester, I will be writing up the results of my archival research as they pertain to the archaeological materials recovered by CAP. I expect to revisit the University Archives several more times to read through some older documents, but I plan to partly shift my focus to tracking down theses and dissertations written by past students about the MSU campus. Sylvia Deskaj, a CAP fellow, has started to compile these sources from the library collections. There are a number of detailed studies on topics such as traffic patterns, food consumption, and water management on the MSU campus that I believe could articulate well with my Archives research and the CAP collections. Rather than sharing more details from the Archives in this blog post, I decided to share the introduction for the sustainability paper that I will co-author with Dr. Goldstein and Jennifer Bengtson (former CAP fellow). I have divided the paper into the following sub-topics: transportation, agriculture/food, development of the college, development of East Lansing, war effort and community response, and daily student life/experiences. Below I have posted the introduction to the paper draft:

The goals of the Campus Archaeology Program (CAP) are to protect archaeological resources and disseminate information on cultural heritage at Michigan State University (MSU). Working with departments across the university to ensure proper mitigation and documentation of archaeological features, CAP is actively involved in the maintenance of the historical past on campus. Through the program, undergraduate and graduate students participate in research design, excavation, archival work, and historical research. Engaged scholarship and community interation are the primary foci of CAP, with staff members contributing to digital media accounts, developing public outreach programs, and presenting research in academic journals. For the purposes of research, CAP recognizes four historical periods: Period 1 (1855-1870), Period 2 (1870-1900), Period 3 (1900-1925), and Period 4 (1925-1955).

Long before the concept of sustainability was in vogue, MSU students and faculty regularly engaged in practices that would, by today’s standards and terminology, be considered sustainable. Using archaeological features and recovered material culture, CAP is in a unique position to document the efficacy of these practices by providing time depth and context to the evolution of the sustainability concept. Drawing upon archaeological data and archival documents, CAP presents a history of MSU’s “green” heritage. These sources can provide a culturally and temporally sensitive picture of how sustainable food and transportation practices were implemented and experienced by the campus community.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education defines sustainability as supporting “human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations” (aashe.org). We take a similarly broad view of the concept and adapt it furhter to account for the ways that attitudes toward food and transportation reflect the socioeconomic concerns of the four specific historical periods in question. For this paper, we define sustainability as the capacity of the University to preserve and optimize food and transportation systems under changing socioeconomic conditions, contextualized through integrating historical perceptions of the urgency of environmental, economic, social, political, and health concerns.

What’s for supper?

Students outside Saints’ Rest ca. 1857. Image from MSU Archives.

If you missed my poster two weeks ago at the Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference hosted at MSU, I’m also going to share my research here on the CAP blog.  The poster, entitled “What’s for Supper?  Food preferences and availability at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan”, was a summary of my faunal analysis of the Feature 125 remains associated with the all-male Saints’ Rest dormitory (Boarding Hall, 1857-1876).  We believe this feature to be kitchen refuse because it contained animal bones with butchery marks, ceramics, and glass.

With this project, I attempted to answer the following question: During this period, were students able to select preferred meats or were they limited by availability?  President of the College, Lewis R. Fiske, wrote in his personal report on February 26, 1862 that “so much animal food is consumed in the Boarding Hall”, a comment supported by the variety of beef cuts CAP found in the feature.  This is not a surprising discovery—a group of young men doing farm labor every day in addition to studying would get very hungry indeed!  Archaeological and documentary records also show, in addition to beef, pork, mutton, chicken and wild game were consumed by students.

This chart shows cuts of beef found in Feature 125. All parts of the animal were being eaten.

The results of my research were skewed in favor of beef because cow bones are large and dense, making them more likely to survive in the archaeological record.  Approximately fifty cows are represented by the sample from the feature, but only one pig and one sheep could be found, despite large numbers of them recorded in President Fiske’s papers.  Of all the animals found in the feature, 73% were juveniles, showing a clear preference for young meat.  Older stock were usually kept for breeding and milk or wool.

The role of availability is less clear.  While the College did kept their own stock, I was unable to find out if animals were being butchered on campus between 1857 and 1876.  Also, there are financial records showing that beef, pork, mutton, and chicken were being purchased from local butchers for the students to eat.  Further research needs to be conducted on the placement and construction date of the campus slaughterhouse, and also on the names and roles of the individuals selecting meat for Saints’ Rest residents.

Cow Elbows and Archaeology

When considering food as a topic of archaeological research, one of the biggest obstacles is how.  Food remains are often difficult to find—they rot quickly, scavengers carry them away, and such essential practices as eating are often not mentioned in historical documents.  Despite the odds against finding a complete assemblage of food waste, it is still possible to study cultural processes through food.  Faunal remains in particular are a lasting record of culinary practices, with the ability to tell a story not only of taste preferences, but economic means, cultural beliefs, social standing, and daily life.  Zooarchaeology is the study of human-animal relationships of all types, a definition that allows us to interpret non-human bones in a cultural context.

Cow humerus

To analyze a bone, such as the one pictured found during the MSU Campus Archaeology Summer Field School, the first step is determining the species and part of the skeleton.  This bone was difficult to identify, due to the unusual cut, but after cleaning there were specific features characteristic to the distal end of a humerus.  The size, weight, and shape as well as the site context of a trash pit at an agricultural college indicate the genus Bos.  In other words: the upper half of a cow elbow.

Butchered bone

After identifying the bone, we can look at other notable features of the remains.  Our cow humerus has been sawn through in two places, a sure indicator of butchery.  The saw marks are all relatively parallel but very uneven, rather than displaying the tidy crosshatched lines of an industrial saw, which means this animal was butchered by hand.  Upon closer inspection there are small, narrow marks around the point of articulation made by the butcher’s knife during dismembering.  This cut was intended to be a foreshank, but further evidence reveals mistakes.  Another deep saw cut can be seen on the other side, but the butcher stopped before it went through.  The cut that should separate the foreshank from the brisket would normally not go through the humerus.  Both of these observations could indicate inexperience, perhaps a student learning how to butcher as part of their curriculum or required labor.

Other factors—age, sex, quantity, types of butchery, range of species, treatment of remains—analyzed together can create a distinct picture of the human-animal relationships preserved at a site.  Our cow humerus described here is a fragment of the larger picture, but even that single piece helps us to interpret life on campus.