MSU Campus Archaeology & Day of Archaeology

Today is officially Day of Archaeology (#dayofarch).
Here at Michigan State, we have finished the field school, completed most construction-related projects, and are cleaning artifacts, organizing things and preparing for the new school year. I (Lynne Goldstein) am personally doing conference calls and trying to catch up on a variety of things that are due.

The field school was in a great location this year – along the river and right behind the Administration Building. The location was not only lovely and prime territory for duck and goose watching, but it is also a high traffic area, with lots of people – including administrators – walking by daily. Here is a shot I took from the Provost’s office: IMG_1788

And here is our end-of-dig crew shot: IMG_2092

Archaeological work outside the field may sound dull, but it really is not always the case, as I noted yesterday on Facebook:
“Sometimes meetings are very enjoyable. Just returned from a meeting about new campus historical markers, focusing on the “Sleepy Hollow” area. MSU wants to include info on the prehistoric site we found at the edge of the hollow, as well as info the MSU Campus Archaeology Program has on historic sites and events in the area.
After the meeting, we went and inspected a couple of sites, then I visited the Beal Botanical Garden because all of the Eastern Agricultural Complex domesticates were blooming – goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri), sunflower (Helianthus annuus), marshelder (Iva annua), and squash (Cucurbita pepo).”

The Lansing State Journal ran an article this week on archaeology in Michigan, and we are very pleased that we are featured, along with Fort Michilimackinac and others.

The field school excavated a really interesting historic site that was apparently a single dump episode – in 1924, the head of grounds for the campus (also a Professor of Horticulture) remodeled and modernized his house and used the construction debris as fill for a low spot along the river, not far from the house. Everything we found dates from 1890s-1925. Field school students blogged about the work and what they found, and you can find those posts here:

Our regular CAP posts continue, and this link tells you about the outhouse we found which is probably linked to Saints Rest, the very first dormitory on campus. We are very excited about this find because we have been searching for an outhouse associated with the dorm for a long time. Archaeologists like outhouses (well, old ones that don’t smell anymore) because no one goes after anything they dropped into one, and people also often used them as a dump for debris.

We do have some sidewalk work to do on campus, and this often yields really interesting things. The University replaces sidewalks with some regularity (they are now trying to install “green” sidewalks everywhere), and there is often undisturbed stuff beneath the old sidewalks.

Rethinking the ‘Sacred Space’

1880's Map of MSU, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

1880’s Map of MSU, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

Michigan State University’s campus began as a small grouping of buildings in an oak opening, and since the 1870s, when the College President decreed that no further construction was allowed within this central wooded area, it has been known as the “sacred space”. The Campus Archaeology Program has worked diligently since 2005 to investigate and protect the archaeological integrity of this historic portion of campus, and much of our work has been located within this ‘sacred space’. It is perceived as one of the last historic and authentic feature of MSU’s campus, which has led to the it being discussed as a static, preserved landscape- a perception that we too as the archaeologists on campus have perpetuated to some extent. However, despite being ‘sacred’, construction, destruction and reconstruction of the space has continued at a steady pace throughout the over 150 years of campus life.

For the “Cultural Landscapes and Heritage Values” conference held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I’m going to be discussing this paradox: why do we talk about this central area of campus like it is a preserved and protected landscape, when construction crews, landscaping and even ourselves have altered it and actively dig it up?

Our excavations have revealed a number of interesting facts about the ‘sacred space’ and its preservation.

  1. Sacredness has protected some archaeological features from destruction, and prevented major building work: Not only is this the historic area of campus (so we find the majority of historic artifacts here), the concept of the space as an area with protection from construction is highly beneficial for the protection of artifacts and features. We have been able to recover large amounts of artifacts that could have been otherwise destroyed by construction. Further, the preservation of the historic landscape allows us to better interpret artifacts in situ and understand their relationship to the historic context.
  1. Utilities run throughout the space and even through archaeological features: Despite the theoretical restriction on construction and ‘sacredness’ of the space, there has been destructive alterations to the landscape throughout the years to deal with campus development and changes in technology. Steam tunnels, utility lines to supply water, gas and electric throughout the campus, and the replacement of the lampposts with electric versions has all led to changes underground. Sadly, some of these efforts have highly disturbed archaeological features. College Hall’s foundation walls were damaged by utility lines, and had they not gone through this area, we may have found more evidence from this building.
  1. Discover of original roads and sidewalks shows that the pathways we take have changed dramatically with shifts in transportation: The roads and sidewalks of campus have shifted in location, type and size over the years, especially since the invention and popularization of cars. The major campus road used to circle on the interior of the sacred space, and was expanded and moved to the outside during the late 19th century. The sidewalks were originally dirt or cinder, and were constructed in informal patterns to simulate a park. Today’s sidewalks are concrete or a glass-concrete hybrid, and while they are still more informal, they are not as winding as they once were. Sidewalks are consistently altered within this space to try to fit student walking patterns to promote walking and biking on sidewalks, rather than creating more informal pathways of dirt between the walks- a losing battle.
  1. Brick, building material and new soil are scattered across the sacred space, suggesting they were used to raise up sections of land across campus, changing the rolling hills and the overall grading of the sacred space: In various spaces across North campus, we’ve found evidence of clean soil, piles of bricks and building material, and sand deposits that suggest that the actual grading of the landscape has been altered. The slopes of the sacred space today are nowhere near those of the earliest stage of campus occupation, where hills were undulating. It is now a small rolling of a single hill. The landscape has been altered dramatically over time.
  1. We disturb the ‘sacred space’: It isn’t just landscaping, facilities and planning or the administration that has changed this sacred space. In the act of learning more about the space to better interpret and protect it, we actively are disturbing this landscape and altering it. As always, we try to stick to areas that are already going to be disturbed for one reason or another, but our work is destructive- in learning more about the past, we disturb the context.

1945 Photo of Sparty, via MSU Archives

Even though the landscape isn’t sacred in the sense that it is static, it is sacred in the fact that the vital characteristics and identity of the space remains coherent and supportive of our university and community identity. But it isn’t just that- the space is a reminder of a lost landscape. We don’t have the first campus buildings, we don’t have the small college in the oak opening. What we have is a space that harkens back to those early designs and hopes of the people who wanted to create a university dedicated to agricultural research. We have natural space in the middle of a thriving, busy and massive campus. The sacred space is a refuge for students, faculty and community members- it is a space of tranquility, a space to restore one’s emotional and physical health by taking a break from the pace of life. It has always been a part of our Spartan identity, and it always will be. Yes, the space has changed- but so have we, so has our university, so has the community.

For us, the space is hallowed ground, a cemetery for the buildings of the original agricultural college of the state of Michigan, and the natural landscape is the piece that remains. As archaeologists, it is our duty to continue to promote this sacredness, not as a static piece of history, but as sacred because it is a vital piece of our Spartan identity, sacred as the site of the original campus, sacred as a shelter from the modern world.

The Sacred Space

In a lot of our blog posts we refer to an area known as the “Sacred Space” on campus. The earliest goals for campus construction in the 19th century aimed at creating an open and natural environment, where students and faculty could easily walk between buildings that were divided by open lawns and groups of trees. Therefore, an area known as the oak opening was left natural in the middle of the buildings. In 1982, President Clute argued against the construction of Old Botany within the open space. Kuhn notes “when the first load of brick was delivered… President Clute looked out from his office window in [Linton Hall] at this sudden invasion of the sacred circle. He then ordered that the brick be moved to the site where the building we now know as Old Botany was erected” (Stanford and Dewhurst 2002:13). The space was first given its ‘sacred’ designation in 1906, O. C. Simonds, a well-known prairie school landscape architect, was creating the plans for the construction of West Circle road.

Simonds wrote “I should regard all the ground included in this area, marked… as a sacred space from which all buildings must be forever excluded. This area contains beautifully rolling land, with a pleasing arrangement of trees, many of which have developed into fine specimens. This area is, I am sure, that feature of the College which is most pleasantly and affectionately remembered by the students after they leave their Alma Mater, and I doubt if any instruction given has a greater effect upon their lives”. It was at this point that construction was forbidden in this space.

In 1915, the space was further defined by the work of the Olmstead brothers, a professional heritage group. They recommended the expansion of the sacred space and its continued protection. The space was expanded to include more area to the east and south, including all of the the extant buildings. They argued to keep the oblong shape and winding paths in order to prevent the more quadrangular and linear shapes of open spaces found on urban campuses (Stanford and Dewhurst 2002:17). In 1930, the space was simplified in order to create a more open feeling. The drive that ran from Music Practice Hall to Cowles House was removed. This plan also included the expansion of the space to the area to include the area north and south of the Red Cedar River.

Stanford and Dewhurst (2002:32) argue that “The responsibility for the future is to prove that a campus such as Michigan State can continue to be a place to study, work, reflect and join together in an inviting natural and built environment. A campus should be an enduring example of how we live on the land and the relationship, in microcosm, of society to nature”. The campus is a public resource for students and faculty. The way that Michigan State has been constructed was done with foresight to protect the open land and natural resources.

The sacred space, however, is more than just a natural resource. It is a historical resource. When the space was expanded to include the extant buildings in 1915, it protected the original campus buildings from destruction. Both Saints Rest and College Hall, the first two buildings on campus, can still be found underneath the ground in this area. Had construction been allowed to occur, it is highly likely we would have lost the foundations and artifacts, therefore losing a major part of our history. At Campus Archaeology, we continue the mission of these early campus architects and protect the space from damage or construction. This summer there is going to be extensive construction and demolition around the sacred space (some of which has already begun across from the Union). Campus Archaeology will be carefully watching the space and conducting a number of surveys to protect the historical heritage of Michigan State.

Works Cited

Stanford, L and Dewhurst, C. 2002 MSU Campus: Buildings, Places and Spaces. Michigan State University Press.

MSU Campus Master Plan. History of Campus Development:

Campus Archaeology Fall Grad Student Update

This semester we have been hard at work on a number of projects. Here are the updates from our graduate research team.

Jen and Amy

This semester, we worked on a grant proposal entitled, “Green from the Beginning: An Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Approach to Understanding MSU Sustainability Programs and Community Participation Through Time.” With Dr. Goldstein’s input, the grant was submitted to the MSU Office of Sustainability and we will hear back about the decision to fund the proposal on December 19th. If this proposal is funded, we will be able to employ one graduate research assistant and multiple graduate or undergraduate students as we wade through the historical records and archaeological material that will serve as the basis for our analysis. Previously, CAP fellows and interns worked on sustainability projects regarding historical use of transportation and foodstuffs from the inception of MSU to modern times and this grant would be used to further those endeavors.

As outlined in the following description of our project, we hope to document the University’s commitment to sustainable practices within a binary framework of history and community, referencing concepts such as land grant legacy and student participation as integral to its philosophy and goals. This proposal supports this approach and suggests that MSU’s Campus Archaeology Program is in a unique position to enhance the efficacy of this message by providing a temporally comprehensive documentation of sustainability policy and community perception/participation in sustainability initiatives.

The goals of CAP’s sustainability project are as follows: 1) Can we measure sustainability in MSU’s past? 2) How have MSU’s sustainability policies evolved over time? and 3) How has the campus community perceived and participated in campus food, energy, and transportation initiatives over time, and can we use this information to provide a way to more fully engage current students

This project will result in a documented, referenced history of MSU’s “green” heritage, which will allow the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability to more clearly nest the sustainability concept within the cultural history of the University. We will integrate ethnohistorical and archaeological research to construct a temporally and culturally sensitive picture of how sustainability has been understood and experienced by the historic campus community, providing critical context for a quantitative and qualitative description of evolving MSU’s food, energy, and transportation policies through time.

Our project will enhance MSU’s ability to reach its sustainability goals by extending the temporal scope of MSU’s sustainability measurement/assessment capabilities. We will firmly situate sustainability within a historic framework, and will foster a sense of campus community and environmental responsibility through shared “green” history.

In the following semester, we plan to continue our work by using archival and archaeological materials to create a summary of sustainability culture on campus during the historical phases outlined by CAP. We then plan to use modern day benchmarks developed for contemporary sustainability programs to “grade” the past. It will be interesting, we believe, to see how sustainable past practices really were as compared to modern standards. Additionally, our analysis will highlight trends in university sustainability policies and campus attitudes toward such policies over time.


The project that I have been working on for this semester is the development of an academic program to be used by elementary through high school classrooms to introduce the practice and theory of archaeology to students. The program will be in an online format and consist of a series of lesson plans, which outline basic concepts particular to archaeological method and which relate to the archaeology that is currently being conducted at the Michigan State University Campus.

Previous work conducted on this project includes extensive research into previously developed academic programs and lesson plans, many created by local and state historical societies. The three main sources that this program will be modeled after are the curriculum developed by the Society for American Archaeology, the Binghamton Campus Archaeology Program, and the curricula written by the Army Corps. of Engineers. Through research into these programs and others a clear outline for how lesson plans will be written up and the format for the academic program has been developed. In addition, research into the Campus Archives has been conducted as the beginning stages of creating the first lesson plan.

Currently, work is being done on writing and formatting the first lesson plan for the program packet. Specific photos from the MSU Archives have been selected as part of a lesson plan to introduce students to technology changes in the classroom. This lesson plan will also incorporate the archaeology that has been done on the MSU Campus by the Campus Archaeology Project. Recently, artifacts discovered during CAP excavations have been selected to be photographed for the lesson plan, which will then be incorporated with the Archive photos to introduce what changes in technology have taken place in the classroom, and how students can view this change in the archaeological record.

Eventually, by the end of the year the goal is to have at least four fully developed lesson plans introducing basic archaeological principles to students and combining them with local archaeology that has already been done on campus. The goal by the end of the calendar year is to have a minimum of four completed lesson plans on archaeological principles and local archaeology. The lesson plans will be formatted into an online format and made accessible to local schools through accessible pdf downloads that can be printed off by teachers.