Tag: history

Drama, Drama, Drama!: The Tragedy of Archaeologically Invisible Histories

Drama, Drama, Drama!: The Tragedy of Archaeologically Invisible Histories

As I mentioned in my first blog post for this year, my CAP project is to go through all of the dissertations, and bachelor’s and master’s theses written by Michigan State students about Michigan State University during its entire history as an institution of higher […]

History’s A-Brewin’: The History of Beer and the People Who Love It

History’s A-Brewin’: The History of Beer and the People Who Love It

In my previous blog, I discussed the history of the Philip Kling Brewing Company of Detroit, inspired by fragments of two Kling beer bottles found in the Gunson house debris last summer. While the story of the Detroit brewing industry was interesting, it was all […]

Rethinking the ‘Sacred Space’

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.
Sparty_1945
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.

Exploring Michigan’s Past Through Local Museums

Exploring Michigan’s Past Through Local Museums

With all this talk of blizzards and snow, it’s hard to not look forward to this coming summer and future archaeological work (check out our 2015 MSU Field School). Until then, you can still get your history and archaeology fix by visiting and supporting local […]

It’s a Small World After All

It’s a Small World After All

While doing research for CAP’s upcoming displays for Chittenden Hall I came across an interesting coincidence that I thought I’d share in a blog. I was reading about the early days of MSU, the rocky beginnings, the underwhelming Presidents, and the struggle to be understood […]

Thumbing Through the University Archives…One Binder at a Time

Thumbing Through the University Archives…One Binder at a Time

As the semester comes to a close, I feel confident that I am not alone in saying that we all feel a bit frenzied. As I looked through my notes taken during my research time at the University Archives from the last few weeks, I noticed that my previously full sentences and attempts at synthesizing information from multiple sources gave way to bullet points and a flurry of keywords sometime around, oh say, the beginning of November. As such, in lieu of a cohesive blog entry about one theme, I offer the following factoids and items of interest that I have learned about the historic campus (next semester these items will appear in some kind of sensible academic format – fingers crossed!). Perhaps sentence fragments are all we can handle computing in our brains these next few weeks…

  • Beal Botanical Garden is the oldest continuously operated garden of its kind in the US (started in 1873)
  • The first display at Beal Garden was comprised of 140 species of grasses and clovers that were studied by agronomy students on campus
  • One of Beal’s first endeavors was to assemble native plants of Michigan – by 1882, he had created a reserve covering 1/3 of an acre with several hundred plants!
  • The original Michigan Agricultural College farm was a T-shaped tract of land that spanned the Red Cedar River and covered about one square mile
  • This farm did not increase in acreage between 1855-1913, but by 1928 six additional farms were added
  • The Department of Foods and Nutrition in the College of Home Economics sent out newsletters in the 1930s encouraging graduates to keep in touch with one another and with the university – there was even a file system whereby graduates would be made aware of jobs in the community that they were particularly qualified for
  • Akers (he of the golf course and the hall) was a student at MSU in the early 1900s – he was asked to leave the university without receiving a diploma after reports of poor grades and disciplinary issues (he later become a major benefactor to MSU)
  • Akers was even accused of lighting a powder keg during Teddy Roosevelt’s semi-centennial speech on campus!
  • Archives records show that during the years of 1938-1940, the Public Works Administration (a government initiative to provide employment during and after the Depression) granted jobs to numerous men who labored to build a number of halls on campus (note: if anyone has information on which buildings these might be, please comment!)
  • In a speech on the importance of manual labor on campus, early president TC Abbott remarked that students were able to earn up to 8 cents an hour for their required labor (though they could earn nothing for their work if overseers thought that is what they deserved)
  • In the 1880s, students were required to do manual labor each of their four years (and every day save for the weekends) – upper classmen acted as foremen for student work groups
Excavating Saints’ Rest

Excavating Saints’ Rest

Saints’ Rest was first erected in 1856. It is the second building constructed at Michigan State University and the first dormitory. The name, Saints’ Rest, was a nickname from the students to the building more commonly known as the ‘hall’ or ‘home’. It was named […]

Finding the Old Road In Front of the MSU Museum

Finding the Old Road In Front of the MSU Museum

Michigan State University’s landscape is consistently changing.  The area north of the Museum and west of Linton hall, known as the sacred space, is a great example of this.  Although no buildings have been built within this space the changing of the roads from inside the space […]

Archaeology and African Descendant Communities

Archaeology and African Descendant Communities

In honor of Black History Month, this post is dedicated to the archaeological work and research of African descendants past and present. While the African descendant presence in our field is still low, the research on U.S. and African Diaspora communities is burgeoning with interest. This post will briefly mention some of the archaeological work on African and African American communities currently done in our Department. I will highlight a few aspects about the exciting research going on today. Lastly, I will highlight some resources for learning more about the relationship between archaeology and African Diaspora communities.

In our Department, there are a handful of recent projects that studied aspects of U.S. African American communities or African descendants communities in general. The recent MSU Ph.D. E. W. Duane Quates investigated the role the 1807 Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Act that helped to establish illicit boundaries of early 19th century Spanish west Florida. Current Ph. D. candidate Chris Valvano explores how the historic New Philadelphia community transitioned from a position of southern bondage into one of 19th century northern capitalism. Avid CAP blog readers are well aware of the work of former campus archaeologist Terry Brock but more information can be found here. Briefly, Terry’s work looks at mid-19th century African America community in Maryland and their transition from enslaved to free. Lastly, my work has covered various parts of the Diaspora but I am currently focused on the emergent political and economic landscape of the mighty Kongo Kingdom from the 13th through the 15th century. This Kingdom was not only a strong influence in central west Africa, bur it arguably made up one third of African descendants forced into enslavement during the Trans Atlantic Trade. Our work varies across space and time and focuses on different aspects of African descendant communities. Collectively, we demonstrate that the lives and histories of African people help to illuminate both questions and answers about society, identity, and place in anthropology in general.

The archaeology of African American communities is a pretty popular topic especially as the field of historic archaeology expands into the lives and histories of people frequently left out of American narratives. Very little historic work can be done in the U.S. without encountering issues such as race, gender, and class and we can see this through recent topics in archaeology as a whole. The professional landscape of African American or African Diaspora archaeology is an exciting place that contributes to a deeper more textual understanding of the lives and contributions of African descendant communities throughout the world. While sites can be as specific as the home site of W.E.B. Du Bois (Battle-Baptiste), to burial grounds from Texas to New York, the field has developed from its beginnings at the edges of American plantations Also, as African Diaspora Archaeology continues to develop relationships with other fields such as literature, Black Studies, and critical theory, the interpretations of African descendant heritage too become more nuanced such as the work of Maria Franklin. Thus, the intentionality of African individuals and communities becomes the focus and the field can release its grip on the sometimes stifling debates concerning resistance and agency that plagues so much of the work on enslavement communities.

So, where can you go to find out more about the myriad of relationships between archaeology and African descendant communities worldwide? Start with the Society for Black Archaeologists. The SBA is a recent group of African descendant scholars, community members, and Black people who just like to dig in the dirt. The resources on this site can point you to past and present archaeological work of African descendants both enslaved and free, since the first archaeological investigations on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation at the turn of the 19th century. SBA currently estimates just over 20 African descendants people holding or in pursuit of Ph.D. in the U.S. and you can connect with most of us through the SBA website. You should also go there to learn about the first professionally trained African American archaeologist, John Wesley Gilbert and look at amazing photos of African American WPA workers conducting excavations at a time when women were largely discouraged from archaeological work.

If you are interested in the academic research worldwide, as well as new dissertations, relevant conferences, and a host of other resources in the field, visit African Diaspora Archaeology Network. This website grew into a internationally recognized resource for all aspects of the field, including the newest addition the Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage.

The traditional Africana Studies “role call” would be most appropriate at this phase but in fear of leaving out pioneering sheroes and heroes in the field, I will end this blog with this: a key to understanding contemporary African descendant communities is to understand their individual and collective past. Archaeology is becoming a solid source of information, analysis, and interpretation of that past and when is a better time to learn more than Black History Month! Ashé!

 

Photo: SBA media archives.

 

The Heart of Campus, Revisited

The Heart of Campus, Revisited

As a first year graduate student, I was not familiar with MSU’s historic campus. Over this past semester, through Campus Archaeology, I have learned about the the significance of certain buildings and history making moments of MSU’s journey. Because it is such a large campus […]