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 education.  Doing this has granted me access to previous students’ hard work about something they believed in and wished to make known to someone other than themselves and their advisor.  The goal of this project (of which I will share more of my results later on) is to find and identify any information that can help supplement the complex and rich histories that we dig up in our excavations.

The 1931 production of Death Takes a Holiday. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

The 1931 production of Death Takes a Holiday. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

However, sometimes you come across sources that paint such a rich history, but unfortunately have left no (as yet identified) archaeological trace.  I came across one such instance a few weeks ago while reading a master’s thesis in the MSU Special Collections room of the library.  Written by William Gibson Butt in 1947, the master’s thesis A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937 reveals the humble beginnings of the Drama Club on campus and traces its first few decades of history as it became a staple in campus life.

Butt (1947) writes that the Drama Club started in 1910 at the behest of student who wished to put on performances on campus as there was no Department of Theatre at the college at that time.  The student put on the play The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the Spring of 1910 to great success.  Since there was no stage on campus at the time, the students were required to build their own stage at the old Armory (located where the Music Building is now) but could only construct the stage the day of the play and were required to tear it down that evening after the performance.  Sylvester King, a faculty member at MAC, agreed to help the students put on the play.  Having a background in theater, King was able to acquire costumes for the production from New York City.  After the first production, the club was officially recognized by MAC and put on at least two productions every year.

The cast of the first play put on at MSC, performing The School for Scandal in 1910. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

The cast of the first play put on at MSC, performing The School for Scandal in 1910. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Once they started doing two productions per year, the Drama Club began putting on plays outdoors in a wooded area just east of where Howard Terrace used to stand.  This building was demolished in the early 1920s to make room for the Home Economics Building which still stands today, now called the Human Ecology Building.  This would place the location of this outdoor performance area somewhere around where the parking ramp between Human Ecology and Olin Health Center.  The Drama Club’s first performance outdoors was As You Like It by William Shakespeare.  Again, this performance was so successful that the club started putting all of their Spring plays in this same area, and always performed a work by Shakespeare.  Due to these annual plays, this wooded area became known as the Forest of Arden, a setting in As You Like It.

Two students performing The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare in “The Forest of Arden” on campus in 1922. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Two students performing The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare in “The Forest of Arden” on campus in 1922. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Despite all of this well-documented history showcasing MSU students, it is also quite humbling for an archaeologist such as myself.  As an archaeologist, I use artifacts that I unearth to try and understand the lives of those who created or used those artifacts.  The object drives the narrative, informs the narrative, and is itself then re-informed by the narrative.  In many archaeological settings, the story cannot get told or even discovered if there is no artifact with which to start the conversation.  In the case of the storied past and early beginnings of the MSC Drama Club, no artifacts to date have been found or associated with this sect of campus life.  The area of campus where The Forest of Arden once stood is now occupied by a parking ramp. Additionally, these outdoor performances were intended to be temporary – the players would have picked up any props or potential artifacts relating to theatrical production.  It is in instances like this that we must look at our own limitations and recognize that no matter how much we dig up and even rely on archival resources, we can never encapsulate the entire story.

Playbill for the first ever theatrical production at MSC – The School for Scandal performed in 1910. These are some of the only evidences of early history of the plays performed on campus. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Playbill for the first ever theatrical production at MSC – The School for Scandal performed in 1910. These are some of the only evidences of early history of the plays performed on campus. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

 There are some stories that are archaeologically invisible.  Fortunately in the case of the Drama Club, the MSU Department of Theatre, the MSU Library, and the MSU Archives have records and documentation of this history.  These stories get to be rediscovered and retold in the future.  Other stories sadly get erased through time and leave no material record behind.  Thus, we are fortunate to belong to an institution that cares about its own history and allows us to access those memories in whatever way we can so that we can pass along great stories such as these.  By understanding that we cannot tell the whole story, we become better story-tellers because the belief that we know everything only closes us up to other voices.  We must use as many resources and listen to as many voices as we can so that we can better understand ourselves and our school’s proud history.





Butt W.G. 1947    A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937. Master’s thesis, Michigan State College, East Lansing, Michigan.

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 history and no anthropology. And that makes Susan a dull girl. So this time I will explore how beer can be examined archaeologically and used to look at social relationships between people in the past.

Humans have been brewing beer for thousands of years. Some have proposed that beer-making was the primary motivator for the transition to sedentary, agricultural life ca. 10,000 B.C., although hard evidence of its existence is more recent. Beer is mentioned in some of the earliest writings from ancient Babylon (ca. 4000 B.C.) and earliest archaeological evidence comes from a pottery vessel from the site of Godin Tepe in Iran, which dates to approximately 3400 B.C. But how do archaeologists detect ancient beer, you ask? SCIENCE!! Patrick McGovern, the so-called “beer archaeologist,” is a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and he has made a career out of identifying the chemical traces of fermented beverages in ancient ceramic vessels. He looks for certain “fingerprint compounds,” such as calcium oxalate for barley beer and tartaric acid for wine, which can be identified through elemental analysis. McGovern has used his identifications to trace the history of brewing practices and trade across the Old World.

Gamo pottery from a farmer's household in southwestern Ethiopia

Gamo pottery from a farmer’s household in southwestern Ethiopia

John Arthur, an archaeologist at the University of South Florida – St. Petersburg, observed that ceramic vessels involved in the fermentation of beer in present-day southwestern Ethiopia showed signs of interior attrition. This means that the fermentation process eats away at the interior surface of the vessel, leaving a distinctive pattern that can then be identified in pottery excavated from archaeological sites. Arthur then uses this information to make social inferences about the past. Among the Gamo of Ethiopia, which is a caste society, only the wealthier households from the high caste can afford enough grain to make beer (farso). Thus pottery with interior attrition could provide insight into socioeconomic differences in certain ancient societies.

This brings us to the issue of access and social meaning. Not everyone has access to either the resources to make beer or to the finished product itself. Chicha, or maize beer, was consumed primarily in the Andes region of South America as long ago as 3000 B.C. Not only was it a sacred drink, but it was available only to elites. In Medieval Europe, however, beer and ale were produced in the home and provided nutrition for the everyday laborer, while wine was reserved for the upper classes. Prior to AD 1000, women in Europe baked bread and brewed beer for their families. After this time, the formation of Brewer’s Guilds moved the preparation of beer from the homestead to licensed brewhouses and under the control of men. By 1700, most beer-making was conducted by large European breweries. In the North American British colonies, ale was considered a “civilized drink” and breweries were built on the grounds of prominent plantations and estates to sate the thirst of their esteemed owners.

Ph. Kling Brewing Company Beer Serving Tray

Ph. Kling Brewing Company Beer Serving Tray – Image Source

The Industrial Revolution allowed for an increase of commercially available beers for public consumption and led to the rise of major beer producers, such as Phillip Kling Brewing in Detroit. I was unable to find information on the public’s view of Kling beer, such as whether it was considered a cheap, “everyman’s” beer or a higher class brew. They certainly seemed to have marketed themselves as the latter, as shown by rare decorative trays that depicts a dolled-up couple “after the theatre” and proclaims to be “A Beer for Guest and Host.”

Throughout much of the 20th century, however, the bland, mass-produced beer, marketed by clever commercials and large horses, made beer the signature blue collar and frat boy beverage, but in the last few decades or so, the rise of microbrews and hipsters have increased the interest and status of beer, which now comes in a broad range of varieties, full of flavor. It has also renewed interest in resurrecting the flavors of ancient brews, which were once complex recipes involving herbs and multiple sources of sugar, as opposed to the simple recipe of your average Bud Light. McGovern’s research has helped Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware create a line of Ancient Ales, the most famous of which is Midas Touch. The Field Museum in Chicago also recently announced they will release a recreation of a maize-and-berry beer made by the ancient Wari people of Peru.

Being a thorough researcher and trying out Dogfish Head's Midas Touch, a recreated ancient ale. You know, for science.

Being a thorough researcher and trying out Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, a recreated ancient ale. You know, for science.

It comes as little surprise to find that people are using a beverage so beloved in modern American culture to connect with peoples of the past. Professor Gunson and his bottles of PH Kling beer comprise but a small piece of the story of the long love affair of humans with beer. This love affair continues at MSU today, evidenced by the beer cans strewn across the campus after a home football game and by the popularity of taprooms like Hopcat. Beer brings us together, but it can also divide us; beer anchors us to the present, and it connects us to our past.



Blum, Peter H.
1999   Brewed in Detroit: Breweries and Beers since 1830. WayneStateUniversity Press, Detroit, MI.

McGovern, Patrick E.
2009   Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.

Michel, Rudoph H. and Patrick E. McGovern
1993   The First Wine and Beer: Chemical Detection of Ancient Fermented Beverages. Analytical Chemistry 65(8):408-413.





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.

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 museums. Here are just a few of the many museums that focus on Michigan’s past.


The Michigan Historical Museum (www.michigan.gov/museum)

The Museum focuses on the history of Michigan, beginning with prehistoric groups and European contact and settlement. The state’s impact on industrial and manufacturing, especially during the Civil War and in automobile industry are also highlighted.

The Michigan Historical Museum is open:

Monday through Friday, 9 to 4:30
Saturday, 10 to 4
Sunday, 1 to 5

Adults (18+) – $6
Seniors (65+) – $4
Youth (6-17) – $2
Children up to 5 years – Free


The Michigan Women’s Historical Center & Hall of Fame (http://www.michiganwomenshalloffame.org)

Womens hall fame

Image source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_d3gXo1oc4tY/TA9m7xzybrI/AAAAAAAABVE/sv1YL6L1CAQ/s1600/women+hall+fame.jpeg

The Center focuses on important women in Michigan’s history and was the first in the nation to be solely dedicated to women’s history. The museum was established by the Michigan Women’s Studies Association, which was originally founded at Michigan State University in the early 1970s. The focus of the museum is on women in Michigan to highlight their accomplishments. Current exhibits focus on Michigan women who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, including Rosa Parks, and Michigan Women who played important roles in the Civil War by taking on roles that were typically assigned to men.


The Museum is open:
Wednesday through Saturday, 12pm to 4pm
The first Sunday of every month, 2pm to 4pm

Adults – $2.50
Seniors – $2
Students (6-18 years) – $1
Children up to 5 years – Free


MSU Museum (www.museum.msu.edu)


MSU museum dinosaurs

Image source: http://museum.msu.edu/sites/default/files/images/dinos300px.jpg

The MSU Museum is Michigan’s first Smithsonian Institution affiliate, with multiple exhibits that include natural history, archaeology, and cultural heritage. Darwin Discovery Day taking place on Sunday, February 8 from 1 to 5 is also a place where children can take part in hands-on activities, including live reptiles and insects. The Department of Anthropology will also have a booth that will focus on human evolution. The event is free to everyone.


The MSU Museum is open:

Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm
Saturday, 10am to 5pm
Sunday, 1pm to 5pm

Admission to the Museum is free, with a suggested donation of $5.00 for adults.



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 as more than just an agricultural college, when I found myself reading about Lewis R. Fisk, the second President of MSU. The name struck me because earlier in the week I was having a conversation in my local coffee shop about another Fisk, Abram C. Fisk. Abram Fisk, a prominent figure in the history of my hometown of Coldwater, MI built a beautiful Italianate home in the 1840’s. This home has since been remodeled into the Blue Hat Coffee and Gallery, where I spend many hours a week chugging coffee and catching up on work.  I had previously never thought of the possible connection, but I decided to do some digging. Turns out, Lewis R. Fisk, second president of MSU, was (most likely) the brother of Abram C. Fisk of Coldwater.

Blue Hat Coffee and Gallery, photo by Keith Kehlbeck, Battle Creek Enquirer

Blue Hat Coffee and Gallery, photo by Keith Kehlbeck, Battle Creek Enquirer

Lewis Fisk’s parents (James and Eleanor Fisk) moved with their 10 children from Penfield, New York to Coldwater, MI in 1835. Some of the Fisk children made a home in Coldwater, and became a family that is often mentioned in the history of my small hometown. Based on the timeline, the Fisk Home (a.k.a Blue Hat Coffee) was built in the 1840’s, only a few years after the Fisk parents moved to Coldwater. The records show that the home was built by Abram (not James), so I’m deducing that Abram was, in fact, a brother of Lewis.

Lewis Fisk attended Albion College, then the University of Michigan, receiving his B.A. in 1850. He taught Natural Sciences at Albion for a few yeas, then went back to the University of Michigan to earn his M.A. in 1853. In 1856, Fisk was hired to teach chemistry at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (a.k.a Michigan State University). Then, in 1859 he became the President pro-tempore for MSU.

Lewis R. Fisk, courtesy MSU Archives

Lewis R. Fisk, courtesy MSU Archives

Fisk’s presidency at MSU came at time of major uncertainty for the burgeoning college. Joseph R. Williams, the first president of MSU, had led the surge to shape MSU into more than just a school for agriculture, Williams advocated for a well-rounded four-year curriculum. When Fisk became president pro temp, he became a champion for the same cause. He argued that “this institution should be built upon an agricultural basis…that no department of practical farming should be left unexplained…it should be a place where science and practice shall be beautifully combined” (Widder 2005:41). Because of Fisk’s steadfast beliefs that MSU should be more than a technical college, “youth from Michigan and elsewhere enrolled in the agricultural college because they wanted to be transformed into enlightened citizens, not just better farmers” (Widder 2005:42). Though you wont find a statue of Lewis C. Fisk, or listen to a lecture in a building of his namesake, the second president of MSU helped lay the groundwork for the MSU we know today.

As I sit here in the Fisk Home (Blue Hat Coffee), writing about the legacy of one of the Fisk’s of Coldwater, I’m reminded of what a small world it really is.


Widder, K. R. 2005 Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-grant Philosophy. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI




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

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 so after a religious devotional book by Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, which was first published circa 1649 and was required reading for the first class of MSU students. A three story building, it served as the primary dorm until 1871, when Williams Hall was built. Sadly, Saints’ Rest was poorly constructed and, in the winter of 1876, it burned down.

Saints' Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr

Saints’ Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr

In 2005, excavations uncovered much of the northern portion of the structure as part of MSU’s Sesquicentennial. This dig was able to capture much of the last days of the building’s life- the cellar was full of brick from the collapsed building, there was charred wood beam, and the stoves from the different floors collapsed and stacked on top of each other. Due to the fact that it was winter break and that Williams was becoming more highly used, very few household artifacts were found. In 2007, more of the interior was investigated during a sidewalk realignment. In 2008, a refuse pit from the building was recovered during a tree-plating. These artifacts included ceramic whiteware, glass tumblers, and cut animal bone, all dating to the 1860s and 70s. The refuse pit was further excavated during 2009 during Grandparents University. In 2012 the northwest corner of the building was excavated during another sidewalk replacement project, and we were able to map a corner that had not been discovered previously.

This past week, Campus Archaeology got another chance to explore a new section of this historic building. Sidewalk removal and placement caused one walk above Saints’ Rest to be completely taken out and replaced with sod, and a new one was being placed in. The goal of this change in sidewalks was to protect the trees in the area, however it also allowed us the chance to explore the southern portions of the building. We opened up two trenches along the area where the new sidewalk was being placed, one in the north and one in the south. Shovel tests were done in between these areas.

2013-06-20 09.03.47

North Trench, via Katy Meyers

In the northern trench, we uncovered almost 80 centimeters of pure brick. Some were burnt, most were in small pieces, and only a few were whole. As we slowly moved through the brick and soil, a tough task in the hot sun, we found that there was a distinct change in soil color about halfway through the trench. As we progressed, we found all the components (minus the wood) for a door including the hinges and handles, portions of a stove door, and large amounts of nails. At 86 centimeters down we hit a dark level of compact plaster- the floor of the basement. We carefully revealed the floor, and halfway through the trench it stopped. There was a section of bricks, and then the second half of the trench was compacted sand. We think perhaps we found the division between two rooms, one with a raised plaster floor and the other a sand floor.

South Trench

South Trench, via Katy Meyers

The second trench to the south contained fairly high numbers of broken glass, whiteware, porcelain, metal, and even a complete spoon. However, as we got deeper around 40cm we found more brick and eventually hit an entire layer of brick that was stuck together in place with mortar. At first glance it looked like a patio or floor, but the bricks weren’t aligned correctly for that. Further digging we found that the bricks were in mortared sections, and had the appearance that they had been once upright instead of horizontal. In the eastern wall of the trench we found a pipe that ran the length of the trench through the bricks. It is highly likely this pipe was a chimney flue and the brick was the support for the chimney. It probably fell down during the fire or razing of the building, and was simply buried.

These two trenches have further helped us understand the layout and makeup of the building, and hopefully in the future we will be able to explore this southern area more!

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 to outside the space was one of the major changes altering the size and appearance of campus.  This change, which is suspected to have occurred in the late 1920s, is the focus of one of Campus Archaeology’s current investigations.  What we are looking for is how the original road was laid within the sacred space in front of William’s Hall one of the first dorms.

Photo from the late 19th c of Williams Hall and the fountain, road and sidewalk in old positions can be seen, via MSU Masterplan

Preliminary investigations involved comparing archival data such as pictures and maps.  We looked to compare the location of the road based on two structures: the fountain between Linton and Museum and the Museum itself, which is believed to stand directly on top of the old William’s Hall. You can see in the image below that the road was to the right and the sidewalk to the left.  Today the sidewalk sits to the right of the fountain.

It was made clear that the road followed a curve from the west entrance of Linton Hall to the north side of the old William’s Hall via the north side of the fountain. This is drastically different from the roads and sidewalks we see today.

To investigate the location of the road a test pit was dug in the green space 7 meters north of the northeast edge of the Museum.  Recovered from this pit were multiple layers of road materials from a gravel layer followed by a layer large river rocks and a subsequent layer of chunks of granite (about 15 cm x 6 cm) and clay.  As this was the expected location of the road the layers of road materials confirmed the location.  Now we ask the broader questions: “What did this road look like?”, “How wide was it?”, “Where did it curve?”, and “What was it made of?”.

To further investigate we went back to the archives searching for pictures of the road to help identify its composition.  Archival research showed that in the past a process called macadam was used in which “crushed stone surfaces, 6 to 10 inches thick, were merely bound by dirt and clay” (ASCE, 2013)  As this older technique was widely used it is extremely possible the lowest granite and clay layer is campus’s old road.

Today we open up a section to explore the layering of this area in hopes to answer these questions.  If we find that this layer of granite and clay reaches out further we will be able to confirm this is the old macadam road and further test pit to see its boundaries.

American Society of Civil Engineers. 2013. “Macadam Roads”. http://www.asce-sf.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=252&Itemid=79 accessed 5/20/13

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

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 with a plethora of resources and opportunities, you must take it upon yourself to broaden your horizons and experience all that MSU has to offer. As previous CAP intern Eve Avdoulos has noted, the spaces on campus have different meanings for various individuals depending on your major, involvements, and where you happen to spend much of your time. For those that live in the dormitories, campus is home. For those who are involved with sports, campus is a place of potential victory. For many, it is the space of opportunity and growth.

MAC Campus Vista, MSU in late 19th c., via MSU Archives

Anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has argued that history is written largely based on physical remains. Historical buildings like those on our campus “embody the ambiguities of history. They give us the power to touch it, but not that to hold it firmly in our hands… no revelation may fully dissipate their silences” (Trouillot 1995: 30). This brings to mind the many buildings that have disappeared on our campus; the buildings that have fallen over, burned down, or have been removed because of construction or changing facility. Without the physical remains of these buildings, their full significance has perhaps been lost to the very fluid process of writing history. Indeed, some of our most cherished buildings are the oldest. Looking back in the archives and publications about the history of our campus is not just evaluating chronological data about the erecting and falling of buildings, but the significance that these buildings provided for the students who utilized them. The more we can discover about what these buildings meant to the students, the more our current understandings of and interactions with history change.

Because so many monuments have disappeared physically, Campus Archaeology Program does more than just preserve artifacts. The very writing of history and how students, staff, faculty, and alumni understand our legacy and our future is entwined in the understanding of what certain buildings meant to our evolving campus. As I read scrapbooks, catalogues, yearbooks, and map legends, the importance of certain spaces on campus shined through. I understood that how students valued various buildings reflects how they interacted with their world and with each other. It could be argued that students’ very identities were constructed by their interactions with their environment, which was largely the buildings and landscape of our campus.

Women Students outside Morrill Hall in 1900, via MSU Archives

As I move forward with my research, I will be evaluating several questions. What is the function of the center of campus, and what might it mean if, as Eve asserted, there is no longer a center of campus? Would our campus benefit from a common idea of a heart of campus? Can a collective student identity be attained or measured, or is that even a desire? What do elements like gender, war, expansion, reputation, curriculum, and leadership have to contribute to the change of campus and thus identity?

From a more theoretical perspective, what does place even mean? Is it just the physical environment or is there more to it? How does the river, farmland, and green space negotiate with buildings, demographics, and the larger society to construct the heart of campus and the identity of its inhabitants?

I look forward to grappling with these questions and offering my analysis as I continue to learn more about the changing heart of campus.