The Ritual Landscape of Michigan State University

Last week I attended the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting, held this year in Washington D.C. This was a particularly pertinent meeting for Campus Archaeology because a symposium was held in honor of Dr. Lynne Goldstein. As she nears retirement and the end of her tenure as professor and CAP Director, it was evident from the symposium that her influence on the field of archaeology is far from over. The impact of her mentorship to students and the collaboration with colleagues was felt throughout every paper.

One theme that prevailed throughout the symposium was landscape and the ritual use of space. Dr. Goldstein has written extensively about mortuary patterns (how, where, and why people bury their dead) and regional analysis to evaluate patterns of settlement and ritual land use. Papers from MSU’s own Dr. William Lovis and Dr. Jodie O’Gorman, in addition to former Campus Archaeology fellow Dr. Amy Michael, all paid tribute to Dr. Goldstein’s legacy by considering their own research from this spatial perspective.

This got me thinking: what is the ritual landscape of Michigan State University, both past and present? And how might we see this archaeologically?

Dr. O’Gorman discussed how migrating populations may maintain certain rituals from their place of origin, while also engaging in new rituals in order to integrate both into the social and natural environment of their new homes. This is reflected in the environment of a college campus. Students come to MSU from across Michigan, the US, and abroad bringing their own rituals and personal items with them. However, once students arrive on campus, they form and engage in a united identity: that of an MSU student. This identity can then be enacted through rituals that are often closely tied to specific locations across the campus landscape.

Football Revelry ca. 1910

Football Revelry ca. 1910. Image Source

MSU tail gaiting today. Image source.

MSU tail gaiting today. Image source.

Sports comprise an important part aspect of MSU identity. Football games and tailgating are important rituals at MSU. While football itself might not leave behind the much in the way of archaeological remains (besides a giant stadium), tailgating certainly might. Archaeologists often find refuse pits with large amounts of food refuse and broken pottery, the remnants of ancient feasting events, or large meals accompanying special occasions or ceremonies. Many ancient societies held community-wide events that left significant archaeological signatures, such a large amounts of broken pottery and food refuse. Today, the area around the tennis courts on the MSU campus are the hub of student tailgating, a form of feasting, and will likely someday be a treasure trove of interesting finds (at least those items missed by MSU’s otherwise stellar clean-up crews). If tailgating or other sport-related revelries were historically held elsewhere on campus, we may find evidences of these activities during our campus surveys.

Sacred Space during the early days of the campus

Sacred Space during the early days of the campus. Image source

Sacred Space today

Sacred Space today. Image source

The “Sacred Space” is the large open area north of Beaumont Tower, which is the unofficial “center” of campus.  New construction has been banned in this area since the 1870s. Although students certainly use this space, and in the future we may find refuse of their presence there, we would not expect to find much in the way of trash pits or construction refuse dating to after fits establishment (although the pre-1870s archaeology of this area is quite rich). This is common of many ancient city center plazas, where city-wide ceremonies were held. Sometimes the absence of structures or other archaeological evidence is the strongest indicator of ceremonial space as they are kept clean and clear of structures to allow room for ceremonies and their participants.

Sparty Statue - Image Source

Sparty Statue – Image Source

Graduation is arguably the most significant ritual enacted on a college campus. Graduates routinely get their pictures taken next to the Sparty statue on north campus, and may even hold more significance in this milestone than the location of the actual graduation ceremony. Sparty is what archaeologists call a “monument,” or large, immovable objects that visually mark space with significance and meaning. Monuments are common in the ancient world, from the burial mounds of the Midwest, to the obelisks and temples of ancient Egypt and Greece.

The Rock.

The Rock. Image Source

The Rock, a more informal monument on campus, is a large boulder which various student groups take turns painting, either promoting their student group or serving as a way to express solidarity, protest, and/or discontent with current events. It is so much a symbol an important symbol of MSU heritatage that someone wrote a whole book on it! Students sometimes camp out to ensure their chance for painting the rock, so we may one day be able to see this refuse archaeologically. A few years ago, a chunk of the hundreds of layers of paint fell off, revealing an enthralling stratigraphy representing decades of student voices and creativity. One artist made “Spartan Agate” jewelry from it, allowing alum to wear a piece of MSU archaeological history around their necks.

 Mary Mayo Hall, a stop on the Apparitions and Archaeology Tour, is said to be haunted

Mary Mayo Hall, a stop on the Apparitions and Archaeology Tour, is said to be haunted. Image source

CAP’s yearly Apparitions and Archaeology Tour is inspired by ghost stories associated with various buildings and features across the campus. These spectral legends are closely tied to landmarks on the landscape but leave no archaeological trace. These represent aspects of the past that archaeologists want to know but struggle to uncover: myths and legends. Reflective of a culture’s ideology, oral histories and myths often prove elusive to archaeologists unless recorded in the written records. Even in the age of print and social media, these ghost stories might have simply been passed down from generation to generation of students without official recordation, eventually forgotten, had they not been recorded by CAP for our famous tour.

One way oral history and archaeology can converge is through public outreach. So, I turn the rest of this blog over to you, dear readers! If you are a current or former student, faculty, or staff member, what are the places on campus that are most special to you? Are there areas of ritual or ceremonial significance that you know of (used by a specific student group, etc) from the past or present that Campus Archaeology should know about or document? Share your stories in the comments!

The College Becomes A University: July in Campus History

For most of us, it seems that not much happens at MSU in July.  Most of the students are still gone, and while the occasional roving herd of incoming freshmen pass through for orientation, the campus still seems quiet.  Historically, not much has happened this month.  One thing stands out, however.

On July 1st of 1955, the college changed it’s name from “Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science” to “Michigan State University of Agriculture and Applied Science.”  This was the fruit of several years’ of writing letters and dealing with the University of Michigan’s complaints.  They were apparently concerned that the names were too similar!  MSC had begun seeking university status in the early 1950s, arguing that their diverse variety of programs indicated that the college had grown into a university.  In Michigan law, “University” isn’t specifically defined, but there is a list of what they consider to be Michigan universities.  It is assumed that to be considered a university an institution must offer a wide variety of programs and grant four year degrees, but this does not seem to be specifically laid out anywhere.

John Hannah observes signing the Michigan State University Bill, 1955. Courtesy On the Banks of the Red Cedar

John Hannah observes signing the Michigan State University Bill, 1955. Courtesy On the Banks of the Red Cedar

Still, MSC had to propose the Michigan State University Bill in the hopes of making the name change legal.  A week before the state House of Representatives voted on the bill, U of M submitted a 26 page brief against the proposal.  It didn’t work, and in April, the Senate voted 23-2 in favor of the name change.  The change was effective on July 1st, 1955.

Still quite a mouthful, the name was shortened to the current “Michigan State University” in 1964.

Also in July at MSU:  My 20th Birthday! (page 7)





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