Another Persons Trash (Midden) is an Archaeologists Treasure

As you may know from my previous blog posts, I have been working on analyzing the faunal remains from Campus Archaeology excavations. My current research project focuses on the Saints’ Rest trash midden, excavated in several seasons by CAP near the location where Saints’ Rest once stood. Because of the sites’ use as a small public dumping area, the artifacts recovered are expected to reflect the daily life of those living at and nearby Saints’ Rest dormitory. The end goal of this research project, in conjunction with research by Lisa Bright, Amy Michael, Jeff Painter, and Susan Kooiman, is to better understand the everyday lives of the early MSU students.

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Time to Bone Up: A Faunal Analysis Update

Over the past year, I have been working on identifying the animal (faunal) bone material excavated by the Campus Archaeology Program. Currently, I have been working on bones that were recovered during the Saint’s Rest excavation. Saint’s Rest was the first dormitory on campus, and through CAP excavations, we have been able to learn more about the dorm itself, as well as its associated privy. My goal is to learn about what the students and staff were eating based off of what animal bones were thrown away. I am also comparing my results to the MSU archival records to determine if the bones, and the meat cuts they represent (see my previous blog about this ), align with the historical written record.

Caption: Erica with a cow pelvis. Photo by Kim Brock.

Caption: Erica with a cow pelvis. Photo by Kim Brock.

From my previous faunal analysis of over 1700 fish bones, I determined that at least 17 walleye heads were thrown away in the privy associated with Saint’s Rest. Now that we have learned about the fish remains, I moved onto the remainder of the faunal material recovered from the Saint’s Rest trash pit, located southeast off the building foundation. The fauna that I have been working with comes from excavations that took place in 2008 and 2009, comprising of mostly mammal remains. I have been working on analyzing these materials using the newly established MSU Museum zooarchaeological comparative collection, allowing me to identify the animals bones excavated by CAP.


With over three-quarters of the remainder of the collection analyzed so far I would like to report my preliminary results!

MSU Museum zooarchaeological comparative collection being used to identify CAP faunal remains. Image courtesy of Autumn Painter.

Based off of the preliminary analysis, there are at least two individual cows, one individual pig, one possible sheep/goat, and one unidentified large bird! These identifications match what Susan Kooiman and myself have found within the archival records for what the college was purchasing at the time.

In addition to determining what species of animals were being thrown away, I also wanted to determine, if possible, the meat cuts associated with those identified bones. This is a much more complicated task than I originally imagined! First, types of meat cuts that occur change over time and across space, making the exact identification of meat cuts much more difficult than anticipated! Look at the image below; you can see that across England the variation within meat cut name and placement, such as clod vs. thick brisket. Different types of meat cuts go in and out of fashion through time and space, just like the types of shoes or styles of clothing that we wear.

Figures 55-58 from Meat Cuts and Muscle Foods: an international glossary by Howard J. Swatland (page 59).

Now, compare this to the cuts of meat typically found for beef in North America. We use different names as well as cuts.

Figures 153 from Meat Cuts and Muscle Foods: an international glossary by Howard J. Swatland (page 135).

Based on what bones are present thus far in the analysis, it appears that this assemblage contains a large variety of meat cuts, including shank, loin, sirloin, rib, brisket, and chuck. These cuts are from almost all parts of the cow, and several bones including a skull fragment, molar tooth and a phalanx (toe bone) indicate that in fact, they were throwing away bones from head to toe!

While the archival records do not always list what cut of beef was purchased, it occasionally listed beef shank, steak, and roast as specific cuts purchased between 1861-1863. The archaeological record and archival record are two lines of evidence that are giving us insight into the food consumption and deposition practices of early MSU students and staff.

Stay tuned for the final update on the analysis of the Saint’s Rest trash pit animal bone analysis!



Meat Cuts and muscle foods: an international glossary by Howard J. Swatland [2000].

The Meat Book: A consumer’s guide to selecting, buying, cutting, storing, freezing, & carving the various cuts by Travers Moncure Evans and David Greene [1973].

MSU Archives



The Cutting Edge: The Analysis of Historic Meat Cuts

Man prepares meat in the Kellogg Center 1959. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Man prepares meat in the Kellogg Center 1959. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The analysis of animal bones from historic MSU involves more than the identification of species. While it is important to determine the species that were being consumed, we are also very interested in the specific portions of animals that were being purchased and produced by MSU. Not only was MSU purchasing meat from local vendors, but, as an agricultural school, they also were butchering animals raised on campus. It is possible to determine what cuts of meat were being produced and consumed on campus from analyzing the faunal material uncovered during archaeological excavations. However, there is an added level of difficulty in this type of analysis. While animals were being butchered on campus, they were not being processed by professionals. Instead, MSU students were being trained on how to butcher and process meat from the campus farms. How do we know this you ask? Well, there are photographs in the MSU archives that show the butchering of animals, but we can also learn from studying the animal bones themselves. They allow us to see the many different cuts and angles present that suggest that the individual who was processing the meat was learning where and how to make specific types of cuts (AKA like student drivers, student butchers could not stay in their lane).

Students butcher meat, early 1900s. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections - Scrapbook #45

Students butcher meat, early 1900s. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections – Scrapbook #45

Butchered animal bones excavated by CAP.

Butchered animal bones excavated by CAP.

So how can we tell different meat cuts apart by looking at the animal bones? Not only can we talk to current butchers, there are countless books on the subject going back through time for butchering processes and preferred cuts. Below are some images that depict various meat cuts on different animal species. Through comparisons between the actual bones recovered and the illustrations of the types of bones that are the result of different cuts of meat, we can figure out what types of meat cuts were the most preferred on campus at the time.

Cuts of meat depicted as bone cuts. Image Source:

Cuts of meat depicted as bone cuts. Image Source: Evans and Greene 1973

Another factor that needs to be considered while conducting this type of analysis is the preference for specific meat cuts through time and by region throughout the United States and the world! Even today there are certain types of meat that are very popular in one area of the United States, but that cannot be found in another. For example, tri-tip in California is a very popular cut of beef from the bottom sirloin for barbecuing, however, in the Midwest, it is almost impossible to find in a grocery store! However, by understanding the skeletal anatomy of each species, archaeologists are able to determine what types of meat cuts were being produced and/or consumed during the Early Period of MSU’s history.


Different butchering techniques and cuts of meat from around the world. Image source:

Different butchering techniques and cuts of meat from around the world. Image source: Swatland 2000

Using all of this information, I will continue working on the faunal analysis from the Early Period of MSU’s history. After the faunal (animal) bone analysis is complete, I will be able to compare the meat cuts found within the archaeological record to the meat cuts listed within the MSU Archives detailing the purchasing records for the boarding halls.


MSU Archives

The Meat Book: A consumer’s guide to selecting, buying, cutting, storing, freezing, & carving the various cuts by Travers Moncure Evans and David Greene [1973].

Meat Cuts and muscle foods: an international glossary by Howard J. Swatland [2000].

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

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

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

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

Step One:

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

Step Two:

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

Step Three:

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

Comparative Collection

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

Campus Archaeology

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard Cuts of Meat (1908) - Image Source

Standard Cuts of Meat (1908) – Image Source

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

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

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

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

What’s for supper?

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Archaeological Perspective on Sustainability

Thinking about sustainability, particularly in a historical context, is a complicated task.  I knew little about sustainability before starting this project, but the idea was nevertheless enticing, and I began researching the meaning of the term.  Definitions are numerous and multifaceted and most are not useful for archaeological research, but the aspect called “sustainable development” adds tangibility.  Sustainability in its simplest form means to maintain the current system, implying conservation.  Sustainable development means to consider the potential needs of the future while living within carrying capacity.  The foundations of modern sustainability were in place well before MSU’s agricultural experiments were envisioned and gained momentum over time.  The years leading up to the Revolutionary War constituted the very first “Buy American” movement.  Nineteenth century agrarian idealism led to advances in agricultural efficiency.  Depression-era advocates of permanent agriculture considered the needs of future generations.  From an archaeologist’s perspective, both ecological and economic factors are potential evidence for examining sustainable development in the past.

Determining the level of sustainable development at MSU over time at first seemed overwhelming because of the long history of the University and the sheer amount of possible evidence, both archaeological and historical.  As a starting point, I began analyzing the faunal remains excavated on campus, with the hope of seeing a pattern in what early students ate and how they acquired their meat.  I have been recording species, approximate age, and standard cut.  Most remains came from a trash deposit at Saints’ Rest, excavated in 2008-09, one of the earliest historic sites on campus.   The bones appear to have been butchered by hand, but it is yet unclear if the animals were acquired locally or were owned by the Agricultural College.  Digging in the archives should help me to solve that mystery!

Food production is an important aspect of sustainable development, and the results from an agricultural school will be especially interesting.  For the project, I will also be looking at transportation and construction at MSU since 1857.  Changes in these three variables over time will allow us to see changes in sustainability on campus and how it fits within the greater historical context of development in the United States.

Zooarch in the Lab

With any archaeological assemblage, excavation is only a small part of the research process. Preliminary care and identification in the field is not designed to hold up for long-term storage and analysis. You may remember my previous post about the faunal identification process, which was based on a teachable moment in the field. Since then, I have inherited the CAP faunal collection from Saints’ Rest to use as data for my historic sustainability project. Management and analysis of a zooarchaeological collection such as this has been a great love of mine since my first experience with it in college.

Washing a pig jaw.

Washing a pig jaw.

Step 1: Washing. Once the bones are out of the ground, they’re muddy, wet, broken, and frequently full of small roots or salt deposits. Washing them typically involves a plastic basin under a lab sink faucet and a used toothbrush. The irony of scrubbing pig teeth in this manner is never lost. Bones are tough, so a good hard scrub is usually in order, otherwise it can be difficult to see small modifications. Drying can take up to a week.

Step 2: Identification. I like to start by creating a chart of things I want to know, such as bag number, element, species, age, and types of butchery that can been seen on the bone. The data from the chart can be entered into a more comprehensive artifact database later. Butchery and tooth wear forms are also useful. Sources tend to be spread thinly, especially for historical archaeologists, but I never leave home without Schmid’s Atlas of

Reconstructed scapula and Schmid.

Reconstructed scapula and Schmid.

Animal Bones. While it is not strictly necessary to reconstruct individual bones, it can be helpful for identification purposes to glue pieces together that were obviously broken after ending up the in trash heap or during excavation. Having been trained on ancient Near Eastern materials, I sometimes have trouble with the convoluted butchery methods that saws made common in the historic period. Comparing the problem bone to known elements is very helpful. Noting modifications is extremely important, because these give us information about human behavior.

Step 3: Documentation and statistics. Entering as much data as possible into the chart makes seeing patterns easier. Drawing butchered bones with every little modification mark can be tedious, but worth the time to make the information more easily accessible. When the chart is complete, you have a whole mess of numbers and little idea of how many animals are represented by the assemblage. This stage is where MNI (Minimum Number of Individuals) and NISP (Number of Identified Specimens) become the zooarchaeologist’s best friends. Both calculations are necessary to get a range of possible animals divided however you choose, with MNI as the low figure and NISP as the high.

Duco Cement is great for reconstruction.

Duco Cement is great for reconstruction.

Step 4: Care. Usually faunal food remains can be put into archival bags or set on shelves without much hassle if the environment is stable. When they do break during excavation or handling (they are also known to explode during washing) gluing with a stable, clear adhesive compound is an option. For particularly delicate pieces gluing is sometimes necessary to prevent further damage.

Cow Elbows and Archaeology

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

Cow humerus

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

Butchered bone

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

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