A Look Back at CAP’s 2022 Field School
This past summer, the Campus Archaeology program had the opportunity to offer a field school to archaeology students from MSU and across the state—our first field school since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Directly taking part in ongoing CAP research into life in the mid-century MSU campus, 18 students spent five weeks gaining exposure to a variety of archaeological research techniques including pedestrian survey, shovel-testing, unit excavation, archival research and laboratory work. This blogpost recounts the activities of the field school and provides a brief summary of the results of the fieldwork and research projects undertaken by our students.
Choosing the Research Area
The on-campus component of this year’s field school focused on Cherry Lane Park, an open space on the western edge of campus slated for development of a athletics facility. The Campus Archaeology Program’s interest in this area of campus was two-fold. On one hand, an upcoming construction project in this area of campus prompted CAP to assess what archaeological materials might be disturbed by future development. Secondly, this area of campus fit into CAP’s emergent research interest in the material culture of campus in the mid-twentieth century and postwar era—a period of rapid change for the institution.
Specifically, MSU’s post-war era was marked by rapidly changing demographics—with increasing numbers of women students, greater numbers of children living in campus residences—and concurrent leaps in enrollment and programming as the institution moved from a relatively specialized agricultural college to the university we know today. Many of these changes can be at least partially attributed to the impact of the G.I. Bill, which provided financial support to returning veterans and their families enrolled in higher education.
In the years following the end of World War Two, campus infrastructure was dramatically expanded to accommodate the influx of veteran students, including a massive ‘temporary housing area’—a patchwork of trailers, pre-furbished structures, and barracks-style apartments—stretching across much of west campus. As many students came to the college with families, this era also marked the beginning of substantial campus investment in family-student housing options that would later become permanent in spaces like Spartan Village and University Village over the coming decades.
Fieldwork at Cherry Lane Park
Today, a substantial part of this former temporary housing area for veteran students and their families overlaps with Cherry Lane Park, including barrack’s style family apartments and the ‘Faculty Bricks’. CAP’s selection of this area as the site of our 2022 field school thus sought to assess whether deposits from this era would be impacted by upcoming construction and to recover material culture related to this transitional moment in the development of Michigan State University.
The summer’s fieldwork began with a pedestrian survey across Cherry Lane Park, through which students learned to systematically comb through the campus landscape looking for surface artifacts and landform features associated with the temporary housing area. While artifacts that could be confidently dated to this period were few and far between, student’s attention to landforms and vegetative changes allowed us to identify the location of structural footprints and former road grades associated with mid-century student and faculty residences, and in turn improved our geo-referencing of historical imagery. This exercise also provided a chance to students to familiarize themselves with the spatiality of temporary housing area and—combined with historical aerial photography and maps—orient themselves within the site.
Following the pedestrian survey, students participated in shovel-testing in a few strategically chosen areas of Cherry Lane Park believed to have been minimally disturbed since their usage as part of the temporary housing area. Despite the importance of within the world of professional archaeology, it is rarely emphasized in field school settings in favor of a focus on unit excavations. Given that we had no knowledge of how intact artifact deposits and features from the temporary housing area would be, this was a necessary step in research but–importantly–also provided us the means to train students in an important field method they would encounter regularly if they choose to pursue archaeology.
While some material culture from the era we were interested in investigating was recovered, the results of our shovel-testing efforts largely indicated a dirth of intact deposits related to the temporary housing area within the tested areas. Though not particularly exciting results, students were thus exposed to one of the inconvenient realities of fieldwork— archaeology is almost just as much about ‘negative’ data and where things are not as it is about where (and what) things are.
Back in McDonel Hall, students were introduced to methods within historical archaeology laboratory work, including the identification and dating of glass containers and ceramic vessels. Specifically, students worked with artifacts from the Service Road landfill, a 1950s-early 1960s campus landfill along Service Road which CAP staff recovered in the summer of 2020 (see more about the Service Road collection here or here). This collection includes a diversity of refuse from various spaces on campus, including residential, academic, and dining related items. After gaining some experience in the cataloging process, students worked on groups research projects that combined artifact analysis and archival research to elucidate specific aspects of life on the mid-century campus. We hope to integrate the insights of these projects into some of CAP’s digital outreach platforms in the coming months.
Collaborations & Off-Campus Fieldwork
Outside of our research on the mid-century campus, students also participated in fieldwork off-campus in the vicinity of the Rose Lake USDA-NRCS Field Office. Guided by two professional archaeologists (and Michigan State alumni) Duane Quates and Christopher Valvano, as well as recent MSU graduate Gabrielle Moran, students participated in various phases of research at two sites associated with pre-contact occupations including unit excavations, geophysical survey, and shovel testing. This collaboration allowed us to broaden the scope of our field school and introduce students to additional professional skillsets that we may not have had the capacity to offer in our on-campus research. Multiple field school students have continued to work with Duane and Christopher after the end of the field school to gain further experience and guidance as they explore the possibility of working within professional archaeology—an outcome we view as an abundantly clear sign of an effective collaborative undertaking.
Our field school was also fortunate to have two representatives of the Gun Lake Tribe Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), Cultural Resources Specialist Kaila Akina and THPO intern Onyleen Zapata join us to participate and observe our summer fieldwork. We were incredibly fortunate to have their help and perspectives during their visit, and look forward to other avenues of future collaboration and capacity building between the Campus Archaeology Program and the Gun Lake THPO.
Out of the field, the CAP was also fortunate to feature guest lectures from a variety of professionals in the world of archaeology and associated fields, including Michigan State Historic Preservation Officer Dr. Sarah Surface-Evans, Gun Lake Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Lakota Hobia (Gun Lake THPO) and colleagues, MSU NAGPRA Program Manager Dr. Jessica Yann, our collaborators at Rose Lake (Dr. Duane Quates and Dr. Christopher Valvano), UM-Flint Professor Dr. Bev Smith, and then-current MSU Campus Archaeologist Jeff Burnett. Topics of lectures comprised a broad swath of topics, including discussion of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), working as an archaeologist for state/federal agencies, zooarchaeology, and the history of race, racism, ethnicity and gender at Michigan State University.
The Campus Archaeology Program would like to extend our sincere gratitude to everyone who helped make this field school possible and an engaging learning experience for our students, including (but absolutely not limited to) everyone mentioned in this blog post. On a personal level, I’d like to also thank all the field school students who collectively made my first official teaching assistant position at the university a pleasant and rewarding experience, and extend a special thanks to my two fellow TAs Alex Kelley and Reid Ellefson-Frank (note: do not forget to refrigerate your unit stakes).