Campus Archaeology Director (Dr. Stacey Camp) Belated Fall 2023 Update

Campus Archaeology Director (Dr. Stacey Camp) Belated Fall 2023 Update

This past summer has been one of the busiest, if not the busiest, summers of my time as director of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program. While we did not have a field school as we generally run them every other year, a remarkable discovery was made in May of 2023. As construction workers were installing hammock poles near Wills House, they hit a concrete platform. Thankfully, we work closely with Infrastructure, Planning, and Facilities (IPF), who oversee all construction projects on campus.

We were then contacted by Landscape Architect Yun Cao, who told us about the hammock poles and asked if we had additional information about the history of this particular area of campus. Ben Akey, our current Campus Archaeologist, examined our historic maps, historic aerial photographs, and GIS database to reconstruct the landscape’s alterations and changes over time. Ben discovered that MSU’s first observatory dating to circa 1880/1881 was close by, and then investigated the area by conducting shovel tests, or small holes in the ground designed to locate artifacts and architectural features swiftly.

The shovel tests revealed a number of architectural-related artifacts, such as nails, glass, stones, and brick fragments. While this material culture is commonly found across our campus due to substantial construction over time, Ben had the foresight to open up 1×1 meter excavation units to further explore the structural materials. As a result, portions of the original foundation were uncovered, leading to an explosion of interest from the media and our campus community! Below you can see the two 1×1 meter units that exposed the observatory’s foundation and our team of graduate and undergraduate students excavating it.

Since we had several other critical construction projects taking place in the summer, we decided to close up the units and move to our other sites. We made this decision because we knew the site was not slated for construction and would not be destroyed over the next year. We knew that this would be a great place to study as part of an undergraduate field school, too, so we decided to carefully backfill the excavation units with dirt, using materials to protect the foundation in the process.

This summer (2024) we will be returning to the site, and undergraduate and graduate students will have the opportunity to excavate the remaining portions of the foundations. We will also have the chance to try to locate other features from this time period; perhaps we will find an outhouse that was used by the students who studied in the observatory, or Professor Rolla Carpenter himself! More information about the field school can be found on our website here.

One of the questions I wanted to answer before the summer ended was if the entire circular foundation was intact. Dr. Duane Quates (an alumni of our program) and Dr. Chris Valvano (also an alumni!) kindly visited the site and conducted a ground penetrating radar survey (GPR) of it. They just so happened to be there during a day when PBS/WKAR was filming a show on archaeology and STEM with a teenage actress, who was able to get to try out GPR!

I learned a bit about what it was like to be on television, and we also learned more about what was literally hidden beneath our feet. While the GPR data is preliminary, it appears as though most of the observatory’s foundation is intact (see image of the GPR data below). We will find out more when we return to excavating in late May of 2024.

As you can tell from the GPR data, the foundation was circular, about 16 feet across. Archival records also note that the observatory was this size. There is a unique feature in the middle of the observatory’s foundation. It appears as though there may be a platform for the telescope originally housed in the observatory. This is a common for observatories, as the foundation is intentionally separate from that which stabilizes the telescope.

Since we all recognized what a remarkable discovery this was, we immediately shared our finding with communications and public relations staff at MSU. Alex Tekip, Sydney Hawkins, and Nick Schrader came out to the site immediately, taking photographs, videos, and interviewing our staff on site. I knew this was an important story, but I did not realize that this would become an international story nearly overnight! In July, we were fielding media requests daily, which was a learning experience for myself and my students. We received advice and help from Alex, which was greatly appreciated. Thanks to MSU PR’s hard work and detailed write-up of our discovery, we were featured in national and international media outlets, including People Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, the Guardian, Popular Science, and Space. Interest in the site hasn’t died down, as Smithsonian Magazine just named us one of the most 117 interesting and exciting discoveries of 2023!

To help facilitate additional research on the observatory before we hold our field school this summer, I was able to obtain a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Initiative (PURI) grant for one of my undergraduate students, Hannah. This will allow us to clean and catalog the artifacts found during last summer (see the image of some of them below), and locate additional archival documents and images related to the observatory. Believe it or not, with the help of MSU University Archives & Historical Collections Hannah has already found a previously undiscovered image of the observatory, revealing another mystery. This photo below illustrates what looks to be a small bench or structure above ground. We have talked to a number of folks about it, including MSU Professor Emeritus (of Astronomy and Astrophysics) Dr. Horace Smith, who wrote a book on the history of astronomy at MSU. There are a lot of ideas as to what this feature is – we hope to solve this mystery in the summer!

Image courtesy of Jenny Rankin and Hannah Magnus. Found by Hannah Magnus at the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections, UA 10.3.65 Charles Philip Close papers, Scrapbook #62 (dates from 1891-1895). Photo identifier A010539.

There is still a lot of work to be done at the observatory site, but we are writing up a long summary of it that will hopefully be published in the near future. The observatory was built with the assistance of student labor, a common practice in MSU’s earliest days. Professor Rolla Carpenter, pictured below, was also was able to obtain funding for the telescope inside the observatory, which now sits at MSU’s Abrams Planetarium in an exhibit. It is incredible to think that the original telescope inside the observatory is still alive and well in our planetarium!

The only known photograph of the interior of MSU’s first observatory, with telescope in the center. This telescope is currently on exhibit at MSU’s Abrams Planetarium. The podium in the center might be the circular feature identified via the GPR survey. Photo courtesy of MSU University Archives & Historical Collections. Resource identifier A000122.jpg. Photo circa 1909.

Dr. Shannon Schmoll, Director of the Abrams Planetarium, and I are working to coordinate a more robust exhibit at the Abrams Planetarium that will include artifacts and new photographs. It is a work in progress, but we hope to share more about it later this year. Shannon, her intern, Caitlyn Tanner, and I have had a couple of adventures this past year to learn more about the observatory and the people who used it. We visited Detroit Observatory in the fall, which dates to 1854 (a bit earlier than MSU’s observatory, and a lot more grand in size!), and then some of MSU Museum‘s enormous textiles collection in late fall. The textiles collection gave us a sense of what students and professors wore on campus in the 1880s and 1890s. We were curious if we might be able to see clothing similar to that which students wore in the MSU observatory photograph below.

Photo courtesy of MSU University Archives & Historical Collections, Collection Number UA 10.3.265. Photo circa 1888. Professor Rolla Carpenter, who helped obtain funding for the observatory and taught classes in astronomy at MSU, is pictured in the center of the photograph, tipping his hat.

We have so many questions about the observatory. Hannah, our PURI grant recipient, is spending hours in MSU’s University Archives & Historical Collections looking for previously undiscovered photos of the observatory (which she already discovered on day 1 of being in the archives!). She is hoping to identify some of the people in the above photograph. Who is the sole woman in the photograph? In the late 1800s, it was unusual for a woman to have access to a university education. We presume she may have been the daughter of a faculty member on campus. And what about the men? Who are they? There weren’t many students at MSU during this time period, so hopefully we can identify each and every individual photographed – if we are lucky, maybe we will even located their descendants. Maybe some of them are walking on this campus as I write 🙂

We are very thankful to the crew of MSU students who were a part of this incredible discovery. These students include (from left to right of the image below: Levi (undergraduate student), Morgan (undergraduate student), Mac (undergraduate student), Kelly (undergraduate student), Holly (Ph.D. student), Ben (Campus Archaeology, Ph.D. student), and Tori (Ph.D. student)). If it wasn’t for student labor, the observatory wouldn’t have been built. And if it wasn’t for student labor, we wouldn’t have discovered the observatory 143 years later!

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