Encountering archaeology with the Campus Archaeology Program (CAP).

Encountering archaeology with the Campus Archaeology Program (CAP).

by Juan Carlos Rico Noguera

Michigan State University (MSU) CAP “is a program that works to mitigate and protect the archaeological resources on Michigan State University’s beautiful and historic campus.”[1] CAP is also an initiative that contributes to the public understanding of MSU’s history, enabling more profound and meaningful connections between this public university, its students, and the international community that populates it. Outreach is the primary way CAP has communicated MSU’s cultural-material history to the public. New fellows won’t take long before sitting behind tables filled with cultural objects, ready to answer questions from curious people interested in the relationship between material culture and the past and the spirit(s)[2] of MSU. In short, CAP prices itself to protect MSU’s cultural heritage while engaging with outreach to socialize MSU’s history rooted in archaeological findings and analysis.

In my short experience as a CAP fellow, I can say CAP identity is not self-promotion; it is an accurate description but also a modest one. CAP has a richer meaning for me because CAP is not only defined by the services it provides to the MSU community but also by the possibilities it offers to the people who work under its wing. I am inclined to say CAP is a strategic site to connect the many sub-disciplines of American anthropology’s complex and exciting world with archaeological practice. This is profoundly important if we acknowledge archaeology as a vital expression of anthropology as a whole and recognize that anthropology at the graduate level is not exclusively pursued by anthropology majors. In other words, through my eyes, MSU CAP is also a facilitator of encounters between different subfields in anthropology, an excuse for graduates with no archaeological background to discover what it is like to work as an archaeologist and to appreciate the contributions that the subfield makes to our overall understanding of the human experience. It is also an opportunity for archaeologists in the program to see themselves in a mirror of otherness, fascination, and even stupefaction.

The lab as a site of encounter

To say that a lab is a site of knowledge production is obvious, but for many anthropologists that statement never transcends the frontier of a cultural consensus. While writing this post, I cannot stop thinking that if I had not been accepted to the CAP program, I would have never had the opportunity to work in a laboratory. A socio-cultural anthropologist has little to do with one, especially in a post-positivist climate where standardized data collection and analysis methods are under suspicion[3]. In addition, anthropology is a very plural discipline that unfortunately only stays together by documents and administrative rationales suggesting that archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology are one and the same. In MSU, the four-field divide is so stark that almost every major field sits at different buildings.

 The first time I entered the CAP laboratory, I was very nervous. Laboratories have always been foreign to me. A laboratory in English is twice as foreign. In that opportunity, fellows collected materials to exhibit at the Michigan Archaeology Day[4]. Everyone was working with haste. With a list in their hand, an apparent sound understanding of the lab’s geography, and swift and precise movements, returning fellows collected the objects they needed. In my case, I did not even know where to stand. Like everyone else, I had a list in my hand, but I did not know where to find the things listed there. The list that I hoped would be a comforting map to navigate the lab and demonstrate my value as a fellow proved to me very quickly that I had some things to learn first. The list was demanding me to find a trowel. I immediately realized I did not know what that was. When I could get a hold of myself, my work was no longer needed. The objects for the presentation were ready and packed. Now, I always carry a pin in the shape of a trowel on my jacket for academic presentations. It reminds me of my encounter with archaeology, and it is my way of communicating I believe in the value of well-rounded anthropologists and a bridged discipline.

After my first visit to the CAP lab, I have been there many other times. Campus archaeologist Ben Akey has been leading an attempt to catalog the many objects the CAP has collected in recent years. They have also generously mentored me in historical archaeology and the cataloging process. After cataloging with Ben, I cannot overstate how impressed I am with archaeology as a field. Every nail, glass fragment, bottle, and bone are like pieces of an exciting jigsaw puzzle, probably the most challenging I have ever encountered. The catalog of artifacts systematizes each jigsaw puzzle piece to facilitate the analytical work of researchers interested in composing an empirically informed image of our shared past. Working with artifacts, brushes, catalogs, and databases has been novel for me in more ways than one. The most striking of those is reconciling an obvious part of human life we usually take for granted: the importance of objects, their qualities, and trajectories in defining the human experience. The importance of objects is not a mystery for cultural anthropologists, but before entering the CAP lab, I had never worked around them; I never thought about their provenance or classification, and I am profoundly happy by the opportunity CAP provides to do it.  

Stupefaction: hoarding vs. faith in science and resources

Encountering archaeology in a lab for the first time also brought a cultural shock. I found myself cataloging and saving tens of nails that, to my neophyte criteria, were the same thing. Those nails were distributed in different places, and registering their presence was important, but should we keep them? I also found myself cataloging hundreds of indefinite glass fragments, meaning it was impossible to assume, at least in the cataloging phase, what they were a part of (bottles, windows, portraits, etc.). Coal fragments, envelopes, plastic pieces, and all sorts of unintelligible things were in my tray, waiting to be classified, packed, and saved. Is somebody going to make sense of all those things that, for most mortals, are just rubble? Are we really going to learn something worth the effort and the resources we invest in, or are we just committing to a scientifically informed hoarding practice? I have received a passionate answer: yes, rubble can tell many things under the appropriate gaze and methods.

I believe faith in science and funding that could seduce a scholar to systematically look into the MSU campus archaeological record are the main drivers of what I privately call “rubble cataloging.” I am willing to join the faith, especially after learning with Ben about historical archaeologists’ efforts to build virtual catalogs to facilitate comparison and sense-making. It is also important to think about how cataloging “everything possible” could be a measure to fight selection bias. Still, I am not convinced about how sustainable or useful that practice is. The faith that transforms rubble into meaningful windows to the past must fight against the same random sample techniques used in archaeological excavations? I don’t think so, but I have yet to witness what the proper funding and an expert scholar can do with all the small things I have cataloged.

But while science and enough funding happen, rubble cataloging has an important role to play. Should we think about rubble cataloging in a way that is not solely related to knowledge production? What about rubble cataloging for teaching and outreach? Regarding outreach, it is possible to circle back to knowledge production. Could we think of citizen rubble cataloging? I am convinced rubble cataloging can be productive because I have found it productive. The discipline of systematizing information has already invited me to think in a different way about my archive of ethnographic data. Now, I am constantly thinking of how to make it comparable and public in a safe, ethical, and productive way for the anthropological understanding of what makes us human. The constant work with objects in the lab has also enabled me to understand in a new way what archaeology is, why it is important, and the challenges it faces. It is possible citizen rubble cataloging may help the public better understand archaeology and why it is important to support it, just as I have.    

[1] “MSU Campus Archaeology Program,” MSU Campus Archaeology Program, accessed December 10, 2023, https://campusarch.msu.edu/.

[2] The Campus Archaeology Program has partnered with student organizations like the MSU Paranormal Society to explore MSU’s cultural heritage in a way that connects with the interests, concerns and hobbies of MSU students. 

[3] It is important to acknowledge the most radical critiques to the scientific endeavor are not as influential today as they were during the nineties and the first decade of the twenty first century. I believe that is a positive development since science, as a social endeavor with social consequences, is only as good or as bad as the values that inform the overall scientific process and the outcomes its practice produces.

[4] Michigan Archaeology Day is a time in the year (in October) in which professionals and archaeology afficionados meet to discuss recent findings in Michigan and to keep the archaeological community alive through meaningful engagement between experts and citizens.

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