Update on CAP’s Sustainability Project

Over the course of the semester, Jennifer Bengtson and I (Amy Michael) have been documenting sustainability practices on MSU’s historic campus. Initially, we started this project under the pretense of incorporating archaeological data from the Campus Archaeology Program with the historical documents available from the university’s archives in order to provide a culturally and temporally sensitive characterization of sustainability in the past. After starting the project last fall, we agreed that an interesting direction to take the project would be to use modern sustainability measures and protocols to interpret historical practices.

While we still believe that this would be an exciting framework to situate the historical and archaeological data available to us, we are beginning to understand the constraints of doing such a project. Unfortunately, as all archaeologists know, we can only work within the confines of limited historical documents and the heretofore excavated archaeological record. These limitations necessarily shape and direct our research questions.

In re-tooling our original ideas about this project, we have come to a position now where we are actively pursuing historical documents related to food and transportation use in the early phases of the university. This type of archival work is time-consuming, but yields much information about how previous students and faculty regarded food production and transportation (and, interestingly, how those perceptions changed over time as historical events like World Wars or the Depression unfolded). Photographs, Board of Trustees minutes, food advertisements, budgetary notes, student journals, and campus newspapers are among the many archival documents that we have investigated as part of this project.

We have found documents pertaining to early “Dining Clubs” on campus in which students pooled resources to save money on food consumption during economic depressions. Several photographs have been located of the early 20th century trolley that used to carry students from Lansing to the relatively undeveloped campus. Early students even helped to clear land after their four hours of classes were completed. Documents show that the campus community responded creatively during times of economic or social hardships. For example, cycling clubs were formed when gas was in short supply. During World War II, “victory gardens” were planted on campus to supplement food sources and the university instructed students in the canning of non-perishable items. Historical maps illustrate that the production of motor vehicles affected the layout and planning of the campus as roads were constructed to accommodate new forms of transportation. Together, these records demonstrate that MSU students and faculty have a history of implementing sustainability practices, even before the “green” movement was in vogue.

MSU women working on Victory Garden, WWII, via MSU Archives

Our goals now are to characterize the time periods defined by CAP in order to produce a historically-relevant description of each phase which can then be supplemented by archaeological data gathered through CAP projects. This information will be disseminated in a poster presentation at the Graduate Academic Conference at MSU on March 30th. We plan to continue our project by revisiting the idea of measuring past sustainability practices using modern standards. However, we envision this research as a long-standing project for CAP which will require more data collection so that past practices may be accurately contextualized within contemporary standards. Ultimately, this research highlights MSU’s continued “green” heritage by articulating historical documents with archaeological data.

Author: Amy Michael

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