The MSU summer “field guide”

Construction detour sign
Construction detour sign

Navigating campus this summer has been an adventure. While Construction Junction has posed some challenges for drivers and pedestrians alike, we at Campus Archaeology love these opportunities to excavate alongside construction crews: surveying under sidewalks is made considerably easier with their helpful removal of pavement, and on occasion they even backfill for us (the archaeologist’s least favorite activity)!

Construction is proceeding at a fast and furious pace, with most projects on – if not ahead of – schedule. This presents us with some unique challenges that are, as David Ives would say, “all in the timing”. With multiple projects all across campus, all moving ahead at their own rates, one of the main responsibilities of the Campus Archaeologist is to monitor these changes – in some cases, even before they occur – so that these publicly-funded construction projects can proceed as smoothly as possible. So: how does she do it?

A: lots of meetings, lots of e mails, and daily tours of campus.
1. Construction Junctions. Everyone – MSU student, employee, fan, or neighbor – is invited to attend the monthly meetings about campus construction projects. (Anyone who knows why ‘Construction Junctions’ is a fantastic name for this joint venture gets a high five from this archaeologist.) Along with those monthly meetings are weekly emails, summarizing major changes in traffic flow. At these meetings we find out about upcoming projects (and get to see all the best new campus additions), and can ear-mark both upcoming fieldwork and archival research: hearing about the demolition of the State Police Depot – including the stables and police lodgings – gave us some great research ideas (did you know that the police lodgings had a pool?).

2. Unit Cost Projects. While large projects (like steam tunnel removal) are the focus of Construction Junctions updates, for those every day “small” projects – drain replacements, sidewalk removals, new loading docks – the Unit Cost are some of the fastest moving projects on campus. We receive updates detailing the work ahead, and the priorities for the upcoming week. A sidewalk removal may be replaced later that day (remember, we can’t excavate under it until it’s been removed!) so frequent visits to key points of interest, and remaining in close contact with project managers, are key.

3. Archival research. Just because someone, somewhere on campus, is building, demolishing, or redoing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll find Campusu Archaeology at work there. The campus landscape that we see today has a number of hidden, below-ground dimensions that have altered the land beneath. While the steam tunnels are a perfect example of this, street lighting, sewers, and communication tunnels are just three examples of what lies beneath the placid tree spaces and busy sidewalks of campus. And as much as we appreciate having street lights and sewers, where these are found Campus Archaeology is not going to find much else. To save ourselves from accidentally “discovering” electrical lines and sewers, we constantly consult maps of campus. In this example, construction between Eustace-Cole and Marshall-Adams has opened up an area that we rarely see.

west circle construction
West circle construction

At first we were quite interested – The buildings are well over 100 years old – but then we looked at the maps from the MSU Physical Plant, and found this:

IPF Construction Plans
IPF Construction Plans

Electrical, communication, and power lines. As much fun as it is to excavate, in this example excitement is nullified by 1) the realization that we already know what we will find – i.e., electrical lines, and 2) the visualization of putting a metal shovel through one of these electrical lines.

We chose not to investigate that area further – although we do continue to peak through fences into new and widening construction holes. Just in case.

4. Campus walk-abouts. The final way we keep tabs on upcoming and ongoing field work is also why, if you’re ever lost on campus, it may be wise to ask the archaeologist. One of the best parts of this job is the daily walks around campus. (I try not to think of it as “surveying my domain”.) Sometimes maps, photos, and descriptions just aren’t as useful as looking at something yourself. The route varies but in June has tended to follow West Circle Drive to Chestnut Lane, the steps of the Hannah Administration Building (all of the previous on foot), over to the dorms on the East side, then a look in at Spartan Village.

All this, and PhD research too? The Campus Archaeology Program has a lot of work on its hands. Thankfully, MSU employees are some of the most knowledgeable University fans, and helpful suggestions and resources come our way with gratifying frequency. Last Friday an unknown campus pedestrian stopped to ask us about our conclusions regarding this 1×2 m test excavation:

Expanded excavation unit showing rubble layer
Expanded excavation unit showing rubble layer

Lots of 19th century building material, used as fill. But filling what?
The inquiring visitor came by again ten minutes later, this time with a period photo of the area, and pointed out the pond visible in just that location… Many thanks to our mystery historian!


If you have some MSU history to share, or are curious to see what we’re learning, stop by our excavations!

Author: Charlotte Cable

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