The Archaeology of Student Labor

For those of you who follow us on Twitter, you may remember this tweet photo from the left. We found this piece of mortar while we were working at the Beal Street excavations. These excavations uncovered an extraordinary amount of brick rubble that was being used as fill to prevent the river from flooding. We were unsure as to where these bricks were coming from. We could deduce two things: first, it was one of the older buildings on campus because of the presence of cut nails and campus-made bricks; and second, it was a building that existed into the 19th century, because we also found wire nails. There was so much construction happening on campus during the first part of the 19th century, however, it was difficult to know for sure what building these bricks were from. This piece of mortar was picked up among this brick rubble. It is a fascinating piece: clearly some graffiti of the letters “Moor” written a plaster wall in this mysterious building. Such a find is incredibly rare; it is not often that you discover writing of any sort archaeologically.

Plaster fragment with "Moor"
Plaster fragment with “Moor”

Fast-forward to the past week. We have been getting ready for phase II excavations at College Hall, in an effort to determine whether or not a field school would be appropriate for this coming summer. This has required some more work in the archives, focusing primarily on when College Hall was torn down. This happened after the south part of the building collapsed in 1918. The MAC football team helped to remove the rest of building. What we discovered in the archives was fascinating, in particular the photo to the right, which was written by a group of students who were doing repairs on College Hall in 1887. The graffiti reads, “Darn Hard Job”, and then lists seven students who did the work during the week of May 13-20. As you can see, the first name on that list, Alexander Moore, matches the piece of graffitied plaster that we found at the Beal Street excavations this summer (click on the image for a closer look!).

Historic photograph of College Hall basement. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections
Historic photograph of College Hall basement. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

I can’t emphasize how rare this is. The odds that we would find the artifact at Beal Street in the first place is rare. The fact that someone actually took a picture of the same artifact in its original context in 1918 is equally rare, let alone the fact that the photograph was preserved in the MSU Historical Archives. This is incredibly important for our analysis because it solidifies the identification of the bricks that were found at Beal Street: they were the remains of College Hall.

This is a find that also speaks to the typical life of a student in 1887 and in 1918; a life that accounts for the taking of this photograph. In 1887, these students were working on renovating College Hall; a typical occurrence for students of that time period. Part of a Land Grant education at that time was to provide three hours of manual labor every day. Repairs on buildings, it could be surmised, would be part of that work.

In 1918, students were yet again put to work on College Hall. Members of the football team removed the remains of the structure, presumably redepositing the remains at the site of our Beal Street excavations.No doubt, this was difficult work, leading them to snap a photograph when they realized they were not the first MAC students to have worked on that building, commiserating with the description of that work as a “darn hard job”.

Things have obviously changed: although our Land Grant values are still evident in the difficult work that many of our students do in the field and through their practical education, it is rare to find the football team shoveling walks, or the student body out raking leaves, repairing the utilities, or painting offices, under the watchful eye of faculty members. Now, this work is left in the dutiful and capable hands of the MSU Physical Plant, who, I can attest, put just as much care and effort into their “darn hard jobs”.

If we do have the chance to do a field school again this summer, however, students will yet again be working on College Hall, continuing the legacy of those students who preceded them. They will be rediscovering, as those students did in 1918, the tradition of hard work and manual labor that this university was founded on, carried out by students such as Alexander Moore and his friends.

Special thanks to the MSU Archives and Historical Collections for access to their goodies, and for the reproduction of the photograph above.


Author: Terry Brock

5 thoughts on “The Archaeology of Student Labor”

  • Good little article, Terry. Think of this: I may have walked by those remains almost every day for three years and never thought about them. I lived on the Beal entrance (Williams) for my final six semesters. The campus lying underground is something that most students don’t think about– but I certainly enjoy learning about!

  • Just got around to reading about your dig. What fantastic finds – both the graffiti and the photograph. It’s great that you’re able to piece together so many details about the construction and deconstruction of campus buildings. Too bad College Hall didn’t have enough left to justify a field school. The crappy foundation was a very interesting discovery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *