Connecting Text to Artifacts

Historical archaeology is often defined by the use of both archaeological and documentary evidence. The two lines of evidence don’t always complement one another, sometimes they can be quite contradictory. One example of this on campus is the presence of smoking pipes from the 19th century, although the texts from this period state that smoking wasn’t allowed. Another problem is that what ends up in the archaeological record and what we’re interested in learning isn’t what it discussed in texts. One of the things we hope to discover is where the trash pits for the 19th century campus are located. We’d be able to find lots of artifacts there that could help us understand early campus life. However, no one talks about the location of trash pits because it was so obvious back then that it didn’t need to be discussed or written down.

Sometimes we get lucky and are able to use texts to better interpret the artifacts we’re finding on campus, or vice versa. Luckily our campus has the MSU Archives and Historical Records which preserves and maintains documentary evidence since the 1850’s. We have access to everything from the first maps, diaries of students, scrapbooks, and letters from parents, students and faculty. It is our job at Campus Archaeology to connect these seemingly disparate pieces of evidence together with the artifacts we find in order to understand what people were really doing on campus. Here are some examples of connecting artifacts and archives done by our intern Paige from last year (see her posts on this material here).

Hair excavated from Sleepy Hollow
Hair excavated from Sleepy Hollow

During the 2011 Campus Archaeology field school we recovered some cut human hair. We could tell it was simply hair clippings from a barber because all of the pieces had sharp edges, they were all roughly the same size, and were clumped together. We didn’t know what this could represent- were students helping each other to cut their own hair, was there someone on campus to do it for them? When we began researching this ‘artifact’ we discovered a short advertisement in “The Eagle”, the campus newsletter from the 19th century. The article dates to September 10, 1892, and that year roughly falls within the time period we believe the hair came from. The article notes “Jackson the Lansing barber has a chair in room 75 Wells Hall, is at the college every Friday afternoon and evening to do work in his line”. While we don’t know whether this specific barber led to this specific haircut, it does tell us that students were getting some basic amenities on campus rather than having to venture into East Lansing to get them.

You can see ‘The Eagle’ newspaper clipping here, image from MSU Archives and Historical Records.

Inkwell from 2010 field school
Inkwell from 2010 field school

Another example is an inkwell found during the 2010 field school in the same area, meaning it also dates to the late 19th century. Inkwells were a fairly common item, especially on a college campus. Despite that, they were also necessary objects and given the limited budget of students would have been fairly important. This bottle in particular is a Harrison’s Columbian Inkwell and was very popular in the mid-19th century. This one was recovered in fairly good condition, which may mean that by the time of discard it was no longer popular and the user was ready for something more up to date. However, we know that they were important and wouldn’t be discarded without good reason. Another article from “The Eagle” in May 5, 1893 records the theft of one. It states “Someone had the nerve to steal the new ink-well from the outside desk in the Secretary’s Office on Tuesday evening. When conditions are such that the office furniture has to be chained down, it is time steps were taken to detect and punish the parties guilty of this petty thievery”. Who knows, perhaps a student decided it was time to upgrade so they pinched one off the secretary’s desk and discarded their old one in the trash!

You can see the snippet from ‘The Eagle’ here, thanks to MSU Archives and Historical Records.

Connecting the artifacts with archives makes our interpretations of the past much richer, although we must be very careful to avoid privileging one form of evidence over the other. In the upcoming summer we will be addressing an archival mystery. We know that Professor Beal changed the landscape of campus in the 19th century, but it is unknown exactly what he did or how he did it. This summer we will get the chance to explore the areas he changed and will hopefully be able to get an idea of how the campus looked previously and what the archives mean.

Author: Katy Meyers Emery

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