Finding the Old Road In Front of the MSU Museum

Michigan State University’s landscape is consistently changing.  The area north of the Museum and west of Linton hall, known as the sacred space, is a great example of this.  Although no buildings have been built within this space the changing of the roads from inside the space to outside the space was one of the major changes altering the size and appearance of campus.  This change, which is suspected to have occurred in the late 1920s, is the focus of one of Campus Archaeology’s current investigations.  What we are looking for is how the original road was laid within the sacred space in front of William’s Hall one of the first dorms.

Photo from the late 19th c of Williams Hall and the fountain, road and sidewalk in old positions can be seen, via MSU Masterplan

Preliminary investigations involved comparing archival data such as pictures and maps.  We looked to compare the location of the road based on two structures: the fountain between Linton and Museum and the Museum itself, which is believed to stand directly on top of the old William’s Hall. You can see in the image below that the road was to the right and the sidewalk to the left.  Today the sidewalk sits to the right of the fountain.

It was made clear that the road followed a curve from the west entrance of Linton Hall to the north side of the old William’s Hall via the north side of the fountain. This is drastically different from the roads and sidewalks we see today.

To investigate the location of the road a test pit was dug in the green space 7 meters north of the northeast edge of the Museum.  Recovered from this pit were multiple layers of road materials from a gravel layer followed by a layer large river rocks and a subsequent layer of chunks of granite (about 15 cm x 6 cm) and clay.  As this was the expected location of the road the layers of road materials confirmed the location.  Now we ask the broader questions: “What did this road look like?”, “How wide was it?”, “Where did it curve?”, and “What was it made of?”.

To further investigate we went back to the archives searching for pictures of the road to help identify its composition.  Archival research showed that in the past a process called macadam was used in which “crushed stone surfaces, 6 to 10 inches thick, were merely bound by dirt and clay” (ASCE, 2013)  As this older technique was widely used it is extremely possible the lowest granite and clay layer is campus’s old road.

Today we open up a section to explore the layering of this area in hopes to answer these questions.  If we find that this layer of granite and clay reaches out further we will be able to confirm this is the old macadam road and further test pit to see its boundaries.

Author: Kaitlin Scharra

American Society of Civil Engineers. 2013. “Macadam Roads”. accessed 5/20/13

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