An Archaeological Perspective on Sustainability

Thinking about sustainability, particularly in a historical context, is a complicated task.  I knew little about sustainability before starting this project, but the idea was nevertheless enticing, and I began researching the meaning of the term.  Definitions are numerous and multifaceted and most are not useful for archaeological research, but the aspect called “sustainable development” adds tangibility.  Sustainability in its simplest form means to maintain the current system, implying conservation.  Sustainable development means to consider the potential needs of the future while living within carrying capacity.  The foundations of modern sustainability were in place well before MSU’s agricultural experiments were envisioned and gained momentum over time.  The years leading up to the Revolutionary War constituted the very first “Buy American” movement.  Nineteenth century agrarian idealism led to advances in agricultural efficiency.  Depression-era advocates of permanent agriculture considered the needs of future generations.  From an archaeologist’s perspective, both ecological and economic factors are potential evidence for examining sustainable development in the past.

Determining the level of sustainable development at MSU over time at first seemed overwhelming because of the long history of the University and the sheer amount of possible evidence, both archaeological and historical.  As a starting point, I began analyzing the faunal remains excavated on campus, with the hope of seeing a pattern in what early students ate and how they acquired their meat.  I have been recording species, approximate age, and standard cut.  Most remains came from a trash deposit at Saints’ Rest, excavated in 2008-09, one of the earliest historic sites on campus.   The bones appear to have been butchered by hand, but it is yet unclear if the animals were acquired locally or were owned by the Agricultural College.  Digging in the archives should help me to solve that mystery!

Food production is an important aspect of sustainable development, and the results from an agricultural school will be especially interesting.  For the project, I will also be looking at transportation and construction at MSU since 1857.  Changes in these three variables over time will allow us to see changes in sustainability on campus and how it fits within the greater historical context of development in the United States.

Author: Grace Krause

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