The most interesting artifact from MSU’s historic campus? The “Moor” artifact, 10 years later

The most interesting artifact from MSU’s historic campus? The “Moor” artifact, 10 years later

If you’ve been following CAP for a while you’ve probably seen us post about the “Moor” artifact: a small piece of mortar sporting the letters “Moor” in handwritten cursive script. Despite its unassuming appearance, what makes this artifact so fascinating is the incredible story behind it.  If you haven’t heard the story, you should really stop here and read Terry Brock’s blog post, because he tells it best.

In spring 2009 CAP surveyed the area of Beal Street near the Sparty statue ahead of planned tree planting. The survey uncovered a large amount of construction material, but the origin of this material was initially unclear. Chris Stawski, then a graduate student archaeologist on the CAP team, pulled the now famous “Moor” artifact out of the backfill.

In short, through the discovery of this artifact and some solid detective work in the MSU Archives CAP archaeologists were able to link an unidentifiable pile of rubble uncovered during a survey of Beal Street south of the Red Cedar River to the ruins of College Hall, the first academic building on campus.

Ten years since this artifact was first excavated during the Beal Street Survey, we interviewed CAP alumni Dr. Terry Brock and Dr. Chris Stawski about their key roles in its discovery. This is what they had to say:

On the background of the Beal Street Survey and College Hall projects…

TB: My favorite project [with CAP] was definitely College Hall. It was the first academic building on campus, right below Beaumont Tower. It was tied to another project, the Beal Street Survey across the river by the Sparty statue, though we didn’t know it at the time. We did the Beal Survey first because they were planting trees there. As we were digging we found tons and tons of brick that had been dumped in that area. There weren’t supposed to be any buildings over there, so it was clearly some sort of fill that was dumped to deal with erosion [near the Red Cedar River].  

CS: Early on in Campus Archaeology we were still trying to understand the landscape. Whenever we would go out and do surveys we never knew what we were going to uncover because the landscape has so drastically changed. We had to really change our thinking of campus. Today the Beal Street location is at the heart of campus but back then it was on the outskirts. The other thing we thought was that it wasn’t merely getting rid of things. That area is all flood plain and so it might have been very intentional to modify the landscape by using these materials to build a higher embankment. 

Terry Brock digs a unit at the Beal Street Survey in 2009. The large amount of brick and construction material rubble is visible all around him.

On the discovery of the artifact…

CS: Honestly I found the artifact when we were backfilling. In this case the deposition turned out to be just a huge pile of construction material. We had to go through a lot of brick. I remember going through the piles and just putting the stuff back because as you know, if you don’t make the area you excavated look perfectly pristine you’re going to get in trouble [laughs]. We became experts in cosmetic sod replacement.

I was just going through and I picked up this piece of plaster that had this really elaborate M drawn on it. I could tell it was handwritten. I handed it to Terry and was like, “Take a look at this!” It was a pretty wild discovery but at the time we had no idea what it was or what it meant. It was sheer luck that I happened to take it out of this pile of backfill and that it wasn’t smashed into little pieces. 

TB: We were like, “Well, that’s amazing, we have no idea what to do with this.” Because we had wire and cut nails we knew it was probably a building that was built on the 19th century campus and continued to be used in the 20th century, but there were a number of buildings it could have been the remnants of.

On making the connection…

TB: We weren’t really able to figure out what it was until we were working on the College Hall project. I was in the archives doing preparatory research and learning about the history of that building. It was in such bad shape that it fell down during marching band practice in 1918, but everyone was trying to save it because it was this symbol of the birth of the college. When they finally took it down around 1927 they went through and took pictures of the insides. One of the photographs was this picture of an interior wall that had signatures all over it, the phrase “Darn Hard Job,” and a date [May 13-20, 1887]. All of the students who had done restoration work on the building that summer had signed their names on this basement wall. When I found this picture I said to the archivist, “I’m gonna be right back…”

It wasn’t until the fall of 2009 that then-Campus Archaeologist Terry Brock came across a photo in the MSU Archives that connected this piece of plaster to the first academic building on campus. The photo showed that the letters “Moor” were actually part of a signature a student, Alexander Moore, had left on the wall when he and his fellow MAC students helped with repairs on College Hall from May 1887.  

I ran from the archives to my office in McDonel because I’d had this piece of plaster just sitting on my desk. I picked it up and I ran back, and lo and behold it matched one of the signatures! It was the link that connected this brick rubble from one side of campus to College Hall. We had actually found College Hall before we found College Hall and were able to tie these two sites together. With that piece of knowledge the whole timeline fell into place about what was happening over near Beal Street. It ended up being this really neat history about how the campus was changing. 

On their reactions…

TB: That was by far the coolest find. I’ll never forget when I was showing my advisor like the picture and the piece of mortar and he said, “Your career is all downhill from here. This is never going to happen again.”  

CS: How often do you get that direct correlation between what you’re finding and an archival photograph that can date within such a tight timeline as well? We knew exactly what building it was, what happened to the building, and how it got there. It filled in all of the blanks that we had.

Chris Stawski digs a unit during the Beal Street Survey in 2009.

On what it all meant…

CS: In and of itself it was an amazing artifact. But my favorite thing about archaeology is that it provides the human story behind the artifact. Without that, the artifact either can’t tell us much or it’s just a piece of plaster with some writing on it. But by making that connection you get that very human element behind the artifact.

I think the biggest takeaway was the real need for doing kind of the multidisciplinary approaches especially in Campus Archaeology. It’s never just about the archaeology; it’s about the community, it’s about the history behind the landscape. Understanding the trajectory of Michigan State from the agricultural college all the way to now. What made this find possible was Terry’s work in the Archives. Really early on we saw the value of that connection, as well as talking to the community, to alumni who have a very different understanding of what campus looked like and their experiences as students. In many ways our student experiences are vastly different, but it’s the physical entity of the campus that links us all together. We all have this map made from memory of our experiences tied to specific buildings, specific locales – that’s the one thing that creates this interlinked trajectory for all the alumni at Michigan State.   

The above interview excerpts were taken from two interviews. Current CAP Director Dr. Stacey Camp sat down with Dr. Terry Brock when he visited the CAP Lab in March to discuss his experiences, and current CAP fellow, Mari Isa, interviewed Dr. Chris Stawski via Skype in April. Some material was edited for length and clarity.

Author: Mari Isa

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