What’s New CAP Crew? An Update on archaeology at MSU

What’s New CAP Crew? An Update on archaeology at MSU

Wow! Our summer season in 2021 was a complete turnaround from the 2020. The MSU graduate student archaeologists who joined CAP Crew this year worked on four major field and laboratory projects.

From May to late-August members of the CAP Crew completed a federal compliance shovel test survey, excavated a mid-20th century feature at Spartan Village, monitored construction projects and the planting of commemorative trees, surveyed under MSU’s sidewalks, began research projects, and cataloged artifacts into a new on-line database. Looking back, I only now realize how busy we truly were this summer and how much our magnificent CAP Crew accomplished.

CAP Crew 2021:

  • Dr. Stacey L. Camp (she/her) – Director
  • Jeff Burnett (he/him) – Campus Archaeologist
  • Benjamin Akey (they/them) – Archaeologist
  • Jack Biggs (he/him) – Archaeologist
  • Rhian Dunn (she/her) – Archaeologist
  • Aubree Marshall (she/her) – Archaeologist
  • Amber Plemons (she/her) – Archaeologist

In this blog I will provide a quick synopsis of the projects and the work done for each. This will serve as an update for all those interested in the cultural heritage of MSU’s historic campus and provide a glimpse into the type of work we do at CAP.

Red Cedar Greenway

A lone sifting screen sits among the trees and lawn in the project area
A lone sifting screen sits among the trees and lawn in the Red Cedar Greenway project area

This project, known to CAP as the Red Cedar Greenway Project, involved the use of federal funds to improve and expand walking and bike paths in two areas of Campus along the Red Cedar River.

For CAP, this project began in December 2019 when Dr. Camp and I were contacted by MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF) and were asked to perform the work necessary to ensure that the project was in compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA).

Teaming up with MSU Professor Jessica Flores, an Architectural Historian in the Department of Interior Design, we completed an application for Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) Section 106 Consolation. For CAP, this application included a study of past archaeological work, our assessment of the project’s impacts on archaeological sites, and our plans to survey the area ahead of construction.

Staring on May 4, CAP Crew conducted a shovel test survey in the areas where ground disturbing construction would occur. In the end we excavated, or dug, a total of 130 shovel tests and found no historic properties within the project area.

using a tablet and gps device to record a flagged shovel test pit.
Using a tablet and gps device to record a flagged shovel test pit during the Red Cedar Greenway survey.

What we did find were artifacts and soil stratigraphy, or soil layers, that showed evidence of past construction activities in the area. These included the construction of Shaw Hall, ca. 1949, the continual installation and replacement of utilities, and work to build up the river bank. We also encountered evidence of what may have been an asphalt road used to access the old WKAR radio station building ca. 1941.

Following the shovel test survey CAP Crew, led primarily by Jack Biggs and Aubree Marshall, washed and cataloged the artifacts we recovered and monitored construction activities.

By the end of August construction crews had completed all of the major ground disturbing work and CAP Crew ended out monitoring activity just in time for the start of the Fall Semester.  

Construction Summer 2021

Shovel Test Dug during Yakeley Hall Patio Replacement. Shows soil and measuring tape
Shovel Test Dug during Yakeley Hall Patio Replacement

While the Red Cedar Greenway project took up most of our time, CAP Crew still had to respond to other construction projects on Campus. These projects included shovel testing at Yakeley Hall, Beaumont Tower sidewalks, Shaw Hall sidewalks, the Veterinary Medicine Building, and for the numerous commemorative tree plantings that occur throughout the year at MSU.

CAP’s relationship and ongoing communication with IPF employees and contractors ensures we can effectively mitigate these smaller projects ahead of, or alongside construction. The results of this work shows, unsurprisingly, evidence of archaeological sites relating to Campus at both Beaumont Tower and the former site of Beal’s Laboratory. No evidence of archaeological sites was found at any of the other project areas.

A large machine dug hole dug in West Circle
A large machine dug hole dug for a commemorative tree planting in the West Circle part of campus

Spartan Village Monitoring

After surveying the Spartan Village site twice during the 2020-2021 academic year, CAP Crew continued work there in the summer, monitoring ground disturbing construction. We focused on an area where a farmhouse stood from ca. 1930 to ca. 1956. In June, construction crews removing the topsoil uncovered several foundation walls where historic maps indicated farm outbuildings would be. CAP Crew excavated a foundation we believe may be a cistern or cesspool.

We defined the foundation and the soils within it as a feature, or a non-moveable element of an archaeological site, and excavated half of it, while leaving the other half intact. This process is known as “bisection” and allows us to take out part of a feature while preserving the internal stratigraphy, or soil layers. Many, many artifacts came out of this feature, including metal toys from the 1950s / 1960s, glass bottles, jars, and cups, and lots of metal artifacts. CAP Crew washed these artifacts in the summer and plan to analyze and catalog them this fall.

  • The foundation of a farm outbuilding set up with string to be excavated.
  • The cistern or cesspool feature excavated to bottom, over two and a half feet deep. Three walls are concrete while one is the dirt in the other side of the feature. There is a broken ceramic water pipe in the south wall.
  • A dirty, red and white painted metal toy car.
  • A chrome painted metal toy gun designed to look like a revolver. It is decorated with ranch and equine motifes.

Laboratory Work

Very little of an archaeologist’s work is done in the field. The process of washing, analyzing, and cataloging artifacts and deciphering fieldnotes is where archaeological investigations truly come to life. This summer CAP Crew continued cataloguing the artifacts recovered from 2020’s Service Road Recovery survey, washed and cataloged artifacts recovered in this summer’s excavations, and entered old artifact records into our new online catalog database.

Ben and Aubree began a research project exploring the glass bottles and hotelware ceramics collected from last years Service Road recovery. With these artifacts they dated the site to the 1930s – 1960s, identified four patterns of hotelware vessels used at MSU, explored the soda and medicine consumed on campus, and much more.

This work is ongoing, CAP Fellows may work on parts as part of their yearly research projects. Other parts will be taken up by undergraduate interns as they gain hands-on experience working with real archaeological collections recovered from their Campus community.

A large ceramic artifact recovered from the Spartan Village site. It is a brown earthenware vessel, with botanical decorations and may be the base of a large flowerpot, a birdbath, or something else.
A large ceramic artifact recovered from the Spartan Village site. It is a brown earthenware vessel, with botanical decorations and may be the base of a large flower pot, a birdbath, or something else.

We are looking forward to processing all of the data and artifacts collected this summer and adding that to our growing understanding of Michigan State’s historic campus.  

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