The Archaeology of MSU in 20 Artifacts

Introducing our latest project: The Archaeology of MSU in 20 Artifacts. Below you can view a 3D virtual exhibit where you can uncover some lesser known tidbits from MSU’s history…one artifact at a time! Each week we will share a 3D model of – and the archaeology behind – one artifact found on campus.

We will be exploring the archaeology of campus throughout four phases of MSU history from 1855 to 1955.

1855-1870: The Beginnings

This 1857 photo shows College Hall, the school’s first academic building. The original campus was built on 677 acres of wooded land remote from the capital city of Lansing. Students and faculty had to help clear the land and maintain its buildings. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

In 1855, the Michigan State legislature passed a bill establishing the State Agricultural College. The purpose of the college was to train students in new, scientific approaches to agriculture with the hope that graduates would return to their communities and share what they learned.

The first period of MSU history represents the first steps of the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, before it received Land Grant funding and had very little in the way of state support. Despite the hardship and struggles of these early days, there was optimism for what education could do for Michigan and there was hope for the future of the college. During this period the first buildings were erected, including Saints’ Rest, the first dormitory, and College Hall, the first academic building. Money was scarce, the college fought off potential threats of closure, and students and faculty had to work together to maintain the college’s buildings and land. Though conditions were hard, the college’s close community helped it survive these early days.  

The archaeological remains of Saints’ Rest and College Hall show the struggle of the students and staff to maintain what resources they had. Maintenance tools and construction materials were found in the Saints’ Rest basement, and plaster from a wall in College Hall holds the signatures of students who helped with its maintenance.

Artifact #1: Iron Furnace Door.
This iron furnace door was excavated from Saints’ Rest, the first dorm on campus. In the early days the Agricultural College had little money. Students played a big role in campus maintenance, including chopping wood and feeding the building’s furnaces. Recovered in 2005 from Saints’ Rest Dormitory.
Artifact #2: Ceramic (Ironstone) Chamber Pot.
This chamber pot was excavated from Saints’ Rest dorm. The earliest buildings on campus did not have flush toilets. Instead, students and faculty used outdoor toilets, often called privies or outhouses. If it was dark, cold, or raining, however, one might choose to use a chamber pot instead of walking outside to the privy. Chamber pots were often disguised in a special chair or closet, or hidden under the bed until they could be emptied outside. Recovered in 2005 from Saints’ Rest Dormitory.
Artifact #3: Porcelain Doll Head. 
A doll might seem like an unexpected find on a college campus. This doll head, recovered from a privy, is one of only a few artifacts associated with children we’ve found. Children are harder to see in the archaeological record, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t here. The early college was quite rural and isolated from neighboring towns. Many faculty lived here on campus with their spouses and children. At one point there were over a dozen homes in an area of north campus known as Faculty Row. Students were often invited over for dinners and visits, which helped build a sense of community on the remote campus. Read more about the doll here. Recovered in 2016 from the remains of a privy in West Circle.
Special thanks to Ben Hartwig of Delscan in Rochester, MI for the flawless scan we used to make this model!
Artifact #4: Toothbrush Case.
Much of the archaeological evidence we have from the first period in MSU history comes from the remains of Saints’ Rest, which burned in 1876—one of many fires in campus history. While the fire destroyed many objects, it also preserved others that may not have been left behind otherwise. One example is this toothbrush case made of durable ironstone. Each set of dips in the raised part of the base—3 in all—could have held a wooden toothbrush. This object was probably originally white, but today is charred black from the fire. Recovered in 2005 from Saints’ Rest Dormitory.
Artifact #5: Clay smoking pipe.
Rule-breaking! Subterfuge! Smoking was banned in the early days of the campus—Saints’ Rest rules specifically prohibited “the use of tobacco and other narcotics”—but the archaeological evidence shows students didn’t always follow these rules. Eighty-eight pipe fragments were found during excavations at Saints’ Rest alone. This pipe, labeled “I.G. Prence,” was recovered during the 2010 CAP field school excavations near Beaumont Tower.

1870-1900: Foundations

The Botanical Laboratory in 1885. The laboratory was a point of pride on MAC’s campus. Its “Gothic Revival” style fit into the neighborhood feel of the campus. Inside, the lab was furnished with compound microscopes for students to use in the study of botany, a rarity during this period. Image courtesy of the MSU Archives.

When the Morrill Act passed in 1862, it opened the door to the creation and government funding of land-grant colleges. It took several years, but eventually the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was designated a Land Grant institution and began to receive funding through the Morrill Land Grant. This influx of financial support transformed both the school and its campus, marking the shift into a new, second era in MSU history.  

This newfound economic stability allowed for the construction of new buildings for living and teaching space. Like many other Land Grant institutions, the growing campus was designed as a “model rural neighborhood” similar to the communities where students would return after graduation. Faculty housing, student dorms, and labs were each separate, two- to three-story structures designed to mimic small-town buildings. They were surrounded by shrubbery and trees and connected by winding walks in a park-like design that celebrated the campus’ natural beauty.  

As the campus grew during this second phase, so did the number of students, faculty, and programs offered.  The first women and international students began enrolling and the college began to assert its identity by wearing green and holding their first official football season. From this era, CAP has found trash heaps near the Beal Gardens with historic ceramics, shoes and oil lamps showing the rise in students. We have also found wooden water pipes and trolley railway spikes, evidence of the early growth of the funded college.

Artifact #6: Men’s Dress Shoes.
After the Morrill Act passed in 1862 the college gained a steady source of funding and grew in buildings, students, and faculty. These men’s dress shoes were found at Station Terrace, which was built post-Morrill Act in the 1880s or 90s and once served as housing for the increasing number of visiting researchers and bachelor faculty. Recovered in 2016 from Station Terrace.
Artifact #7: Woman’s Ring.
The first women enrolled in the college in 1870, Archival research shows this was a bumpy transition. As the college struggled to work out how it would include women, female students’ behavior and movements were restricted on campus in ways male students were not. Documents such as journals and scrapbooks provide key evidence of women’s experiences on the early campus as we have found few artifacts we can link to women. This ring is one example. It dates to the late 19th century, around the same time women began enrolling at MSU. Recovered in 2015.
Artifact #8: Wyckoff Wooden Water Pipe.
This pipe represents some of the earliest plumbing—and some of the earliest health safety measures taken—on MSU’s campus. Wood pipes like this one from Faculty Row were likely installed on campus during the 1870s or 1880s. Wood pipes were cheaper than iron and resisted freezing, but as they aged they promoted bacterial growth. After a doctor brought this water safety issue to the board’s attention in 1902, the wood pipes were replaced with a new system that connected the entire campus. Recovered in 2008 from Faculty Row.
Artifact #9: Butchered animal rib.
One man’s trash is a historical archaeologist’s treasure! In 2015 CAP excavated a trash pit associated with the home of MSU professor Thomas Gunson, who lived there from 1891 to 1940. Many of the archaeological sites on MSU’s campus were shared spaces such as dorms or academic buildings. Gunson’s trash pit is unique because we can actually link artifacts from this site–such as this butchered animal rib–to a historic household. Prof. Gunson often threw dinner parties for his friends, fellow faculty, and students. It’s possible this rib was thrown away after one of these parties. Though we have yet to identify the species, the cut indicates a choice cut like a pork or lamb chop. Recovered in 2015 from a trash pit associated with the residence of Professor Thomas Gunson.
Artifact #10: Plaster fragment with graffiti.
By the late 1800s it was a “Darn Hard Job” to maintain the earliest campus buildings—at least according to the students who helped with this task. In May 1887 Alexander Moore and some of his fellow students signed their names under this phrase on a wall after helping with building repairs on College Hall. Over 120 years later CAP archaeologists found a piece of this graffiti: a plaster fragment containing the letters “Moor.” Incredibly, they were able to tie these letters to Moore’s signature based on a historical photograph of the graffiti from the MSU archives. Learn more about this discovery and the archaeology of student labor here. Recovered in 2009 during a survey of Beal Street.

1900-1925: Expansion

Fans at a MAC vs. University of Michigan football game circa 1910. During this period the once-isolated college became a center of social activity for the surrounding community, in large part due to its athletic events. Image courtesy of the MSU Archives.

The turn of the century brought many changes to campus. Industrialization brought about a need for education in mechanics, science, and engineering. At the same time, access to higher education opened up and women, students of color, and students from rural and middle-class backgrounds enrolled in increasing numbers. As a result the school population tripled between 1885 and 1905, while the academic catalogue grew from five programs to thirteen.

This program expansion had a direct impact on the campus landscape. The establishment of the Women’s and Engineering Colleges led to the construction of Morrill and Olds Halls, respectively. The increasing size of the campus and student body also led to an increase in support staff: more faculty, librarians, and maintenance people were required to maintain the large campus and dependency on student labor decreased. The College began to expand across the Red Cedar River and land south of the river was dedicated to the construction of new athletic facilities. The campus was often flooded with visitors for football games and became center of social activity for the surrounding communities.

The College itself became less isolated and more connected with the outside world during this period. In the 1890s a new trolley line was built to connect the western edge of campus with the city of Lansing. This was extended to the Faculty Row area in 1902. The city of East Lansing, originally Collegeville, was incorporated in 1907. The automobile also helped make the college more accessible. In Lansing, just three miles from MAC, R.E. Olds established the first assembly line, and produced 425 cars in 1901.

Finally, MAC became centralized within Michigan’s agricultural system during this period. The Smith-Lever Act, passed in 1914, supported the funding of a state cooperative extension service. This allowed the university to spread agricultural research throughout the state.  

Artifact #11: Class of 1900 Horse fountain.
The years from 1900-1925 saw expansions of the college’s academic programs and its landscape. One agent of change was the automobile. Nearby in Lansing R.E. Olds of Oldsmobile built the first assembly line and produced 425 cars in 1901 alone. On campus, the old landscape was reconfigured and new construction was built with car travel in mind. This fountain represents this transition. A gift from the class of 1900, the fountain has two sides: one for people and one for horses. The horse side faced the road so travelers could water their horses. The fountain likely fell out of use soon after it was installed as cars became more common than horses on campus. Located on campus near the MSU Museum.
Artifact 12. Railway Spike:
Today the sound of trains is as much a part of the MSU experience as tailgating and parking tickets, but a century ago it was a new addition to campus. In 1900 a railroad was built to help transport coal to the new campus boiler house. The rapidly expanding campus required a great deal of coal to meet its energy needs. The railroad supplied over 3000 tons in its first year alone. This railroad spike recovered near the old Power Plant is a reminder of this era of expansion.
13. Institutional Ware Plate:
This plate might not be flashy, but it earns spot on this list because it represents a type of artifact we encounter often on MSU’s historic campus. Institutional wares are common in contexts like schools and hotels, where many people are fed every day. They are fired at very high temperatures, making them durable and less permeable to food particles. Institutional wares aren’t just tools for eating – they can also be decorated and turned into a tool for branding. On MSU’s campus we often see white decorated with green stripes to match the university colors.  Early in school history students provided many of their own living items, including eating utensils. At some point the school began buying institutional wares like this to provision its growing student body. We can see this transition in the archaeological record of campus. Learn more here. Recovered in 2015 from a trash pit associated with the residence of Professor Thomas Gunson.
14. Rifle cartridge case.
Today it is part of campus life to see Spartan Battalion cadets in training as part of the Army ROTC program fact, there has been a military presence on campus almost as long as there has been a campus. In 1918 the US War Department established a Student Army Training Corps at MAC to train draftees for the war effort. During WWI, enlisted students trained on campus and stored munitions in an artillery garage where Beaumont Tower stands today. The size of this cartridge case tells us it is from a .30 caliber rifle. Much like a maker’s mark on a plate, the headstamp can tell us more. The letters FA tell us the manufacturer: Frankford Arsenal, a former US Army ammunition plant. The numbers 7 and 11 provide a date: July 1911. Since bullets have a shelf life of 10-15 years, students may have used this bullet during a training exercise as part of the war effort. Recovered in 2017 near Cowles House.
15. Johnson Bros. Flow Blue “Montana” Plate.
If this plate looks a bit fancy for college kids, that’s because it is! It was recovered from a trash pit associated with the home of horticulture professor Thomas Gunson. Excavated during the 2015 CAP field school, we hypothesize that the deposit stems from a 1924 remodel of the house. Prof. Gunson lived on campus from 1891, the year he was hired as a foreman of the grounds, until his death in 1940. Called “Uncle Tommy” by students, Gunson was a beloved part of campus life. His home was “a cosmopolitan haven for undergraduates and graduates alike” (M.A.C. Record vol. 46, no. 2, 1941). The style of decoration on this Johnson Bros. plate is known as flow blue. This method used blue transfer print that bled or “flowed” when fired, creating the illusion of hand painting. The specific “Montana” pattern of this plate dates to the early 20th century.


1925-1955: Legacy

MSC art professor Leonard Jungwirth carves the Spartan statue in 1944. As MSC grew in size, diversity, and standing during this period the college began to solidify its legacy and assert its Spartan identity. Image courtesy of the MSU archives.

In 1925, the Michigan Agricultural College became the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (MSC). This name change reflected the college’s growth and its dedication to educating the entire state. The college was not done growing yet. The period between 1925 and 1955 saw exponential expansion and diversification of the campus and curriculum, catalyzed by a series of national and global events.

From the 1930s to the 1950s the newly minted MSC began a dramatic building campaign. In the 1930s, New Deal legislation provided federal dollars to fund new construction on campus. In the 1940s and 1950s, building continued to accommodate the arrival of GI Bill students returning from World War II. Housing and teaching spaces were erected south of the river to make room for these new students. Additionally, WWII led to the advancement of higher education as a place for technological and scientific progress through large-scale research. At MSC this led to increased hiring of faculty and researchers, setting the college on course to become a major research university.   

During this period MSC began to integrate itself within the community and assert the identity we know today. The MSC Creamery began to bottle and distribute products to surrounding communities. The growing athletic programs brought residents and alumni to campus on a regular basis. The college became part of the Big Ten, attended its first national conferences in football and basketball, and introduced Sparty as its mascot. MSC was well on its way to becoming a central part of Michigan’s economic future. This legacy was solidified when MSC was promoted to Michigan State University in 1955.

Artifact #16: Enameled Coffee Percolator.
This artifact was one of several recovered during construction at the Shaw/Hagadorn intersection in October 2018. CAP conducted a salvage operation and found more artifacts, construction material, and cement foundations. Archival research suggests we encountered the remains of a historic farmhouse. From the late 1800s-1950s this area of east campus was family-owned farmland. Records show the Toolan, Westrom, & Bush families lived on the property until it was sold to the college in 1953. Based on these findings this location was chosen as the site of the 2019 CAP Field School. We hope to learn more about the growth of campus and East Lansing through the investigation of a homestead in operation from the college’s founding through its expansion.  
Artifact #17: MSC Creamery Bottle.
Can you guess how we dated artifact 17 of #ArchaeologyofMSUin20? The key is the phrase “MSC Creamery” on this milk bottle cap. Michigan Agricultural College became Michigan State College in 1925, and Michigan State University in 1955. The letters MSC tell us this bottle cap dates between 1925-1955 during the Michigan State College era. The MSC Creamery bottled campus-made dairy products and sold them on campus and in the surrounding communities.

Artifact #18: Refillable Makeup Compact.
MSU students may be amused to discover that Brody Complex was built over the former East Lansing city dump. As archaeologists we have to remember this space was once considered very far from campus. As the college grew in the 1930s-1950s it expanded into the surrounding city – and on top of its dump. One reason for this expansion was World War II. The GI Bill helped many to attend MSC. The construction of Brody in 1954 was one measure taken to accommodate the growing student body.  Construction at Brody often unearths artifacts from the dump. This makeup compact is a CAP favorite. Before disposable products became the norm, compacts were refillable. They were often beautifully decorated to flaunt as fashion accessories. Recovered in 2008 during construction on Brody Complex.

Artifact #19: Handheld Bakelite Mirror.
This artifact is notable because it’s the first plastic item we’ve included on our list. The frame of this mirror is made from Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic. Patented by Leo Baekeland in 1909, Bakelite was used in everything from airplane propellers to jewelry. Bakelite is credited with ushering in the Age of Plastics. While plastic is everywhere today, we don’t encounter much of it at older sites at the heart of campus. At more recent sites like Brody Complex, which served as the city dump in the 1920s-1940s, we begin to see evidence of the Age of Plastics in the archaeological record. This reflects the increased availability and use of plastic in this era. Recovered in 2008 during construction on Brody Complex.

Artifact #20: The Rock.
We wanted to end this project with an artifact that has seen campus through all its changes…something that connects the MSU community across time and space because almost everyone has touched or seen it. If we excavated the layers of paint on the Rock we would find the inscription “Class ‘73.” The rock was the Class of 1873’s gift to MAC – a school first. Originally placed near modern day Beaumont Tower, it was moved to its current location near Farm Lane bridge in 1985. The Rock functions like a campus billboard that anyone can paint. It usually sports messages ranging from birthday wishes to political slogans. CAP fellows had fun painting the Rock with our logo on May 14th, 2019.