This academic year has allowed me to explore several digital methods I had little to no knowledge about. This is partially due to my teaching position at MSU in the Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research (LEADR). While in this position, I …
This past summer has been one of the busiest, if not the busiest, summers of my time as director of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program. While we did not have a field school as we generally run them every other year, a remarkable discovery was …
by Juan Carlos Rico Noguera
Michigan State University (MSU) CAP “is a program that works to mitigate and protect the archaeological resources on Michigan State University’s beautiful and historic campus.” CAP is also an initiative that contributes to the public understanding of MSU’s history, enabling more profound and meaningful connections between this public university, its students, and the international community that populates it. Outreach is the primary way CAP has communicated MSU’s cultural-material history to the public. New fellows won’t take long before sitting behind tables filled with cultural objects, ready to answer questions from curious people interested in the relationship between material culture and the past and the spirit(s) of MSU. In short, CAP prices itself to protect MSU’s cultural heritage while engaging with outreach to socialize MSU’s history rooted in archaeological findings and analysis.
In my short experience as a CAP fellow, I can say CAP identity is not self-promotion; it is an accurate description but also a modest one. CAP has a richer meaning for me because CAP is not only defined by the services it provides to the MSU community but also by the possibilities it offers to the people who work under its wing. I am inclined to say CAP is a strategic site to connect the many sub-disciplines of American anthropology’s complex and exciting world with archaeological practice. This is profoundly important if we acknowledge archaeology as a vital expression of anthropology as a whole and recognize that anthropology at the graduate level is not exclusively pursued by anthropology majors. In other words, through my eyes, MSU CAP is also a facilitator of encounters between different subfields in anthropology, an excuse for graduates with no archaeological background to discover what it is like to work as an archaeologist and to appreciate the contributions that the subfield makes to our overall understanding of the human experience. It is also an opportunity for archaeologists in the program to see themselves in a mirror of otherness, fascination, and even stupefaction.
The lab as a site of encounter
To say that a lab is a site of knowledge production is obvious, but for many anthropologists that statement never transcends the frontier of a cultural consensus. While writing this post, I cannot stop thinking that if I had not been accepted to the CAP program, I would have never had the opportunity to work in a laboratory. A socio-cultural anthropologist has little to do with one, especially in a post-positivist climate where standardized data collection and analysis methods are under suspicion. In addition, anthropology is a very plural discipline that unfortunately only stays together by documents and administrative rationales suggesting that archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology are one and the same. In MSU, the four-field divide is so stark that almost every major field sits at different buildings.
The first time I entered the CAP laboratory, I was very nervous. Laboratories have always been foreign to me. A laboratory in English is twice as foreign. In that opportunity, fellows collected materials to exhibit at the Michigan Archaeology Day. Everyone was working with haste. With a list in their hand, an apparent sound understanding of the lab’s geography, and swift and precise movements, returning fellows collected the objects they needed. In my case, I did not even know where to stand. Like everyone else, I had a list in my hand, but I did not know where to find the things listed there. The list that I hoped would be a comforting map to navigate the lab and demonstrate my value as a fellow proved to me very quickly that I had some things to learn first. The list was demanding me to find a trowel. I immediately realized I did not know what that was. When I could get a hold of myself, my work was no longer needed. The objects for the presentation were ready and packed. Now, I always carry a pin in the shape of a trowel on my jacket for academic presentations. It reminds me of my encounter with archaeology, and it is my way of communicating I believe in the value of well-rounded anthropologists and a bridged discipline.
After my first visit to the CAP lab, I have been there many other times. Campus archaeologist Ben Akey has been leading an attempt to catalog the many objects the CAP has collected in recent years. They have also generously mentored me in historical archaeology and the cataloging process. After cataloging with Ben, I cannot overstate how impressed I am with archaeology as a field. Every nail, glass fragment, bottle, and bone are like pieces of an exciting jigsaw puzzle, probably the most challenging I have ever encountered. The catalog of artifacts systematizes each jigsaw puzzle piece to facilitate the analytical work of researchers interested in composing an empirically informed image of our shared past. Working with artifacts, brushes, catalogs, and databases has been novel for me in more ways than one. The most striking of those is reconciling an obvious part of human life we usually take for granted: the importance of objects, their qualities, and trajectories in defining the human experience. The importance of objects is not a mystery for cultural anthropologists, but before entering the CAP lab, I had never worked around them; I never thought about their provenance or classification, and I am profoundly happy by the opportunity CAP provides to do it.
Stupefaction: hoarding vs. faith in science and resources
Encountering archaeology in a lab for the first time also brought a cultural shock. I found myself cataloging and saving tens of nails that, to my neophyte criteria, were the same thing. Those nails were distributed in different places, and registering their presence was important, but should we keep them? I also found myself cataloging hundreds of indefinite glass fragments, meaning it was impossible to assume, at least in the cataloging phase, what they were a part of (bottles, windows, portraits, etc.). Coal fragments, envelopes, plastic pieces, and all sorts of unintelligible things were in my tray, waiting to be classified, packed, and saved. Is somebody going to make sense of all those things that, for most mortals, are just rubble? Are we really going to learn something worth the effort and the resources we invest in, or are we just committing to a scientifically informed hoarding practice? I have received a passionate answer: yes, rubble can tell many things under the appropriate gaze and methods.
I believe faith in science and funding that could seduce a scholar to systematically look into the MSU campus archaeological record are the main drivers of what I privately call “rubble cataloging.” I am willing to join the faith, especially after learning with Ben about historical archaeologists’ efforts to build virtual catalogs to facilitate comparison and sense-making. It is also important to think about how cataloging “everything possible” could be a measure to fight selection bias. Still, I am not convinced about how sustainable or useful that practice is. The faith that transforms rubble into meaningful windows to the past must fight against the same random sample techniques used in archaeological excavations? I don’t think so, but I have yet to witness what the proper funding and an expert scholar can do with all the small things I have cataloged.
But while science and enough funding happen, rubble cataloging has an important role to play. Should we think about rubble cataloging in a way that is not solely related to knowledge production? What about rubble cataloging for teaching and outreach? Regarding outreach, it is possible to circle back to knowledge production. Could we think of citizen rubble cataloging? I am convinced rubble cataloging can be productive because I have found it productive. The discipline of systematizing information has already invited me to think in a different way about my archive of ethnographic data. Now, I am constantly thinking of how to make it comparable and public in a safe, ethical, and productive way for the anthropological understanding of what makes us human. The constant work with objects in the lab has also enabled me to understand in a new way what archaeology is, why it is important, and the challenges it faces. It is possible citizen rubble cataloging may help the public better understand archaeology and why it is important to support it, just as I have.
 “MSU Campus Archaeology Program,” MSU Campus Archaeology Program, accessed December 10, 2023, https://campusarch.msu.edu/.
 The Campus Archaeology Program has partnered with student organizations like the MSU Paranormal Society to explore MSU’s cultural heritage in a way that connects with the interests, concerns and hobbies of MSU students.
 It is important to acknowledge the most radical critiques to the scientific endeavor are not as influential today as they were during the nineties and the first decade of the twenty first century. I believe that is a positive development since science, as a social endeavor with social consequences, is only as good or as bad as the values that inform the overall scientific process and the outcomes its practice produces.
 Michigan Archaeology Day is a time in the year (in October) in which professionals and archaeology afficionados meet to discuss recent findings in Michigan and to keep the archaeological community alive through meaningful engagement between experts and citizens.
Holly Long I love tea; I drink it every single day. It is warm, hydrating, and is known for healing properties. But the tea leaves most drink today are imported and are not indigenous to North America and are rarely grown here. Tea leaves, not …
This last summer, I had the amazing opportunity to be a part of CAP Crew, the group of MSU Archaeology (or archaeology-curious) students that conduct the compliance archaeology during the summer. Although, there is significantly more paperwork and lab work than there is fieldwork – …
In CAP this year, we’ve been brainstorming about public outreach activities. We’ve been focusing on activities for kids – who sometimes need a little extra help engaging with archaeological materials. This is my first year as a graduate student at MSU, and my first year being a CAP fellow, so I was excited to see how kids engaged with the activities that CAP already uses at outreach events. The activity that kids were most drawn to, and that they spent the most time on, had been created by former Campus Archaeologist, Jeff Burnett. It’s a artifact refit activity: a broken ceramic plate with magnets set along the edges of the paste so that participants can put the pieces back together. There are weak points to this activity, however. The plate sherds are heavy and the plate is slightly concave, so while magnets keep the sherds together while held in place, when the plate is set down some magnets pull apart as the plate succumbs to gravity and loses its concavity. Furthermore, the magnets protrude from the sherd edges enough that the gaps between sherds warp the shape of the vessel. Jeff Burnett, who created this activity, did an excellent job, and kids love it. Would it be possible to maintain the efficacy of the activity and troubleshoot its limitations to create a sort of sherd refit activity 2.0?
I started by addressing the gaps between the sherds that were caused by the protruding magnets. Could we use magnetic paint instead? Campus archaeologist, Ben Akey, bought magnetic paint to experiment with. We agreed, however, that magnetic paint might not be strong enough to hold ceramic sherds together. How could we address the heaviness of the sherds? Enter: 3D printing.
My graduate assistantship at MSU includes working in the DHI lab, so I have access to structured light scanners, photogrammetry equipment, and 3D printers. Could I scan plate sherds and print them? 3D prints are much lighter than ceramics. Perhaps the lighter material would enable us to use magnetic paint on the sherd edges.
Now for the fun part: breaking a plate! (Of course, I could have chosen something other than a plate, but it’s what I had handy!) I chose a plate that had some geometric patterning on it. These patterns would show up on the 3D printed sherds and guide the refitting process. I put the plate in a plastic bag and dropped it on the floor. I chose to drop it on the floor, rather than, say, hitting it with a hammer, because I wanted to create a break pattern that would more accurately mimic real life. Putting it in the bag (thanks to a suggestion from my colleague and CAP fellow, Emma Creamer) so that the pieces wouldn’t fly all over the DHI Lab!
Broken plate: check! Now I had to start scanning (pictured above). I used an Artec Space Spider Scanner and a hand-powered turntable. I secured each sherd with clay, because any jiggling would prevent a clean scan. So far, I’ve scanned 5 of the 7 sherds that make up the plate. Soon I will start 3D printing, paint the edges with magnetic paint, and test out this activity! Stay tuned!
Archaeology, Communities, and Civil Rights: A Review of the 2022 Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference
As we near the end of the semester, I want to reflect on one of my favorite experiences of fall 2022: the Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference! This year’s conference was organized by: Dr. Michael S. Nassaney, Professor Emeritus of Western Michigan University; our own Director …
While cataloguing artifacts from Service Road, we stumbled across an intriguing piece of a milk glass jar featuring an applied color label with bright red and blue hues. I say it was intriguing because many of the artifacts we have left from Service Road are …
This past summer, the Campus Archaeology program had the opportunity to offer a field school to archaeology students from MSU and across the state—our first field school since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Directly taking part in ongoing CAP research into life in the mid-century MSU campus, 18 students spent five weeks gaining exposure to a variety of archaeological research techniques including pedestrian survey, shovel-testing, unit excavation, archival research and laboratory work. This blogpost recounts the activities of the field school and provides a brief summary of the results of the fieldwork and research projects undertaken by our students.
Choosing the Research Area
The on-campus component of this year’s field school focused on Cherry Lane Park, an open space on the western edge of campus slated for development of a athletics facility. The Campus Archaeology Program’s interest in this area of campus was two-fold. On one hand, an upcoming construction project in this area of campus prompted CAP to assess what archaeological materials might be disturbed by future development. Secondly, this area of campus fit into CAP’s emergent research interest in the material culture of campus in the mid-twentieth century and postwar era—a period of rapid change for the institution.
Specifically, MSU’s post-war era was marked by rapidly changing demographics—with increasing numbers of women students, greater numbers of children living in campus residences—and concurrent leaps in enrollment and programming as the institution moved from a relatively specialized agricultural college to the university we know today. Many of these changes can be at least partially attributed to the impact of the G.I. Bill, which provided financial support to returning veterans and their families enrolled in higher education.
In the years following the end of World War Two, campus infrastructure was dramatically expanded to accommodate the influx of veteran students, including a massive ‘temporary housing area’—a patchwork of trailers, pre-furbished structures, and barracks-style apartments—stretching across much of west campus. As many students came to the college with families, this era also marked the beginning of substantial campus investment in family-student housing options that would later become permanent in spaces like Spartan Village and University Village over the coming decades.
Fieldwork at Cherry Lane Park
Today, a substantial part of this former temporary housing area for veteran students and their families overlaps with Cherry Lane Park, including barrack’s style family apartments and the ‘Faculty Bricks’. CAP’s selection of this area as the site of our 2022 field school thus sought to assess whether deposits from this era would be impacted by upcoming construction and to recover material culture related to this transitional moment in the development of Michigan State University.
The summer’s fieldwork began with a pedestrian survey across Cherry Lane Park, through which students learned to systematically comb through the campus landscape looking for surface artifacts and landform features associated with the temporary housing area. While artifacts that could be confidently dated to this period were few and far between, student’s attention to landforms and vegetative changes allowed us to identify the location of structural footprints and former road grades associated with mid-century student and faculty residences, and in turn improved our geo-referencing of historical imagery. This exercise also provided a chance to students to familiarize themselves with the spatiality of temporary housing area and—combined with historical aerial photography and maps—orient themselves within the site.
Following the pedestrian survey, students participated in shovel-testing in a few strategically chosen areas of Cherry Lane Park believed to have been minimally disturbed since their usage as part of the temporary housing area. Despite the importance of within the world of professional archaeology, it is rarely emphasized in field school settings in favor of a focus on unit excavations. Given that we had no knowledge of how intact artifact deposits and features from the temporary housing area would be, this was a necessary step in research but–importantly–also provided us the means to train students in an important field method they would encounter regularly if they choose to pursue archaeology.
While some material culture from the era we were interested in investigating was recovered, the results of our shovel-testing efforts largely indicated a dirth of intact deposits related to the temporary housing area within the tested areas. Though not particularly exciting results, students were thus exposed to one of the inconvenient realities of fieldwork— archaeology is almost just as much about ‘negative’ data and where things are not as it is about where (and what) things are.
Back in McDonel Hall, students were introduced to methods within historical archaeology laboratory work, including the identification and dating of glass containers and ceramic vessels. Specifically, students worked with artifacts from the Service Road landfill, a 1950s-early 1960s campus landfill along Service Road which CAP staff recovered in the summer of 2020 (see more about the Service Road collection here or here). This collection includes a diversity of refuse from various spaces on campus, including residential, academic, and dining related items. After gaining some experience in the cataloging process, students worked on groups research projects that combined artifact analysis and archival research to elucidate specific aspects of life on the mid-century campus. We hope to integrate the insights of these projects into some of CAP’s digital outreach platforms in the coming months.
Collaborations & Off-Campus Fieldwork
Outside of our research on the mid-century campus, students also participated in fieldwork off-campus in the vicinity of the Rose Lake USDA-NRCS Field Office. Guided by two professional archaeologists (and Michigan State alumni) Duane Quates and Christopher Valvano, as well as recent MSU graduate Gabrielle Moran, students participated in various phases of research at two sites associated with pre-contact occupations including unit excavations, geophysical survey, and shovel testing. This collaboration allowed us to broaden the scope of our field school and introduce students to additional professional skillsets that we may not have had the capacity to offer in our on-campus research. Multiple field school students have continued to work with Duane and Christopher after the end of the field school to gain further experience and guidance as they explore the possibility of working within professional archaeology—an outcome we view as an abundantly clear sign of an effective collaborative undertaking.
Our field school was also fortunate to have two representatives of the Gun Lake Tribe Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), Cultural Resources Specialist Kaila Akina and THPO intern Onyleen Zapata join us to participate and observe our summer fieldwork. We were incredibly fortunate to have their help and perspectives during their visit, and look forward to other avenues of future collaboration and capacity building between the Campus Archaeology Program and the Gun Lake THPO.
Out of the field, the CAP was also fortunate to feature guest lectures from a variety of professionals in the world of archaeology and associated fields, including Michigan State Historic Preservation Officer Dr. Sarah Surface-Evans, Gun Lake Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Lakota Hobia (Gun Lake THPO) and colleagues, MSU NAGPRA Program Manager Dr. Jessica Yann, our collaborators at Rose Lake (Dr. Duane Quates and Dr. Christopher Valvano), UM-Flint Professor Dr. Bev Smith, and then-current MSU Campus Archaeologist Jeff Burnett. Topics of lectures comprised a broad swath of topics, including discussion of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), working as an archaeologist for state/federal agencies, zooarchaeology, and the history of race, racism, ethnicity and gender at Michigan State University.
The Campus Archaeology Program would like to extend our sincere gratitude to everyone who helped make this field school possible and an engaging learning experience for our students, including (but absolutely not limited to) everyone mentioned in this blog post. On a personal level, I’d like to also thank all the field school students who collectively made my first official teaching assistant position at the university a pleasant and rewarding experience, and extend a special thanks to my two fellow TAs Alex Kelley and Reid Ellefson-Frank (note: do not forget to refrigerate your unit stakes).
While looking through the artifacts recovered from the 2020 Service Road project, the CAP crew found an interesting green glass bottle fragment. After further investigation, I found that this fragment was the remaining portion of a Sprite bottle made by the Chattanooga Glass Company (as …