Tag: archaeology

A Look Back at CAP’s 2022 Field School

A Look Back at CAP’s 2022 Field School

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 

The Golden Eagle Promotion: How Sprite Bottles Became a National Park Service Advertisement

The Golden Eagle Promotion: How Sprite Bottles Became a National Park Service Advertisement

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 

Getting ‘Ghosted’: Calamitous Clay Creations from the Outré Outhouse

Getting ‘Ghosted’: Calamitous Clay Creations from the Outré Outhouse

During archaeological excavations, some of the most ubiquitous artifacts unearthed are ceramic sherds that were once part of bowls, plates, vases, or other decorative pieces. It is relatively easy to appreciate the skills and techniques that go into the creation of meticulously crafted ceramic vessels. Even in the cases of plainer wares whose value comes from their utilitarian style, there is still an immense amount of training and proficiency required by the individual at the potter’s wheel.

Variety of decorated ceramic sherds from Gunson site.
A variety of decorated ceramic sherds from Gunson site (also excavated in 2015) showing some of the more stylistic and detailed artifacts typically found in historical archaeological excavations and on MSU’s campus. Photo by Jeff Painter (https://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=5002).

The CAP archaeological collections contain thousands of ceramic sherds that exhibit exquisite designs, motifs, and the utmost finesse in their creation. Within these assemblages are fragments from a few terracotta flowerpots that absolutely do not display any of these characteristics. AT ALL. WHATSOEVER. In fact, these vessels look like they had the “help” of Patrick Swayze as they were on the potter’s wheel, all the while “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers crooned in the background. In other words, these flowerpots look like they got “Ghosted”. Although this description may sound disparaging, it is truly not intended to be as such. In fact, it is the belief of the author that this flowerpot fiasco, this terracotta transgression, this clay catastrophe, this misshapen malady of moistened minerals (I have more) actually brings the human aspect back into the cultural and historical significance of these forgotten faux pas.

These flowerpot fragments were found during the 2015 excavation of the Saints’ Rest privy, the outhouse associated with the first dorm on campus that burned down in 1876. Based on other artifacts found within the privy, it is obvious that it was used as a convenient disposal area for unwanted or broken items, most of which date to the mid-late 19th century (see numerous other blogs on the CAP website discussing the privy finds). It appears that this was the same fate that befell the terracotta flowerpots discussed here, and one in particular. It is unknown whether they were dropped down the privy because of cracks in the vessel walls, or possibly due to disappointment in how they came out of the kiln. However, their presence in the undisturbed midnight soil meant that one of the vessels could be fully reconstructed by the author.

3D model of the flowerpot created by the author, Jack A. Biggs using Agisoft Metashape. You can also access the model on the Sketchfab website by clicking here.

While most flowerpots have straight walls that terminate at the rim, the one seen in the 3D model above clearly bulges near the base, giving it a somewhat lumpy appearance. The bulging indicates that the pot started to collapse while the clay was still wet. Wide and spiraling grooves about the width of a finger can be seen on the internal surface. These grooves probably occurred as the potter tried to pull the clay upwards to both widen the pot and make it taller, but accidentally applied too much force. As a result, the walls near the base became too thin and weak to support the weight of the thicker and wetter clay above. In other words, this sad vessel was doomed to collapse.

Compounding the weakened walls are two areas just above the bulges where the walls are slightly pinched in. These are located roughly on opposite sides of the pot from one another. This suggests that the pot was stuck to the bat (the spinning disc where the clay is thrown) and the potter grabbed it with a little too much force to remove it. Subsequently, indentations were formed with their thumb and another finger on opposite sides of the pot. It is also equally possible that grabbing the pot off the bat caused the bulging in the walls. The already weakened walls near the base were on the brink of collapse, but the catalyst for their failure may have occurred as it was removed too forcefully from the bat.

Screenshots of the flowerpot 3D model. The image on the left shows the external surface of the pot with the bulging wall (indicated by the blue arc) and the indentation just above it (indicated by the red arc). The right image shows the internal aspect of the pot with the indentation just above the red arc. Also notice the spiral grooves on the internal aspect near the base that weakened the overall structure.

Other interesting aspects of this flowerpot are the presence of thumb- or fingerprints as well as (likely) unintentional textures made by the wet hands of the potter that were still covered in sticky clay. This could have been made in the process of removing the pot from the bat or placing it on a shelf to dry. However, as these marks are not all over the pot, it is clear that they were not intentional and could have easily been smoothed off. It is in the author’s honest opinion that after the collapse of the walls, the potter probably saw these fingerprints and other marks and thought “I’m too angry to care about making it look pretty at this point…”

Smudges and fingerprints left over by the potter. The left image shows where hands wet with sticky clay left behind slightly raised lines. The right image shows where the potter grabbed or attempted to smooth an area, only to leave behind striations from their finger- or thumbprints.

Lastly, and despite the numerous ‘unintentional traits’, the rim of the flowerpot has decorative grooves and is smoothed and rounded off. This was likely done in the ‘leather hard’ stage where the clay is still wet so that it can be sculpted, but dry and sturdy enough that it will not collapse (any further). Although not perfect and following the narrative the author is unjustifiably weaving, these finishing touches suggest that maybe the potter had an emotional cooling off period while it was drying. Perhaps they decided to finish and take pride in their work despite the flaws that almost made them want to throw the collapsing pot on the studio floor.

Screenshot of the flowerpot 3D model showing the decorative grooves and smoothed rim.

There is no way of knowing who the individual was that made this flowerpot, but they clearly left their mark. Many of the artifacts we find in archaeological digs so rarely have such a personal touch to them. Artifacts on display at museums generally represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement, unmatched skill, or the finalized and perfected form of an object. The “mistakes” and “works in progress” do not usually receive the spotlight.

It is very unlikely that this flowerpot was ever sold or even given as a gift (unless it was to a family member…a very close family member who loved it because of who made it…not necessarily because of the way it looked…). This means it was possibly used by the actual person who made it, specifically because it looked “Ghosted” (i.e. no one else would probably want it). Accompanying this misshapen flowerpot are the emotions that the potter could have felt had while making it. They may have been just learning how to work with clay, so this vessel represented the exploration of a new hobby and the joy of being able to create something. Conversely, it may represent anger and frustration as they saw their hard work begin to collapse in front of their eyes. The author can also confirm that both these emotions occur simultaneously as a very similar scenario played out when they took a beginner’s ceramic class many years ago. Whatever the case, this frumpy little flowerpot has a much more human connection than the vast majority of the artifacts in the CAP collections. This is especially true because it has the literal fingerprints of its creator on it.

While this misshapen goblin of a flowerpot might not have the sophisticated execution compared to some of the more artisanal examples in the CAP collections, it undoubtedly has much more personality. Its life history can be more readily interpreted since its flaws are closely connected to the emotions its maker likely felt. Whatever the reason for being unceremoniously placed (or perhaps ritually deposited) in their final resting place, these ceramics with spunk bring a fun and more easily understood human component to the cultural history of Michigan State University.

CAP Update: Spring 2022

CAP Update: Spring 2022

Here at Michigan State we welcome winter as we return to classes and our labs. I would like share what we have been up to over break and provide a preview of what CAP will be working on this semester. What We Did Over The 

All the Names She Could not Bear

All the Names She Could not Bear

A Salty Tale I wanted this blog to be about patents, not Ruth Van Tellingen. Or should I call her Ruth Bendel? Or Ruth Elizabeth Thompson? I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we delve into Ruth’s life, let’s review the concept of patents as they 

Walking Through MSU’s Culinary Past

Walking Through MSU’s Culinary Past

When COVID hit our campus, CAP was forced to rethink how we perform our community outreach. We needed new, innovative ways to engage and educate the public without requiring them to meet in large groups. One of the ways we did this was to transition our outreach to digital platforms. This led us to create a series of tours about MSU’s history through the archaeology and archives.

CAP is working with the Geocaching Adventure Lab smart phone application to create seasonal adventures around MSU campus based on different themes. Each tour will have 5 stops for explorers to visit and learn interesting facts about each location, as well as about any excavations CAP has performed at that site. Our first adventure tour, entitled Walking Through MSU’s Culinary Past, is being released today! This tour teaches explorers about the history of MSU’s foodways, including various aspects of food production and consumption.

The walking tour comprises five stops, including the Old East Lansing Dump, Beal’s Lab, the West Circle Privy, the Gunson home, and the MSU Dairy Store. Each stop has a georeferenced location allowing the Adventure Lab app to map users to each stop. You can visit the Old East Lansing Dump to learn about how campus residents consumed alcohol during prohibition or community dinners that took place at Gunson’s house.

When approaching each location, explorers will be presented with a brief history of the site followed by the archaeological connection. We describe any excavations that took place at the site, as well as the artifacts recovered and their significance to MSU’s culinary past. Explorers will also be presented with archived photographs of the site, such as the historic Gunson home and Diary Store, and images of the excavation and artifacts. Additionally, we included 3D models of notable artifacts associated with each location.

The tour will end at the MSU Dairy store where explorers can partake in MSU’s cuisine by stopping in to get a delicious ice cream! All of the stops are easily accessible from sidewalks and do not require locating any tangible objects away from the sidewalks. Explorers will simply navigate to the location and explore the digital resources from their phones!

Access our tour directly though the QR code linked here or search for the tour on the Geocaching Adventure Lab app! We hope this will be a good way for students, alumni, and local alike to get outside safely and learn about the work we do around campus. Please feel free to suggest tours you would like to see in the future! Have fun exploring Spartans!

Looking to Have a Good Twine? Get Ready for Our New Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Archaeology Twine!

Looking to Have a Good Twine? Get Ready for Our New Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Archaeology Twine!

Here at Campus Archaeology, we love outreach – just this past week, we presented at both Michigan Archaeology Day and at our annual Apparitions and Archaeology Tour! (Thank you to those who stopped by!) We love outreach so much because we are passionate about archaeology 

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Greetings! For those of you just joining our blog for the first time, I am Dr. Camp, the Director of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program (CAP). I am entering my 5th year here at MSU, and my 13th teaching as a tenure track faculty member 

Meet the 2021 – 2022 Campus Archaeology Program GRADUATE FELLOWS

Meet the 2021 – 2022 Campus Archaeology Program GRADUATE FELLOWS

Photo by ©Nick Schrader, All Rights Reserved

In September Michigan State’s Campus Archaeology Program (CAP) archaeologists wrap up our summer field work here on campus and return to the routine of classes, personal research, and teaching that each semester brings.

The start of a new semester also means welcoming in a new cohort of CAP Graduate Fellows. We are lucky to have all five of last year’s Fellows return this year and welcome Aubree Marshall, who after working as part of our CAP Crew all summer, choose to continue as a Graduate Fellow. We are all excited to continue CAP’s mission to mitigate and protect the archaeological resources on MSU’s historic campus and to share that history and artifacts with our local, professional, and student communities.

Learn more about the CAP 2021 – 2022 staff below!

Campus Archaeologist:

Jeff sitting at a green table, hands folded

Jeff Burnett (he/him/his) is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the department of Anthropology. This will be Jeff’s second year as Campus Archaeologist. His research focuses on the archaeology of the 19th and 20th centuries and using community-based practices to explore the intersections of class and race in the construction, maintenance, and memorialization of place and space in the United States. Jeff is looking forward to working with CAP Fellows to write about and share the results of CAP’s summer field projects, to continue re-thinking outreach and work in the ongoing pandemic, and planning (fingers crossed) the CAP 2022 field school.

Campus Archaeology Program Graduate Fellows:

Ben standing in a wooded area looking at an artifact.

Benjamin Akey (they/them) is a third-year doctoral student and graduate research assistant, with an academic focus on North American historical archaeology. They received their BA in Anthropology from University of California Santa Cruz in 2018. Their personal research focuses on the intersections of identity, immigration, and labor in industrial sawmill communities of the Pacific Northwest during the early twentieth century. Benjamin joined CAP as a fellow in Fall 2019, and is looking forward to working with other CAP personnel to continue developing opportunities for creative public outreach, analyzing existing archaeological collections from campus, and performing archival research.

Jack peering out of a cave

Jack Biggs (he/him/his) is a Ph.D. candidate, specializing in Biological Anthropology and is a returning CAP fellow. His research is focused on the ancient Maya of Mesoamerica and how their cultural ideas of age, identity, and cosmology intersect and record themselves within their bones and teeth. As a big proponent of using 3D technologies to teach and show others about MSU’s cultural heritage, Jack is hoping to use this skill-set to bolster CAP’s digital outreach during the current COVID-19 crisis so that anyone can have access to the rich history beneath our feet.

Rhian taking notes at a case site

Rhian Dunn (she/her/hers) is a third year biological anthropology doctoral student, focusing in forensic anthropology. Her research interests include human variation and improving aspects of the biological profile (i.e., human identification). Rhian is starting her third year as a CAP fellow and hopes to continue getting more experience in archaeological surveying and with identifying historical artifacts. She is also interested in public outreach and archival data used to provide context for archaeological work. 

Aubree Marshall (she/her/hers) is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, with a focus in bioarchaeology. Her research will focus on the health and diet of the ancient Maya from Belize, specifically through dental analysis. This is her first year as a CAP fellow and is excited to expand her skills on archaeological surveys and report writing, as well as public outreach in a virtual setting.

Emily in the High Andes holding a field camera

Emily Milton (she/her/hers) is a third-year dual-degree doctoral student in Anthropology and Environmental Science and Policy. Her research combines archaeology and historical ecology to study changing cultural practices in the Rocky and Andes Mountains. Emily is beginning her second year as a CAP fellow and is excited to mobilize CAP’s archaeological waste collections as a mechanism to encourage sustainable thinking and practice.

Amber Plemons: (she/her/hers) is a fifth year Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, focusing in Biological Anthropology. This is her third year serving as a CAP fellow. Her research focuses on understanding the causative forces of human variation in craniofacial morphology, specifically the impacts of climate and genetics. Amber assisted in building a database for CAP artifacts recovered and housed at Michigan State University and aims to continue to improve and modify the database and prepare a public searchable front end for the database this year. Additionally, she will continue her work with the Girl Scouts organization to teach the future women of archaeology by creating an online platform and help with other CAP duties, such as site research, report writing, and researching the history of minorities on MSU campus.

Amber using a total station to record measurements


Thank you Autumn Painter, outgoing Campus Archaeologist: As we say goodbye to outgoing Campus Archaeologist Autumn Painter who, in her two years in the position, continued CAP’s legacy of creative outreach, education, and mitigation while also profoundly shaping the future of the program, we welcome