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 …
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 …
Welcome back to our CAP blog! As many of our readers know, CAP has many posts dedicated to the identification of artifacts and their relationship to MSU’s campus. While we love sharing the interesting things we find on campus, this got us thinking a little bit more about the process of identifying artifacts here in the CAP lab. Because how exactly do archaeologists classify artifacts and date sites?
Well, we would be the first to admit that identifying artifacts can be an inexact science; usually, it involves research and a little guesswork, and sometimes we not be able to name the artifact at all. CAP deals primarily with “historic period” artifacts–specifically, materials related to the land MSU has occupied since the university was founded.* However, not all of our CAP fellows specialize in mid-Michigan artifacts or archaeology of the last 500 or so years. Does that limit our work here in CAP? Of course not! Instead, it provides an opportunity for us to learn from each other and better understand each individual’s process to the identification of different artifacts.
Although we realize that we aren’t fountains of knowledge on historical artifacts (all of the time), this got us thinking – how much do we really know off the top of our heads? To demystify the process of artifact identification, we decided to do something fun. We made a quiz using ten artifacts from previous CAP excavations, with four questions related to each:
Question 1: What am I?
Question 2: What’s my time period?
Question 3: What material am I made of?
Question 4: How confident are you in your answers (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being most confident)
We sent the survey to all six of the 2020-2021 CAP Fellows (including ourselves), one alumna, and two CAP Fellow parents. Each participant told us their name, years of experience, methodological training, and background. The rules stated there could be no Googling–just guesses.
First, let’s take a look at the specialities among our CAP fellows, alumni, and parental figures:
Of the nine responses, the majority of participants had more than five years of archaeological experience, but only one individual had more than five years of experience with CAP. As neither parent was an archaeologist, they answered 1-2 for both of the first two answers.
Our participants were trained in bioarchaeology, human osteology, historic archaeology, Pleistocene and Holocene archaeology (~14,000-300 years ago), Linguistics, and Architecture. After each question, we asked the participants to tell us how confident they were on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most confident. Overall we received various answers for each artifact, and a range of confidence intervals between participants.
While we had a lot of fun with all ten artifacts, we decided to highlight three for our blog today:
Artifact 1: Out of the Bathroom and Into A Trash Pit
The Final Word: At the category level, everyone got this right! This piece is indeed a container. Many of our participants correctly guessed the materials as milk glass (an opaque-white glass) and metal. Milk glass came into production in the United States in the 1850s, which provides us a maximum age for the object. The bottom of the jar contained the patent design (Des.) number (No.) 120,421. The patent was not shown to test-takers, but typically provide one of our best means of dating an object. However, as many patents remain in use over time, the patent does not always provide an exact date for an item. In this case, the patent was given to Charles A. Howell in 1930 for the design of a glass jar and lid. We think a time-period estimate of the 1950s seems more likely for this object, based on the emergence of Fresh cream deodorants in the advertising archives, and the change to a metal lid.
Artifact 2: Salad Dressing or Nail Polish, A Bi-Partisan Issue
The Final Word: The bottle bears resemblance to modern plastic nail polish remover bottles. While we weren’t able to identify an exact replica, a simple Google search for, “1950s Nail Polish Remover” reveals Cutex bottles with a similar shape and closure. We can estimate the age of the bottle using the plastic. Plastic was first developed in 1907, but ribbed plastic bottle tops don’t appear in advertising until the 1940s and 50s. Emily took a risk and uncorked the bottle, becoming the first person to wiff the contents in over 50 years. And? It smelled like dish soap. Without a patent or lettered stamping, we rarely know what an item actually contained.
Artifact 3: Sometimes We Don’t Know
The Final Word: This one stumped us all. To identify it, we can start with the material. The object is metal and the green hue suggests a copper alloy, probably brass. Next, we might browse some old sales catalogs to search for possible object IDs (remember SEARS?). Objects of similar shape, size, and material included: bullet casings, lighters, whistles– basically all of the items represented by participant guesses. Another intriguing option was ‘suggested’ to us while browsing Etsy sales of vintage deodorant (see Artifact 1): Lipstick. On closer inspection, the artifact consists of two interlocking metal pieces, the external piece appears to be a cap or casing, and the internal piece a cylindrical holder. Further comparative work could reveal the answer. For now, we’ve estimated the age using site context. This mystery item derives from the 2020 Service Road Excavation, a collection with abundant artifacts dating between the 1940s and 1950s. Therefore, while we don’t know the make-date, we’ve placed the discard of this object 70-80 years ago.
The Takeaway: Research is an essential component of archaeological work! While almost all of our participants correctly guessed the material objects were made of, their IDs were sometimes incorrect. Certainly, handling the object, looking at patents, and looking through the archives make archaeology what it is–a material science!
*Michigan State University occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary Lands of the Anishinaabeg–Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. The University resides on Land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.
- Source for milk-glass production dates: https://glassbottlemarks.com/summary-what-is-milk-glass/
- 1907 source: https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics/history#:~:text=Polyvinyl%20chloride%20(PVC)%20was%20first,synthetic%2C%20mass%2Dproduced%20plastic.
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History is fleeting yet enduring. We hardly ever realize that we are making it, but the remnants of our historic actions can sometimes remain long after they are done. Things casually jotted down, random papers and notes tucked away—these are items we don’t realize that someone may use for information in the future. Fortunately for Campus Archaeology, the Michigan State University Archives serves as a repository for these bits of history, housing both official records and other written information collected from MSU alum and faculty emerita.
As lovely as such resources are, the often pose a problem for researchers. Diaries and notebooks, etc. were not written for the public and may only make sense the author. More official records, such as account books, weren’t necessarily private, but still bear the marks of individuals living in certain times and places, which doesn’t always translate for later generations.
In my efforts to recreate diet and foodways on the early MSU campus (1855-1870), I have been begun recording the food purchases in account books for the boarding houses. Boarding houses and clubs were the original cafeterias, so they are key to understanding early MSU food culture. However, the documents I have surveyed thus far, dating to between 1866 and 1871, have given me as much trouble as information.
Here are some of the issues facing researchers using historic archives:
- Illegibility: Most handwriting prior to the last couple decades was in cursive, particularly in official records. Some record-keepers’ handwriting is clear and perfectly legible, but most of the time, this is not the case. As we move further away from using and reading cursive in the modern era, our untrained eyes find further difficulty with deciphering it. This problem will only continue to worsen, as many elementary schools have ceased teaching cursive writing.
2. Outdated Terms: Some of our problems with reading past documents can be attributed to the use of terms that are no longer commonplace. Early on I ran into a word I could not read (see photo), but upon a text conversation with Lisa, we decided the word may be “exprep”. Googling this phrase didn’t turn up anything useful, and we concluded that it may have stood for external preparation (hiring an outsider to prepare something). Later I ran into the phrase “express in tea”, referring to postage for a tea delivery. I thought perhaps I had misread it the first time around, but the last letter of the previous entry simply does not look like two esses. I remain confused! (And please help if you can!)
3. Incomplete information: One issue I have been running into with the receipt books is the lack of itemization of food purchases. Sometimes entries are very specific (e.g., “4 3/12 dozen eggs”), while others simply say “Pd Bill to Hentch for meat” without specifying the amount or type of meat that was purchased. Often the bookkeeper would simply reference the person paid without indicating the goods for which they were paid. This means that we are only able to get information about some food goods being purchased and not others.
So, how can you deal with the issues we face when researching in the archives? Here are some tips:
- Talk to an archivist: This is the most obvious and probably most useful tip of them all. If you are having problems reading something, then it’s likely that the archivist has encountered the same problem and is much more experienced at reading and interpreting old records. This is a resource I have yet to tap—I’m saving up all of my problems so I only have to bug them once!
- Discuss with friends: Visiting the archives with friends can make the tedium a little less painful, plus you can ask them if they can decipher a word that has you flummoxed. If you go alone, you can take a picture (with permission of the archives) and send it to a friend for help.
- Revisit: Take note of words you can’t read and revisit them later. Sometimes looking at them again or after you’ve seen a certain word or term written more clearly can help you read it the second time. I kept thinking I was seeing the word “sand” but later realized that it actually said “lard,” which makes more sense for a boarding house…
- Utilize alternate resources: Since certain documents often include only one type of information, you must draw on other resource types for context and other types of data. The account books list only foods purchased, so how foods were prepared, the recipes used, and students’ perception of the food are still unknown. I will be drawing on a variety of other sources for this information, so stay tuned…
These methods, however, cannot solve everything. One entry in the boarding house account book said “four pickles for dinner.” Did they really just buy four pickles? Or did they forget a word? Pounds? Jars? Barrels? And why were these pickles specified to be used for dinner? Was it a special dinner?! Or were pickles banned during lunch?!? Oh 1870 account book keeper, why do you vex me so?!?
Some remnants of history may always remain a mystery.
Author: Susan Kooiman
Kuhn Collection Vol. 108, Boarding Hall Account Book 1866-1871
As students begin to file out of campus, the orange cones start lining up as a sign of the upcoming summer construction projects. This will be my second summer as Campus Archaeologist and I feel much more prepared this year to expect the unexpected. We’ve …