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 – …
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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 …
Campus Archaeology had an exciting summer field season, from the archaeological field school to field crew work across campus. We also hosted a class for Grandparent’s University and painted the MSU Rock! Below you can read more about each project.
Archaeological Field School
This summer Dr. Stacey Camp taught a 4-week archaeological field school that took place on Michigan State University’s campus. We had 15 students, and 2 volunteers participate! The field school focused on learning more about a historic homestead that was located on the corner of Shaw Lane and Hagadorn Road. You can learn more about this area’s history in a previous blog post.
The field school students were taught archaeological field methods in addition to learning how to conduct archival research, use digital technology (KoBoToolbox) to record data, artifact drawing, how to make 3D artifact models using photogrammetry, and how to identify and research artifacts.
Munsell also visited the field school to show us a few of their products and see how we typically use their soil color book. The products they brought and taught us about included their new Munsell CAPSURE Color Matching Tool! You can read more about their visit in our Color Me Excited blog post.
We will be posting blogs written field school students about their experience throughout the year.
Field Crew Work
The CAP field crew worked all across campus during the summer, from the Brody Neighborhood construction to the South River Trail sidewalks near the Business College Complex. Most of the work that took place by the CAP crew was for construction mitigation.
These projects included monitoring construction taking place near the Brody Neighborhood Complex and shovel test excavations for the Munn Ice Arena renovations, Williams Hall sidewalks, Parking Lot 7 sidewalks, Student Services sidewalks, and the South River Trail sidewalks. The CAP crew used the South River Trail sidewalk project to teach the archaeological field school students how to conduct shovel test pit surveys.
In addition to construction mitigation, the CAP Crew finished field research project on the Sanford Natural Area historic Sugar House. A report on the results of this research will be available on our website later this fall!
This year, Grandparent’s University participants in our History Beneath Our Feet: The Archaeology of MSU class learned about the archaeological field school that took place, and then assisted us in cleaning artifacts uncovered just weeks before from MSU’s campus. We also had coloring pages, 3D artifact models, a stratigraphy game, and artifacts available for the participants to interact with!
Painting the Rock
In order to promote the MSU Campus Archaeology Program and the archaeological field school taking place on campus, the CAP crew painted the famous MSU Rock. The 3D model made of the rock was then included as the final artifact #ArchaeologyofMSUin20 series.
Stay tuned to learn about our 2019-2020 Graduate Fellows and undergraduate interns!
Author: Autumn Painter
Still searching for an archaeology field school for this summer? The Campus Archaeology Program will be offering a field school—right here on MSU’s campus—from May 13 to June 7, 2019. A field school is one of the best ways to learn what it takes to …
This summer was an eventful one for the Campus Archaeology Program field crew! We monitored construction, conducted several pedestrian and shovel test surveys, excavated one test unit, conducted lab analysis, and helped with the IB STEM archaeology camp and grandparents university. Plus, we uncovered an …
As the weather warms and summer gets closer, the Campus Archaeology Program is gearing up for yet another busy season.
While our excavations occur primarily in the summer, months of planning and preparation take place before the first trowel is stuck in the dirt. Many different factors come into play when planning for an archaeological field season, particularly in Michigan during the Spring. Some of these are logistical. One of our first concerns is the frost line, which represents the depth to which the groundwater in the soil is expected to freeze. If the ground is still frozen, it makes excavating very difficult, and in some cases impossible. This is especially true for shovel tests, which are dug a meter into the ground. While the top 10-20 centimeters of soil may be thawed, soil may still be frozen at deeper depths. We also need to ensure that all of our equipment is ready for a busy field season. This means that we will be sharpening all of our shovels and trowels and making sure that our screens are in working shape. Aside from field equipment, we make sure that our field crew is prepared with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE refers to protective clothing, helmets, goggles, or other equipment designed to protect the wearer from injury. In construction zones, CAP crew members are always equipped with the proper protective clothing, as well a safety vest, helmet, and goggles!
Strategic planning is also critical. The Campus Archaeology Program is preparing for many projects taking place across campus this summer. During our latest meeting with Matt Fehrenbach, a Project Manager/Supervisor at Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF), we learned more about several projects taking place, including work near the Kellogg Center, the Henry Center, the Communication Arts Building, the Music Building, and Cowles House. Our great working relationship with IPF allows us to learn about these projects before they begin so we can plan the best way to mitigate any risk to archaeological deposits.
One of our initial steps, once we know a project’s area of impact, is to decide if the area warrants pre-construction shovel test survey and subsequent monitoring or just monitoring once the project begins. Typically, when construction is slated to take place in north and central campus, CAP will conduct a shovel test survey before construction begins in order to determine the presence and extent of any archaeological remains within the area of impact. This lets us work with the construction crews to mitigate the archaeological resources, and in some cases, the time to excavate and recover as much data as possible before the project continues.
Keep a look out for us this summer, as we are surveying and monitoring throughout campus in our yellow CAP vests!
Author: Autumn Painter