What is zooarchaeology and how is it actually done? This is a question that I get a lot when I talk about my research. Zooarchaeology is the study of non-human animal remains; specifically this involves the identification of animal species from archaeological contexts. However, it’s …
Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the long winter holiday season, and as we don our elastic-wasted pants and prepare to eat until we hate ourselves, there seems no better time to, once again, talk about food. As you sit down to your holiday meal this …
As I have been going through the purchasing records for the college’s first boarding halls (housed at the MSU Archives), I’ve noticed some interesting purchases that I did not expect. Scattered among the many notations about common veggies and other foodstuffs were the purchasing notes for imported fish, including Lake Superior Whitefish and Halibut. I am particularly interested in the importation of Lake Superior Whitefish because I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right across the street from Lake Superior. Growing up in Marquette, Lake Superior Whitefish was a staple in our house and is very common at local restaurants in town. I was surprised to find it purchased by Michigan State during the Early Period! The archival records show that during the 1860s, not only was MSU was purchasing Lake Superior Whitefish, but that they were doing it throughout the year. During the Early Period of MSU (1855-1870), I expected to find that almost all food resources that MSU utilized would be local, because of the difficult nature of storing and transporting more exotic/distant food. To be able to transport fish from Lake Superior all the way to MSU in the 1860s, the fish would have to be either transported on ice (more difficult to do during the summer months) or they would have been salted to preserve them.
Now before I dive into the history of fishing on Lake Superior, I want to give you a quick introduction to Lake Superior Whitefish. Lake Superior whitefish are a member of the trout/salmon family (Salmonidae) that live near the bottom of lakes and feed on small fishes and crustaceans, as well as other sources of meat that can be found in deep water. After an a late fall/early winter spawn, whitefish hatch in the spring and grow rapidly, allowing them to reach a body weight of over 20 pounds. Once adults, they can live for over 25 years. The reason whitefish were and still are such a popular fish is due to its tasty flavor, convenient size, and their schooling behavior, which allows for easier mass catching (DNR).
Fishing for Lake Superior Whitefish has a long history in the state, and commercial fishing on Lake Superior has had some major changes throughout Michigan’s history (Goniea DNR; Minnesota Sea Grant). Small steamer ships are no longer required to transport fish to the market (Holmquist 1955). Now it is possible to drive the fish downstate using highways throughout Michigan, many of which follow the Great Lake shorelines. One part of commercial fishing that has not changed is the most common method of fishing: gill nets. However, there are now different laws that govern the size of the mesh used by fishermen as well as fishing seasons (Holmquist 1955).
According to Holmquist (1955), attempts at large-scale fishing on Lake Superior began during the 1830s and 1840s, but was not as profitable as companies hoped. Commercial fishing in Lake Superior again picked up steam during the 1860s, when a commercial operation was opened at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is possible that this growth in commercial fishing at that particular time, along with an increase in railways, influenced Michigan State’s purchasing of imported fish in addition to the more typical local resources. Through the 1890s, whitefish were a primary target species within Lake Superior commercial fishing, but over-fishing through the early 1900s quickly led the species to the brink of extinction. Now, with the help of more restrictive fishing methods and artificial propagation, whitefish populations have returned to adequate levels for commercial fishing once again (Holmquist 1955).
While MSU farms and local businesses provided the majority of the food resources consumed by campus residents during the Early Period, it has been exciting to learn about the non-local resources that are being purchased for the boarding halls. While the purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish does not appear to be a constant throughout the 1860s (archival records indicate sporadic purchasing during three separate years), it is interesting that there was an inclusion of food that would have been more difficult to acquire. Students and faculty were treated to a more varied diet than what their local surroundings could produce. The purchasing of Lake Superior whitefish during this time shows the appreciation of great resources and the wonder of the Upper Peninsula before the building of the Mackinaw Bridge!
Author: Autumn Painter
MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.
Commercial Fishing on Lake Superior in the 1890s by June Drenning Holmquist (1955): http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/34/v34i06p243-249.pdf
Tom Goniea (DNR) – The Story of State-licensed Commercial Fishing History on the Great Lakes: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_52259-316019–,00.html
Minnesota Sea Grant – Lake Superior and Michigan Fisheries: A Closer Look: http://www.seagrant.umn.edu/fisheries/superior_michigan_fisheries
Analyzing and interpreting past food practices has always been one of my passions. This year for CAP, I will be working with Susan Kooiman to explore and recreate the food environment during the Early Period of MSU’s campus (1855-1870), as explained in Susan’s previous blog post. While …
I love food. Ask anyone. I didn’t begin my archaeological career studying food, but my interest in ancient pottery eventually brought me around to the study of cooking and diet. It is not surprising, then, that my passion for eating ultimately led (albeit indirectly) to research focusing on culinary traditions and behaviors.
I love studying food because its central role in both our biological and social lives makes it an ideal, dynamic, and engaging topic of anthropological inquiry. Our daily schedules are constructed around meals, and food is often the centerpiece of holidays and celebratory events. The consumption of food brings people together, like families at mealtimes or friends meeting up for dinner. Shared food preferences can help bridge gaps and form bonds between strangers—a mutual love of barbeque chicken pizza may serve as the foundation of a new friendship. But regional or ethnic differences in food traditions can also divide—people from Chicago and New York may argue about which style of pizza is the best.
When Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright first mentioned her idea, recreating a meal based on archaeological food remains found in a historic privy on campus, my interest was piqued. The brick-lined privy, located near the MSU Museum, was discovered and excavated by CAP in the summer of 2015. It contained a variety of interesting items, from dolls to broken dishes and various bottles. Also in this privy were discarded food remains. Privies were perfect places to throw smelly food leftovers and bones since they are already quite malodorous. And some remains, such as seeds, were probably deposited there…by some other means (you might call it “delivery method #2”).
This year, fellow CAP fellow Autumn Beyer and I will be using the food remains from the privy and the Saints Rest excavations to explore and recreate the food environment of the MSU campus during the Early Period (1855-1870). We will be exploring the archives for information about early MSU food production, acquisition, purchasing, preparation, serving, and consumption. Autumn, a trained zooarchaeologist, will conduct in-depth analysis of the animal bones from the collection, of which primary identifications of cow, pig, chicken, and fish have been made. Other food remains include egg shell and raspberry seeds. We may even try to sprout one of the raspberry seeds with the help of CAP intern Becca Albert!
A perusal of CAP blogs from throughout the past year will show that we have already researched many of the types, origins, and prices of some of the dishes found in the privy, which helps us connect the food being cooked to how the food was served. A bottle of flavoring extract was also present in the privy (check out my blog on this item from April!), so we know that campus cooks were beginning to dabble in adding synthetic flavoring to dishes.
Ultimately, we hope to work with MSU Food Services to recreate a meal based on the remains in the privy and create an educational video documenting the process. Autumn will also spearhead creating a website for the project, which she will detail in upcoming blogs.
Understanding the foods prepared, served, and consumed by nineteenth-century students and faculty at MSU will help us recreate what life was like during the earliest years of MSU. Archaeology is all about connecting the present to the past, and what better way to make these connections than through our stomachs?
Author: Susan Kooiman
As I continue to work on the sustainability project, I will be sharing excerpts from the draft that I am writing. Last week I came across a very helpful bound volume detailing receipts for food services from 1864-1874. Dr. Manly Miles kept a ledger of …
Throughout the course of this semester, I will be writing up the results of my archival research as they pertain to the archaeological materials recovered by CAP. I expect to revisit the University Archives several more times to read through some older documents, but I …
If you missed my poster two weeks ago at the Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference hosted at MSU, I’m also going to share my research here on the CAP blog. The poster, entitled “What’s for Supper? Food preferences and availability at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan”, was a summary of my faunal analysis of the Feature 125 remains associated with the all-male Saints’ Rest dormitory (Boarding Hall, 1857-1876). We believe this feature to be kitchen refuse because it contained animal bones with butchery marks, ceramics, and glass.
With this project, I attempted to answer the following question: During this period, were students able to select preferred meats or were they limited by availability? President of the College, Lewis R. Fiske, wrote in his personal report on February 26, 1862 that “so much animal food is consumed in the Boarding Hall”, a comment supported by the variety of beef cuts CAP found in the feature. This is not a surprising discovery—a group of young men doing farm labor every day in addition to studying would get very hungry indeed! Archaeological and documentary records also show, in addition to beef, pork, mutton, chicken and wild game were consumed by students.
The results of my research were skewed in favor of beef because cow bones are large and dense, making them more likely to survive in the archaeological record. Approximately fifty cows are represented by the sample from the feature, but only one pig and one sheep could be found, despite large numbers of them recorded in President Fiske’s papers. Of all the animals found in the feature, 73% were juveniles, showing a clear preference for young meat. Older stock were usually kept for breeding and milk or wool.
The role of availability is less clear. While the College did kept their own stock, I was unable to find out if animals were being butchered on campus between 1857 and 1876. Also, there are financial records showing that beef, pork, mutton, and chicken were being purchased from local butchers for the students to eat. Further research needs to be conducted on the placement and construction date of the campus slaughterhouse, and also on the names and roles of the individuals selecting meat for Saints’ Rest residents.
Author: Grace Krause
When considering food as a topic of archaeological research, one of the biggest obstacles is how. Food remains are often difficult to find—they rot quickly, scavengers carry them away, and such essential practices as eating are often not mentioned in historical documents. Despite the odds …