Michigan State University

Codes, Bones, and a Backstory

Happy Day of Archaeology 2014! It is a day where archaeologists from all around the world share what they are doing in order to spread awareness of the breadth and diversity of archaeology not only to the public, but to other archaeologists. For me, I always love learning about the different projects that people are working on, and learning how they are using similar methods and theories on completely different regions and time periods, or conversely examining a time period similar to mine in a unique manner. It is also a time when we learn what archaeologists really do: it’s not just digging in the dirt and interpreting fantastic burials. We spend a lot of time doing lab work and analysis.

Coding at my kitchen table

Coding at my kitchen table

Today when I woke up early, the sun was shining, there was enough dew on the ground to ensure easy digging, and there was a light breeze that meant outdoor work would be nice and cool. But I’m not digging today. I’m sitting inside at my desk coding cemetery data, which means that I’m taking archaeological reports on cemeteries and creating digital versions of them on my computer that I can use to run statistical and spatial tests. It is one of the parts of archaeology that is both mind-numbingly boring but also extremely insightful. As I go through each grave coding it for age, sex, type of coffin, presence or absence of artifacts, and 30 other variables, I start to make some connections and see patterns. For the most part though it is the most lackluster element of archaeology. So instead of recounting this day that has been beyond boring, I’m going to retell the story of how I came to be where I am.

I spent most of my summers as a child running up and down the gullies of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. I would often find fossils of brachiopods and trilobites, as well as old bottles and ceramics. My collections each day would be brought back up to my parents cabin for analysis. The first time I thought about becoming an archaeologist was when I began playing the first-ever version of Tomb Raider on my computer. My dad actually helped me find khaki shorts and a turquoise tank top so I could pretend to be her while exploring the gullies (of course it was the kid version, so it wasn’t that scandalous).

Working on my first archaeology dig in Ohio!

Working on my first archaeology dig in Ohio!

When I started college, I had chosen anthropology as my major and archaeology as my sub-field, not so much because I was interested in it, but because I loved history and wanted to travel. During my first undergraduate osteology course I fell in love with the study of human remains and mortuary practices. I wanted to piece together who the average person in the past was, and what their afterlife beliefs were. My first ever mortuary field school was in Giecz, Poland and other than some culture shock at the beginning, I really did enjoy it, and I knew that this was what I wanted to be.

After graduating, I became a Ph.D student at Syracuse University in their Bioarchaeology program. Despite doing well and enjoying my study materials, grad school wasn’t quite what I had expected. I was getting to study bones, but wasn’t learning anything about the context of the cemetery or culture. So I applied for a one-year Masters program at University of Edinburgh. It was the best decision I ever made. I left Syracuse, moved to Scotland, and spent an entire year completely immersed in osteology (I also did a lot of traveling around Scotland and did develop a taste for fine whiskey, but that’s a different story).

Excavating on MSUs campus

Excavating on MSU’s campus

After Edinburgh, I knew that I wanted to keep studying the dead, but I didn’t want to be a bioarchaeologist. I wanted to be a mortuary archaeologist who looked at death rituals, funerary behavior, and the entire archaeological culture in order to understand the dead. I was accepted into the Ph.D program at Michigan State University. Since starting there, I’ve been involved in a number of digital archaeology projects, traveled to Rome and England for research, and discovered that I’m truly passionate about learning about variation in mortuary practices. It was when I started at MSU that I began Bones Don’t Lie as a way to force myself to read a wide range of mortuary archaeology journal articles and stay up to date in the field.

My advice for anyone wanting to become a mortuary archaeologist is this:

  • Take geographic information systems classes, and take them early. It was something I was forced to learn during my undergraduate work, and I’m so glad I did. Being able to use mapping software is a major advantage.
  • Keep up to date in the field. You don’t need to write a blog, but set aside time to read from a range of journal articles to stay current with research and methods.
  • Don’t be afraid to change universities. If you aren’t happy in your program and it isn’t what you expected you can always change.
  • Take a one-year Masters course in osteology. You can a lot of experience quickly, and it aids the transition into grad school. The Ph.D is very different from undergrad, and can be a tough leap for some people.
  • Find a number of mentors to help guide you. Throughout my career I have been lucky enough to have a number of mentors that I could ask open and honest questions about my decisions.

Learn more about the Day of Archaeology on their website or Twitter!

http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/

@dayofarch

Also, check out Heritage Jam today! I’ve submitted my Ieldran map project, and this year’s theme is death! So cool!

http://www.heritagejam.org/

@HeritageJam

Michigan State University’s Campus Archaeology’s “Aha” moments

For this year’s Day of Archaeology Michigan State University Campus Archaeology decided tell the story of our “Aha” moments, those moments when the archaeology comes together perfectly with the other evidence and answers all (well most) of the questions. So we asked our CAP crew to describe one of their CAP “Aha” moments.

Kate Frederick- Moore Artifact

The MSU Campus Archaeology Program helps to mitigate and protect archaeological resources on MSU’s campus, while working with multiple departments to instill a sense of stewardship of the cultural heritage of MSU. The goal of our work on campus, both in research and in archaeological investigations, attempts to make visible a past that has been stored away, forgotten, or pushed aside by progress. We use archival material and historical records to help piece together a history of campus that is accessible to the public. This historical context is used to provide us with a framework for our survey, excavation, and research. Our discovery of the “Moore artifact” is one example of how all these pieces came together.

The first building on MSU’s campus was College Hall, which was built in 1857 by the original MSU students. It was poorly constructed and though repairs were made several times, it actually collapsed during marching band practice in 1918. Generally, that would be the end of the story for a building…but CAP uncovered more life history of College Hall.

In 2009 CAP excavated an area next to the Red Cedar River, which winds through campus. During these excavations we uncovered a large amount of building debris. While the debris was odd, the area was a very low section near the river that historically often flooded, so it made sense that this area would be shored up in order to prevent erosion.

Artifact found during excavations on the Red Cedar R.

Artifact found during excavations on the Red Cedar R.

However, it was the what, not the why that was interesting. A piece of wall plaster with the name “Moore” signed on it, was discovered in the building debris.

We were able to match this artifact to a picture found in MSU Archives of College Hall; students who built College Hall signed their names on the basement wall.

Note on College Hall wall left by MSU students in 1887. Courtesy MSU Archives

Note on College Hall wall left by MSU students in 1887. Courtesy MSU Archives

This led to our “Aha” moment; after College Hall collapsed the debris was hauled a few hundred yards away to a low spot on the river, this act was never recorded in MSU’s history. CAP was able to track the life history of College Hall to its final resting place on the Red Cedar.

Josh Schnell- Veterinary Laboratory 

MSU Campus Archaeology has to work closely with the Infrastructure and Planning Facilities Department and mitigate with construction companies on areas with a high potential for cultural heritage. One of CAP’s “Aha” moments came at the start of our summer field season this year. It started with a phone call from one of the construction foreman’s on campus; he said that they had found a pile of bricks while digging and that we should come check it out. Upon arrival, and after some cleanup, it was clear that we were looking at the foundation of a building. Because of our proximity to the main steam substation, our original hypothesis was that the foundation was an early rendition of MSU’s steam power infrastructure.  However, we kept finding artifacts that we couldn’t quite put a finger to, such as small animal bones, a metal tag, and a group of three keys. After the first day we cleared and mapped a section, and took GPS coordinates of the corner of the structure.

CAP crew excavating the west wall of the Old Vet Lab

CAP crew excavating the west wall of the Old Vet Lab

One huge advantage to our work on campus is that we have easy access to MSU historical documents; therefore, in an effort to figure out what the foundation was associated with, we visited the MSU Archives. Initially, our research left us with no definitive answers, all we could find was the presence of some barns and several more permanent structures, but not much beyond that. The pieces started coming together when, while researching, I remembered that I had done a map overlay and georeferenced an 1899 map of campus with GIS data pertaining to modern campus for a previous CAP project. There was one building that

MSU Veterinary Lab 1885. Courtesy MSU Archives

MSU Veterinary Lab 1885. Courtesy MSU Archives

matched the location of the structure we found, and whose southwest corner coordinates matched the GPS coordinates we’d taken the day before, leading us to the conclusion that we had found the MSU’s first veterinary laboratory. This “Aha” moment was further clarified when we connected the interesting artifacts (i.e. animal bones and metal ID tags) to the original functions of the vet lab. Built in 1885, the Vet Lab was a huge step towards making MSU the leading veterinary research institute it is today.

Ian Harrison- Munn Field

CAP is often required to shovel test around campus, in areas where construction will potentially damage the cultural heritage of historic campus. Recently, we were shovel testing an area known as Munn Field, which has a long history of campus activities, like tailgating.

Ian and Josh excavating metal pit at Munn Field

Ian and Josh excavating metal pit at Munn Field

One of the shovel test pits turned up a large amount of metal wiring. Upon expanding the unit we found bundles of metal wire, 5 horseshoes, a graphing compass, metal ingots, coal, ash, and a Benzedrine inhaler.

Metal wire filled pit at Munn Field

Metal wire filled pit at Munn Field

While the results of the excavation appeared to indicate a waste/trash pit of some sort, we lacked the background information and context necessary to get a more complete understanding. Upon going to the MSU archives however, everything started coming together. By analyzing the make and model of the Benzedrine inhaler. we were then able to search the University’s records for previous uses of the Munn Field area that fell within our timespan. As we found out, there was an army ROTC building, a horse track, as well as a series of Quonset houses (built following the end of WWII) in that area of the field. Further, due to the distinct evidence of burning (slag, ash, and coal) found in the pit, it seemed to be associated with a forge, which rules out its creation due to thee horse track and Quonset houses. As such, we determined that the strange pit was likely associated with a forge in or near the army ROTC in the years surrounding the Second World War.

One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field

One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field

Lynne Goldstein, Director, MSU Campus Archaeology – Sustainability and Public Archaeology

When I created Michigan State University’s (MSU) Campus Archaeology Program (CAP), one of the critical pieces in the program was public archaeology – we wanted to make sure that the broader public knew about MSU’s past and how archaeology contributes to knowledge about the past. We have participated in Day of Archaeology since its beginning. We developed a social media strategy, and we make sure that the regular print media also know about what we do. We have made a concerted effort to publicize our work across as many different kinds of media and across as many different kinds of communities as possible. Lately, however, we have begun to see that sustainability is a real problem for us (and probably for lots of other public archaeology programs too). This is a different kind of “Aha” moment.

The CAP program itself is now sustainable, but the knowledge about the program is not. At a university, students come and go each year – lots of new students entering, and lots of current students exiting. In addition, faculty, staff, and alums change. If you look at CAP’s short history, we have done well in keeping people up on what we do, but we have not done as well in ensuring that new community members know about us and what we do. We have also discovered that they don’t know about MSU’s past either. This is not an easy problem to fix, since there is not one place or medium that everyone in our broader public uses to be informed about things. Further, CAP does not have a permanent place on campus where people can visit or go for information, beyond our website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, etc. – they have to know those exist in order to visit. People don’t necessarily read the campus newspaper anymore, they may or may not be on Facebook or Twitter, etc. This is turning out to be a thornier problem than we anticipated. During July, I am teaching a class on Methods in Cultural Heritage Management, and the class is developing a draft cultural heritage plan for the university. One aspect of that plan will have to be communications and sustainability of communications. We will keep people up-to-date on what we are doing, but I think that we may be experiencing a small piece of a larger problem in public archaeology. We’d be interested in hearing about how others are handling these problems.

Excavating Michigan State University with the Campus Archaeology Program

Today, June 29th, is the second annual Day of Archaeology, and we are proud to be a part of this project again! You can also see last year’s post here: A Day in the Life of the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program.

This summer, the Michigan State University (MSU) Campus Archaeology Program (CAP) has been busy trying to keep ahead of the massive construction plans on campus, surveying and testing areas prior to any demolition or excavation. Every week since April has consisted of surveys of large portions of MSU’s historic campus. We’ve even been excavating beneath sidewalks as they are removed and behind fences. This involves not only a lot of physical work, but also constant communication with the construction companies and broader MSU community. All of our work is discussed on our blog, and we have live from-the-field tweets. Our goal in excavating on campus is two-fold: to mitigate and protect the historic and prehistoric landscape at MSU, and to educate the campus and broader community about the importance of archaeology. We also use the program as a way to train students. Our team of summer archaeologists includes both graduate and undergraduate students from MSU who survey, excavate, conduct lab work, interpret materials, and do archival research.

This past week we hosted a group of grandparents and grandkids for MSU’s Grandparent’s University. On Tuesday, we gave lectures about who we are and what we do, followed by a tour of the historic campus that included a stop at one of our ongoing excavation projects. This unit was put in after extensive survey in this area. We found historic clay pipes and a layer of broken brick in a number of shovel test pits, so we opened up a unit in between these pits to further investigate what these artifacts may represent. On Wednesday, the kids and grandparents were able to have hands-on time examining ceramics, glass and other artifacts found by our archaeologists. They also were able to make some of their own artifacts by using clay and an assortment of tools to decorate their objects. Here’s a picture of some of the Grandparents U students on our walking tour. We always enjoy these programs because we get the opportunity to teach both grandparents & kids at the same time!

Comments by Lynne Goldstein, Director of CAP

Although a lot of the work of Campus Archaeology is in the field, we do a whole lot of work in the lab and in archives as well. In order to properly understand and interpret what we find, we need to know what kind of information is available about the site or area. Have other archaeologists worked here? Were there buildings here? Did other activities happen here? Before we go out into the field, we do archival research to help us learn as much as we possibly can about the area we are about to explore. That way, we have a better idea of what we might find. Our archival work is both on campus and with the State Archaeologist’s Office, as well as in the Library and online.

As of today, we are mostly done with our fieldwork for the summer. Now is the time we spend in our lab, processing and interpreting our findings. It isn’t always as dramatic as digging, but it can still be exciting. Plus, it always makes us happy when we can post our reports.



Doing Archaeology, Digitally

This Day of Archaeology doesn’t see me out surveying or excavating, nor in a lab.  Instead, it finds me sitting at my desk at MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University in front of my Mac Book Pro, two large Apple Cinema Displays (powered by an old, yet remarkably reliable, Mac Pro), an iPad, an iPod, an Android handset (Droid X2 if you are interested), and a Galaxy Tab 10.1.  This (extremely technological) state of affairs results from the fact that its been a long time since I’ve actually stuck a trowel in the ground.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a great field archaeology pedegree.  I spent my elementary, highschool, and undergrad years (my father is an archaeologist as well) working on sites in the Northern Plains (mostly Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta – and a little bit in Montana and North Dakota).  As a graduate student, I worked in Indiana and Illinois.  My primary area of research as a graduate student (as well as my archaeological heart), however, rested in Egypt – Predynastic Egypt to be precise.  I worked several seasons with Fred Wendorf and the Combined Prehistoric Expedition at Nabta Playa.  The bulk of my work in Egypt, however, was at Hierakonpolis, where I excavated a variety of Predynastic household sites and did research into Predynastic household economy.

As a graduate student (and even as an undergrad, to be quite honest), I found myself increasingly interested in how information, computing, and communication technology could be applied to archaeology for teaching, research, outreach, and scholarly communication.  Fast forward several years and I find myself sitting at my desk at MATRIX in front of a dizzying array of devices.  My transformation from a “traditional” archaeologist (if you will – though, to be honest, is there really such thing as a “traditional” archaeologist) to a digital archaeologist is complete.

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Everyday Archaeology

My Day of Archaeology is not in the field, or in the lab, or even at a conference.  By “everyday” I don’t mean mundane, quite far from it.  Everyday Archaeology is the way I choose to describe my experiences dabbling in the public aspect of museums.  Currently, I’m a PhD student at Michigan State University studying for exams and trying to get my dissertation proposal together, but I also work in our tiny museum shop, where my most common customers are children.  This job has been a completely new and enlightening experience, one which I feel has helped me grow as a future educator.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately:  When I’m not in the field and not in the lab or in a place where there are artifacts readily available, how do I talk about archaeology in a way that gets people excited?

One answer is using toys.  We have several archaeology toys in our shop—things like pyramid dig kits, replica projectile points, and storybooks.  When I get asked about these items, either how they work or if they’re real artifacts, it’s an opportunity to engage young minds and create a spark of interest in the field.  Most recently, I was asked if I knew what was inside the pyramid in one of the dig kits.  I replied that it was a surprise, because you never know exactly what you’re going to find during an excavation, and he promptly told his mother he wanted to buy it.  Sometimes parents (or grandparents) stop in to buy a souvenir for their kids, and ask about archaeology in Michigan so they can relay the information with the present later.  Projectile points and their abundance are a popular topic of conversation, because they are easily relatable artifacts for kids, who are often interested handmade things.

Getting away from the books and artifacts during the day to talk to visitors, particularly children, grounds me and helps me put what I do in perspective.  I’ve been interested in the community aspect of doing archaeology since college, when I did lab analysis on a project where kids from a local school assisted in the excavation of their own neighborhood.  Archaeology should be meaningful for everyone, and I try to use my job in the Museum as a venue to excite curiosity for ways of knowing about the past.  Right now, that usually means talking to kids about toys, and at the end of the day I’m happy with my accomplishments.

A day: Professional Service, the Dissertation, and Happy Hour

What this archaeologist will not be doing today: digging.

A day in my life, as a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Michigan State University (but residing in the historical archaeology mecca of Williamsburg, Virginia), is often a a struggle between writing my dissertation and taking care of other archaeologically related business that seems to pop up throughout the day. For example, my morning today started with taking care of some professional service responsibilities. As a graduate student, I have been doing my part to make sure I can weasel my way into making an impact on how my discipline works professionally. Often, this is a difficult task for a grad student, but, I consider it important. This morning (after a bit of sleeping in because I was up late grading for my online introduction to archaeology course) I sat down to a number of emails and tasks relating to professional organizational business. I have managed to find a niche within my organization, the Society for Historical Archaeology: social media. Part of my responsibilities has been running the Facebook and Twitter pages for the upcoming conference in Baltimore. Additionally, I have been working closely with other members to develop an action plan to get the entire organization to use social media in a comprehensive and effective way. We are making solid progress.

 

My afternoon, however, will be much different. This afternoon, I write.  I swear. I will write and write and write. And not just any writing: dissertation writing. At 1 pm ET, I will sit in my chair, and work on my dissertation. This is probably the hardest part of being a graduate student, archaeology or otherwise, is writing every day. Today’s subject will be outlining a theory section, which makes it even more painful to think about. The subject of my dissertation are two slave quarters in Southern Maryland, one of which was occupied until the 1950s.The theory is a look at communities, agency, and social relations. It will be loads of fun…

The GreenLeafe: Local Archaeologist watering hole since....well, forever.

Fortunately, my day ends with every archaeologist’s favorite past time: Happy Hour (I am convinced that Day of Archaeology was scheduled on a Friday to ensure that there would be blog posts about beer). This evening is a special happy hour, in fact. Not only will I visit the local bar to share a beverage with my friends from the Colonial Williamsburg Digital History Center (the majority of whom are archaeologists, in fact), but this evening I will be saying goodbye to a fellow field tech from the James River Institute for Archaeology, a local CRM firm that I have been working part time for over the past few months (grad students need to pay the bills). He is heading off to graduate school, himself, and there is no better send-off then some beers with archaeologists at the GreenLeafe.

Happy Day of Archaeology everybody!

A Day (or 2) in the Life of the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program

The following is a combined Day of Archaeology post from the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program (http://campusarch.msu.edu).

Since we have completed our major piece of fieldwork for the summer at the beginning of July, I asked our graduate fellows to talk about what they are doing now. I wrap up the discussion at the end of this piece. The first picture is from our summer field school excavations, the second from a series of tours we regularly do (this one was Grandparents University).

Lynne Goldstein, Director of CAP

Chris Stawski

As MSU’s previous Campus Archaeologist, a day for an archaeologist like me is concentrated on the educational aspects of our program and of archaeology. Ranging from working with undergraduate interns on their semester projects in archaeology, to writing technical reports on fieldwork and site mitigation, to the basic social outreach done through Twitter, Facebook and the CAP blog, each aspect centers around education. It’s these day-to-day operations that educate the public, the community, and our students about the methods, theories and platforms that we as archaeologists use to preserve, protect and share MSU’s historic past.

 

Katy Meyers

As the new Campus Archaeologist for MSU, most of my time is currently spent trying to transition into the position and get ready for the upcoming year. While archaeology does involve a lot of excavation and work with material culture, it also requires planning and working with the public. Currently I’m working on developing a social media plan with one of the previous Campus Archaeologists. Creating a relationship with the campus community requires work with a number of online platforms to make the work accessible, open and relevant. All the archaeological work that is done on campus is tweeted, facebooked, photographed, and published online. This requires not only careful documentation of everything that we’re doing, but also a method for disseminating the information in a cohesive, standardized and — most importantly — quick manner. By making the campus aware of our activities, we spread information about archaeology, and we also create connections with various facilities on campus that may be doing potentially destructive work.

Grace Krause

While I love dirt and the glamorous excitement of new archaeological finds, my life in the lab is far more satisfying to me. After spending several years in museums, detailed work with collections has become the most enjoyable aspect of archaeology for me. Lately for Campus Archaeology, I have been analyzing our faunal collections. My day in the lab requires bone manuals for identification, a microscope and magnifying glass to look for small modifications, and calipers (a precision measuring device) to take measurements that help determine species and age. Some broken bones I am able to reconstruct to help with identification. After identifying a bone, I enter it into a database with site information, bag number, species, any modifications, and other potentially important information; the bone is then drawn on a separate form if there is evidence of human modification. Of course, it is always better to record more information than you think you might use. Finally, specimens are tagged and returned to their cabinets for safekeeping. Organizing collections such as this is a key aspect of archaeological research. Without such work, we could not make informed interpretations about the frequently confusing remains we see at sites.

 

Kristin Sewell

Imagining a typical archaeologist, many people envision a khaki-clad figure huddled over a hole with paint brushes and trowel, rear-end stuck in the air like a stink beetle. For most archaeologists, realizing this popular image is a high-point of the year: the much anticipated field season. But, what do archaeologists do during the rest of the year? For me (a historic archaeologist), the bulk of my archaeological research is done in preparation for the field season and happens in the library and archive. Libraries contain secondary sources like biographies, histories, and maps that help me recreate the past and identify previous research and interpretations of cultures and people. In the archives, I scour journals, letters, ledgers and other primary sources that describe the experiences of specific individuals. I try to find that small voice that reaches out from the past to direct my research in the present—I once heard an archival researcher compare this research as the moment when Dr. Seuss’ beloved Horton finally hears the Whos on that speck of dust “We are here! We are here! We are here!”—With research from primary and secondary sources in hand, archaeologists like me can better identify where to dig, how the land there was used, why it was used, and what we might recover during the archaeological field season. This is the life of a typical archaeologist, a life spent as much in the dust as it is in the dirt.

 

Lynne Goldstein

The Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program is unique – we not only step in to collect site information before it is destroyed by development, we do work on any and ALL ground disturbances on campus – from new buildings to new sidewalks, trees and shrubs. Another important aspect of our program is education, as both Chris and Katy have noted above. Both Grace and Kristin have talked about lab and archival work that is critical for establishing context and helping in interpretation. We actively try to include the entire MSU community – from staff, faculty, administrators, students, and visitors to alumni and the general community – in everything we do. There is no question that this program is the most transparent and collaborative program I have ever directed or participated in. We want people to know who we are, what we are doing, why we are doing it, what we are finding, and what we have produced. On this day of archaeology, we hope that we provided a glimpse into our program, and we welcome you to visit us on a regular basis, via our website (see above), Twitter (@capmsu), Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/capmsu), Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/capmsu), or in person! Hope everyone learns a lot today and gets excited about archaeology around the world!