Campus Archaeologists Dig MSU

Mar 13, 2012

A team of archaeologists at Michigan State University continues to explore what lies beneath the East Lansing campus.  

Last summer, a dig near the MSU Museum unearthed hundreds of historic and pre-historic objects. They’re among hundreds of relics being studied at the team’s McDonel Hall lab. WKAR’s Mark Bashore visited Anthropology professor Dr. Lynne Goldstein, who oversees the initiative.  Goldstein admits that her approach to last year’s dig may sound bizarre.

DR. LYNNE GOLDSTEIN:  I was interested in finding the garbage dumps.  We dug the first dormitory on campus.  We found a corner of the first building on campus, College Hall.  But what we haven’t found is where they put the garbage.  And we can learn so much from garbage that that’s what I was aiming to find. 

MARK BASHORE:  And you’ve unearthed some 19thcentury artifacts as well as some pre-historic artifacts.  Let’s go take a look at those.

GOLDSTEIN:  One of the first things that we can look at is a glass lamp. It was an oil lamp.  Oil would go down in here with a wick.  We find these pretty commonly actually on campus because—this makes sense—it was before there was electricity, so you find them in a lot of different forms, but this one is in especially good shape. 

This was found in an area which was very dense with debris, so it looks like every once in a while people gathered things up and dumped it.

BASHORE:  And describe the spot that we’re talking about here.

GOLDSTEIN:  We’re talking about the area across Circle Drive from the library.  It’s an area with a lot of big, old trees.  And it’s an area where the first buildings on campus stood.  If you know where the museum is, we’re talking to the west of it. But also to the east of it is where we dug in 2005. So all around where the museum is now is really where the earliest campus is.  In fact Beaumont Tower was placed on the site of College Hall, which was the first building.

BASHORE: Do you have a date on this item?

GOLDSTEIN:  We think most of the material that was in this garbage dump was late 1800’s, early 1900’s.

BASHORE:  So we’ve walked over to some pipes here.  Tell us about those.

GOLDSTEIN: The pipes are clay pipes and if you think about old pictures, I’m sure you can imagine what they look like. They’re clay, single-stem pipes with a bowl.  It’s a white clay called kalite and a lot of them were made and it how early students—who by the way were not supposed to smoke—smoked.  And in fact, when we first started any of these projects, we had a list of rules for the dormitory and I think in the first week we could demonstrate that they broke every one.

Archaeologists have determined that you can actually date the pipes by the diameter of the pipe stem. Now we have not done that with these pipes I don’t believe, yet.  But it will allow us a more precise dating.

BASHORE:  But again we’re talking late 19th, early 20thcentury?

GOLDSTEIN:  This could be a little earlier because those clay pipes were in use certainly from the time the university started.

BASHORE:  And shall we take a trip to the prehistoric area?  We’re looking at what here?

GOLDSTEIN:  One of the things we know about this area is that should be prehistoric sites, before any Europeans were here.  This summer we hit a prehistoric site.  This is a site that dates to about 3000 B.C.  And the reason we know that is because we found four projectile points—things that most people would call an arrowhead.  The reason we don’t call them arrowheads is because we don’t know that they were arrows.  They may have been knives or something else. 

So we have got a very distinctive type of point. You can see these notches on them. And the size and the notching and the flaking helps us be able to figure out how old they are by matching them to things of known age. 

BASHORE:  That’s a long time to contemplate when you’re looking at a Starbucks or whatever…

GOLDSTEIN:  Well it is.  And we also found an amazing pit—both a garbage pit and a fire pit associated with this settlement.  A big pit that has ash and clay lining—clearly multiple fires over a period of time.