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Research begins to learn more about recently uncovered 140-year-old MSU observatory foundation

Stacey Camp, is holding up her index finger, pointing towards the ground penetrating radar, next to several small flags which establish the detection grid for the radar device outside on a patch of grass
Wali Khan
Stacey Camp stands in the background outside Wills House, guiding Duane Quates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is manning a ground-penetrating radar over the excavation site.

Michigan State University researchers are mapping out what they believe to be part of a more than century-old campus building buried underground.

A planned hammock installation earlier this summer by Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF) workers led to the discovery.

They were digging holes behind Wills House near West Circle Drive when they hit a “hard, impenetrable surface."

IPF employees were unsure of what they had discovered, so they placed a call to the Campus Archeology Program which identifies historic artifacts and structures found on campus and ensures their preservation.

Stacey Camp is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and the director of Campus Archeological Program.

Camp says the call spurred Ben Akey, a PhD student in her department, to consult old maps and historic aerials to determine what the workers hit belonged to the foundation of the college’s first observatory constructed in 1881.

The department dug deeper, excavating both large and small holes to uncover more of the foundation.

“One by one meter holes take a lot of time. So generally, we try to avoid doing those sorts of things unless we have this feeling that it might be something.” Camp said.

Individuals pose outside of MSU’s first observatory, circa 1888 in a blue and white photo
Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections
The original observatory on MSU's campus was built in 1881.

The original observatory was built by Rolla Carpenter, a professor at Michigan State Agricultural College which would later become MSU.

According to Akey, the observatory was used by Carpenter in the early days of the college's astronomy program. Carpenter felt his trips to the roof of College Hall to observe the night sky with his students were not enough.

“He didn’t find it a sufficient solution for getting students experience in astronomical observation,” Akey said in a statement. “When MSU acquired a telescope, Carpenter successfully argued for funding for a place to mount it: the first campus observatory.”

That telescope now sits in MSU’s Abrams Planetarium on campus.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the university's Archeology Department are now trying to determine how much of the observatory's structure lays underground.

In early August, Camp and several other researchers used a ground penetrating radar to map out what remains buried.

As researchers await results from the radar, undergraduate students will be able to conduct fieldwork at the site in a class offered next summer.

“They will learn how to screen and identify and date artifacts. They will learn how to clean and curate them. So, they learn all of the phases of archaeological research,” Camp said.

Camp added the discovery of the foundation made her look inward.

“I do wonder if people would have been able at that time to anticipate what we would be, what we would become,” she said.

“It shows us how humble our beginnings were. It shows us where we’ve gone and how far we’ve come as researchers, as scientists.”

WKAR's Sophia Saliby contributed to this report.

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