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Michigan State archeology students excavate 143-year-old observatory

MSU student Elliott Wheeler uses a sift to seperate larger particles in the soil from small sediments.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
MSU student Elliott Wheeler uses a sift to seperate larger particles in the soil from small sediments.

Last summer, Michigan State University construction workers made an unlikely discovery while installing hammocks on campus. The workers reported hitting “a hard impenetrable surface” which turned out to be the foundation of the school’s first observatory.

Located next to Mary Mayo Hall and Wills House, the observatory site went through several ground penetrating radar scans last August before any excavation efforts began.

Stacey Camp, the MSU professor in charge of the excavation project, puts her hand to her chest in excitement after seeing her student discovering a large ceramic artifact.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
Stacey Camp, the MSU professor in charge of the excavation project, puts her hand to her chest when she sees her student discovering a large ceramic artifact.

“It gives you sort of an x-ray of what’s underneath the ground. And we found that a good portion of the observatory was still intact,” said Stacey Camp, an MSU archeology professor in charge of the excavation project.

After sifting, MSU archeology students, pick out the larger rocks and sediments that were too large to make it through the metal screen.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
After sifting, MSU Archeology students, pick out the larger rocks and sediments that were too large to make it through the metal screen.

The observatory was built in 1881 by Rolla Carpenter, a professor at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, which would eventually be renamed to Michigan State University. Back then, the land was marsh-like and researchers at MSU have struggled to identify where exactly the astronomy building sat.

Researchers are still unable to determine when the building was removed.

The observatory was used by Carpenter in the beginning of the college’s astronomy program after finding that the college hall dorms were inadequate to observe night skies and stars with his students.

That history is now being uncovered.

MSU senior Madison Brown sifts through soil after scooping up a shovel's worth of dirt from a pile near the excavation units.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
MSU Senior Madison Brown sifts through soil after scooping up a shovel's worth of dirt from a pile near the excavation units.

“What we’re doing right now is that we’re in week four of excavating,” said Camp.

With 20 students to help during the summer, Camp has already uncovered artifacts.

“We found some really exciting artifacts. We found small little shell buttons and those are the first artifacts that we found associated with the people that were living here and studying here in the 1880s,” Camp said, holding up a transparent plastic bag with chipped beige buttons.

The buttons will be sent to a lab for testing and for cross referencing with clothing at the time to determine how old they are.

Stacey Camp holds up seashell buttons discovered through screen sifting. These are the first artifacts from the site associated with the people that were living here and studying at Michigan State University in the 1880s.
Stacey Camp holds up seashell buttons discovered through screen sifting. These are the first artifacts from the site associated with the people that were living here and studying at Michigan State University in the 1880s.

Though the shirt buttons were a big find for the team, they were far from the only discovery the students came across in class.

MSU archeology senior Madison Brown discovered a ceramic piece in the excavation unit she had been working in for hours.

Madison Brown holds up the ceramic insulator she discovered embedded in an excavation unit for a fellow student, Elliott Wheeler, to take a photo.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
Madison Brown holds up the ceramic insulator she discovered embedded in an excavation unit for a fellow student, Elliott Wheeler, to take a photo.

“I dug up what looks to be a ceramic insulator for electricity. That's really exciting for me. I personally love ceramics. And we've only found one very small fragment of porcelain, not even at this site and so far this year, so that's really exciting for me,” Brown said.

Brown and her fellow students have worked in near 90 degree heat, sifting soil through metal screens, separating larger material from sand and soil sediments.

Small rock sediment falls through the metal sieve as MSU senior Madison Brown rocks the screen, separating large particles and artifacts from sand and soil.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
Small rock sediment falls through the metal sieve as MSU Senior Madison Brown rocks the screen, separating large particles and artifacts from sand and soil.

Just as the ceramic insulator raises questions about how early the astronomy building could have been electrically powered, other discoveries at the site raised more questions than answers for Camp and her students.

“This is a pipe that we found,” Camp said, pointing to a lead pipe that cut across one of the excavation units. “It looks like part of the foundation has been potentially removed. We plan to excavate a little bit more in this area to try and figure out where the pipe is going and what happened to it.”

MSU archeology professor Stacey Camp points to a lead pipe found in one of the excavation units. Camp says digging for answers can sometimes lead to more questions. Researchers are now trying to determine the pipe's use.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
MSU Archeology Professor Stacey Camp points to a lead pipe found in one of the excavation units. Camp says digging for answers can sometimes lead to more questions. Researchers are now trying to determine the pipe's use.

Given the size of the foundation and the breadth of research needed to preserve and understand the historical site, the archeology field school is expected to take place again next summer.

Stacey Camp holds up seashell buttons discovered through screen sifting. These are the first artifacts from the site associated with the people that were living here and studying at Michigan State University in the 1880s.
Wali Khan
/
WKAR
Stacey Camp holds up seashell buttons discovered through screen sifting. These are the first artifacts from the site associated with the people that were living here and studying at Michigan State University in the 1880s.

Camp and her colleagues are also trying to locate the pedestal from the first space telescope at MSU which is currently on display at Abrams Planetarium.

Uncovered artifacts will be available for public viewing during an Archeology Day event on June 22 from 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. at the astronomy dig site.

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