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Archaeology program digs deeper

June 9, 2010

Anthropology senior Jeff Chelf, left, and art history sophomore Chelsea Kempainnen, right, sift through dirt Tuesday near Beaumont Tower. Chelf and Wancour’s anthropology class is searching for trash and debris left over from the first dormitory on MSU’s campus, which was located beaneath Beaumont Tower.

Photo by Sam Mikalonis | The State News

(Editor’s note: The photo caption has been changed to accurately reflect its contents. The photo shows art history sophomore Chelsea Kemppainen.)

The field near Beaumont Tower is covered in small green flags, which anthropology junior Kelsea Raether said marks the holes she and other MSU students have dug and sifted through in an attempt to uncover MSU history.

“I want to get experience because this is what I want to do with my life,” she said. “We’ve learned how to dig a shovel test pit, learned a lot about identifying ceramics and glass and what types are common to the MSU area.”

Students and professors are working to find trash deposits near Beaumont Tower this week in what they said could be the backyard of College Hall, the first hall ever built at MSU.

The students are part of the Campus Archaeology Summer Field School, a five-week class designed by the MSU Department of Anthropology and the Campus Archaeology Program, which has excavated several areas on campus to find remnants of historic landmarks.

The field school started in 2005 when it excavated Saints’ Rest, the first dormitory at MSU. It also paired with the MSU Department of Geography to find a 16,000-year-old sand dune near Munn Ice Arena in 2009.

Lynne Goldstein, a professor of anthropology and director of the field school, said the class gives the students a chance to participate in actual MSU research while getting real field experience.

“We’re trying to train students in both how to find archaeological sites and also how to excavate those sites,” she said.

“We’re both training students and answering research questions. What we’re hoping to find in this area is garbage that is associated with the earliest part of campus.”

Goldstein said garbage is a very important tool for archaeologists because it is an unfiltered window into the past.

“When I come to your front door and I say, ‘What did you eat for lunch today, how much milk do you drink or how much beer do you drink?’ you might overestimate the amount of milk and underestimate the amount of beer, but if I go to your garbage I can get a better idea of how much you actually do,” she said.

Although most people today do not dump trash in their backyard, Terry Brock, a co-director of the field school, said it’s important to remember there was no waste management system when College Hall was built in 1856.

“The way that people deposited their trash was on layers,” he said. “You can actually tell time by excavating it. From the items we discover we can learn all kinds of things about what people were eating and what their lives were like.”

Brock said they haven’t found large concentrations of anything, but they plan on excavating at the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden next week to find the Botanical Laboratory, which was built in 1880 and burned to the ground in 1890.

“From a research perspective that is really fantastic because it gives us a really small time window,” he said. “There’s also historical significance for MSU because that was Dr. Beal’s building. He designed it, worked in it, it’s where his collections were (and) where some of his earliest discoveries were made — which were foundations for agricultural science.”

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