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Bringing the past alive

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

At MSU, archeology students bring the past alive from the ground up.

Have you ever walked by the MSU Museum? Perhaps you’ve noticed a fancy green and gold sign. You may have even stopped to scan the brief description about an excavation and wondered what the story is behind it. Well wonder no more. The Year of Arts and Culture is here to feed your mind with a piece of MSU history and, of course, celebrate art and culture.

In 2005, the department of archeology decided to take learning outside of the classroom by excavating Saints’ Rest, the first dormitory at MSU. The excavation celebrated MSU’s Sesquicentennial.

Dr.Lynne Goldstein, chairperson of the Department of Archeology at the time, came up with the idea and took all steps to make it happen.

“I thought it would be a good project for students to learn about the first dorm and student life,” Goldstein said.

Erected in 1856, Saints’ Rest was the first dormitory on campus and acquired its name from a required popular Christian devotional book, “Saints’ Everlasting Rest.” The dormitory a maximum of 60 students but burned down during the winter break of 1876. The building was completely destroyed and no freshman class was allowed to enroll the next year due to lack of housing.

The remains of Saints’ Rest were located beneath the ground surface just east of the MSU Museum. Little was known about the building, but its presence was apparent when the outlines of the foundation could be seen during a drought.

“We knew about the building from the archives but there were no blue prints,” said Goldstein. “All that appeared of the building prior to excavation was a concrete slab on the northeast corner reading, “Saints’ Rest built 1856 burned Dec. 9, 1876”.

Goldstein said one reason the anthropology department wanted to do the excavation was because students didn’t understand there was even an archeology program at MSU. “We wanted to get more visibility from the project,” Goldstein said.

The project consisted of a team of four professors and 20 students. For one week a high school teacher and class helped with set up dig by working with the MSU Museum. The excavation took the entire team about six weeks to complete, and a semester’s worth of work before and after the project. All together the project took more than two years to complete.

According to those involved, it was time well spent. While excavating, the students found how the building was structured, with interior walls and two separate rooms in the basement and a hallway. One room had a tool kit, several tools and a batch of plaster mortar. The students looked back at the newspapers at the time of the fire and found that the hall walls were being repaired at the time, evidence supporting the relevance of the objects found. Other objects from the dorm that had been archeologically preserved included a toothbrush, protractor, razor and cuticle scissors.

Heather Mustonen worked as a teaching assistant on the Saints’ Rest project and went on to write her masters’ thesis about the findings.

“The excavation opened people’s eyes about the archeology program at MSU and left a lasting impression,” said Mustonen. “I hope my thesis can help leave that impression.”

Mustonen said the project incorporated many different groups which brought different perspectives.

“This is an integral part of the university’s history to be able to bring archeology to the forefront of people’s minds and show the community that archeology can teach you a lot about the past. It’s a valuable resource at MSU to learn from,” said Mustonen.

She also pointed out that the excavation was a way to physically demonstrate archeology work and increase awareness on campus of the importance of archeology.

Now, two years later, the Saints’ Rest excavation is still used as a unique learning tool for students. Professor Alison Rautman’s Introduction to Archeology class recently used the Saints’ Rest Web site where her students researched information about the artifacts and then compared them with the real-life artifacts. Rautman said the students were to find examples of natural transformation, how the site changed naturally, and cultural transformations, meaning how humans altered the site.

“Students had to use specific examples from the Web site to justify each comment they made,” Rautman said. “I was using (the excavation artifacts) for a very specific purpose but there is a lot that can be done with it.”

“This project was important because it showed people at MSU things we can learn that are not written down,” Goldstein said. As a result of the excavation, the archeology department is now involved in the construction planning at MSU. “We proved something. It was a dramatic lesson and a dramatic way to show it.”

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