'Beneath the Ivory Tower'

Many of us may associate archaeology with excavations in faraway lands, assuming that the discipline's real work takes place far outside the classroom. But more and more universities are now discovering that there is real -- and vital -- archaeology to be done in their own backyards... and front yards. And quads.

March 30, 2010

Many of us may associate archaeology with excavations in faraway lands, assuming that the discipline's real work takes place far outside the classroom. But more and more universities are now discovering that there is real -- and vital -- archaeology to be done in their own backyards... and front yards. And quads.

In a new book, Beneath the Ivory Tower: The Archaeology of Academia (University Press of Florida), editors Russell K. Skowronek and Kenneth E. Lewis present an array of case studies of academic archaeology: excavations conducted on-campus at Harvard, Notre Dame, the University of South Carolina, and a variety of other institutions. Skowronek, who is professor of history and anthropology at the University of Texas-Pan American, and Lewis, who is professor of anthropology at Michigan State University, responded via e-mail to questions about campus archaeology and other ways to preserve and promote institutional heritage.

Q: What campus archaeology projects have the two of you been involved in? How was the research conducted, and what were the results?

Lewis: I was involved in the excavations at Saints’ Rest, a project that explored the site of Michigan State’s first dormitory. Since that time, I have assisted the MSU Campus Archaeology Program in a number of surveys, testings, and excavations conducted across our campus. Our work has revealed the discovery of an intact 16,000 year old sand dune, as well as the first academic building built on MSU’s campus, College Hall. Additionally, the research has provided insight into the nature of an institution of higher education, as one that is rapidly changing its physical landscape to keep up with the latest educational and technological advances.

Skowronek: I was a professor at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. for 18 years. Santa Clara is the oldest institution of higher education [in California] and is the only school to stand on the site of a Franciscan Spanish-colonial mission. Little did I know when I joined the faculty in 1991 that the school was about to embark on a 15-year period of “bricks and mortar” expansion that would create a dozen new structures and related infrastructure. Under the campus of the university is a 2,400-year-old Native American cemetery, the Spanish and Mexican-era mission complex, parts of the 19th and 20th century town of Santa Clara and more than a century and a half (it was founded in 1851) of deposits related to Santa Clara University.

During my tenure I created the Santa Clara University Archaeology Research Lab as a clearing house for on-campus research. In California environmental laws pertaining to historic resources are enforced. Because little had been done by my predecessors (the first archaeologist was hired in 1978), and what had been done was not systematically recorded, we had a virtual tabula rasa. With the support of the Office of the President, the energy of my students, all of who are undergraduates, other professionals in the community, eventually a full-time assistant, and a series of cultural resource management firms, we developed an on-campus lab with an occasional publication series, a small research library, comparative faunal collections, and artifact collections and data-base. For the last 15 years of my time at Santa Clara every student in “Introduction to Archaeology” had a “hands-on” experience in the lab. These are things and activities usually only found in large research universities and yet we were able to do it with undergraduates. Prior to the establishment of the Archaeology Research Lab, there was nothing written on the archaeology of the campus. It is worth noting that many reports and publications were co-authored, with students and other professionals.

Q: Why is it important to conduct archaeological excavations on campuses?

Lewis: Conducting archaeological investigations on a college or university campus is important for a number of reasons. All of these relate to making the university’s past relevant both to its ongoing role as an institution as well as to its students, faculty, alumni, and other members of the larger university community.

At Michigan State, the Saints’ Rest excavation underlined the importance of this work and led to the creation of a Campus Archaeology Program as a means of demonstrating that the University is acting as a good steward towards its cultural resources. Professor Lynne Goldstein and her team have shown that campus archaeology provides a means for an anthropology department to conduct research, educate students, and engage communities about archaeology and their own history in exciting, visible, and tangible ways. Archaeology of academics is important because it presents an opportunity for the history of higher education to be studied in new ways. These programs also have a unique impact on students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Considering the great importance of higher education to society, it is surprising that this area has not received a great deal of study previously. Campus archaeology is a way for researchers, faculty, staff, students and alumni to connect with their campus in a very different way.

Skowronek: All schools, colleges, and universities have a land base. Under those campuses may be preserved evidence of prehistoric, nonacademic, or early academic life. These are natural laboratories for the study of local and institutional histories and should be used for education and research. Academic institutions of higher education are prized locally, regionally and sometimes nationally or internationally. Of course this flows from their faculty, famous alumni, sports prowess, and age. It is fair to say that the most venerable schools in the country are among the oldest. The “Ivy League” was named for its old ivy-covered structures. Their stories need to be told and archaeology can tell stories that were never recorded in campus newspapers and official histories.

Q: Several essays in the book mention that academic archaeology has the potential to involve and promote collaboration among faculty from various disciplines; was this your experience? What other disciplines might be involved, and why?

Lewis: Because historical archaeology is by its nature interdisciplinary, the Saints’ Rest project brought together scholars from a number of academic disciplines at MSU including Geography, Geology, Forestry, History, the MSU Museum, and the MSU Archives and Historical Collections. The Campus Archaeology Program has continued this collaboration. Equally importantly, however, has been collaboration with non-academic units. For example, the Campus Archaeology Program has worked side-by-side with the MSU Physical Plant, working together to mitigate archaeological sites. Oftentimes physical plant workers have stripped sod, removed sidewalks, or excavated units with backhoes to help speed our excavations. Efforts have been made to incorporate landscapers, construction workers, and engineers into learning about archaeology, and showing them how our research is done, what it can tell us and them about our shared past. This is a unique feature of campus archaeology that many other researchers do not have the opportunity to do: engage the people who make campuses run every day in the actual process of our research and work.

Skowronek: Clearly collaboration is a good idea. Over the years I was fortunate to work in productive ways with colleagues in anthropology, art history, biology, engineering, history, modern languages and music. Dietary and DNA analyses of prehistoric remains and facial reconstructions of same was one of the positive outcomes. Other students worked with historic Spanish-language documents, translating and analyzing them. Some students analyzed deposits associated with the historic town and campus. Two students helped develop a remotely operated vehicle for NASA (we were located near Moffat Field in the Bay Area). To be used on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, we test-piloted it on potential shipwreck sites in Alaska. The last collaboration with students and faculty from music led to the performance and recording of music from the era of the mission. This work helped us celebrate the sesquicentennial of the school and the city. From ground-penetrating radar to the interpretation of satellite and aerial imagery, faculty from across the disciplines could be part of such projects.

For all of the good that came from this work I sadly note that two of my collaborators in anthropology and art history were not tenured even after they had worked and published on this campus-focused research. Against my protestations I was told that this sort of research was not the sort valued for tenure and promotion. I often wonder how much more we could have done if my colleagues had not been so narrow-minded.

Q: Both of you, as well as the book's contributing authors, stress the value of on-campus excavations, but it's also clear that these projects are costly and time-consuming. How can an institution know whether such an undertaking makes sense for its campus?

Lewis: Although archaeology involves certain expenditures of time and labor, the cost of these can be minimized with adequate planning. At MSU, the Campus Archaeology Program was developed so that on-campus excavations could be integrated into the regular process of a construction project. The time it takes to complete a project is now built into the time to complete a construction project. Because much of the cost of contracting such a project is due to labor costs, Universities can often utilize their students to conduct the excavations: this becomes a more manageable cost, because it can be turned into an educational opportunity. Campus Archaeology, for example, has a graduate student who works with construction companies and Physical Plant to coordinate the projects. Other students are used to do the excavations, and they learn proper techniques and gain valuable experience. Occasionally, a Field School might be necessary, where a large group of students excavates a site for 5-6 weeks. In this case, it is offered as an on-campus field school, which saves the Department and students money: typically, field schools have associated housing, food, and transportation costs. By having the field school on campus, students attend just as they would any other summer school class. Using students may not always work, but with proper planning and a coordinated program, it not only can work, it can be part of the educational and research mission.

Skowronek: First, a school should conduct a survey of its historic resources, both standing and buried. Federal guidelines for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places can help situate the significance of the campus land-base. Clearly, these may go beyond that of the school and may well include prehistoric or other historic resources. At the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, there are a series of ancient (approximately 8-9,000-year-old) Native American habitation sites as well as the remnants of the Civil War-era and subsequent campus. Some schools (e.g., Tuskegee) have seen inclusion on the National Register as a way of celebrating their historic past. Others have feared that such designations could tie the hands of the school should they wish to demolish historic structures or build on sensitive sites. By knowing what resources are present on a campus “problems” can be forestalled by simply moving the area of potential impact to less-sensitive zones.

Schools should seriously consider such surveys as their faculty and the schools themselves accept federal grants. It should be remembered that the federal government must comply with preservation laws. Thus, when federal funds are appropriated to the California Department of Transportation for highway construction, they are obligated to follow federal guidelines. Years ago I was admonished by my colleague in the National Park Service, “They just don’t make historic sites anyone. We have one chance to get this right. Don’t blow it.”

There are cost issues to consider should universities be contemplating the establishment of an in-house archaeology research lab. The first is the reality that initiating this is a commitment in perpetuity and should not be considered to be a “cult of personality” with the collections to be “disposed of” once the professor leaves or retires. Archaeological collections are the equivalent of archives. They are unique and are comprised of not only artifacts but other related materials including photographs, maps, drawings, and reports. Previous work at Santa Clara had created a collection of mission-era materials that might have cost $250,000 to curate at another facility. Since 1994 that collection has grown fourfold. Annually the university spent approximately $70,000 for a full-time archaeologist assistant, student assistants and the operating budget (travel, copying, materials etc.). These individuals often monitored small construction projects, which led to a savings in those costs for the university. It must be remembered that large-scale construction projects such as those associated with buildings may require the hiring of other personnel or cultural resource management firms, especially if there are known cultural deposits.

Q: The book's closing essay (written by Skowronek) mentions a 1999 effort by the Associated Colleges of the South to "consider the place of heritage resources in the environmental stewardship, educational, and operational programs" of its member colleges. What exactly is heritage resource management, and why is it necessary for colleges and universities?

Lewis: Heritage resource management usually refers to caring for places deemed to have archaeological, architectural, and historical significance and ensuring that the oversight of such places is in compliance with environmental and historic preservation laws. Colleges and universities are often homes to important heritage resources, but often are strapped for funds and find themselves in the position of trying to do things in the least expensive way. How do you improve, fix, expand, build, or otherwise tamper with important heritage resources, while at the same time try to manage and be a proper steward for those resources? Universities and colleges should be using the experts on their own campuses to help them develop plans for management, planning, and stewardship, rather than letting themselves get into the problems of trying to cut corners, making bad last-minute decisions, and unintentionally destroying or harming an important heritage resource.

Skowronek: Heritage resource management is the realization that our respective campuses are unique. Their cultural and natural histories lend themselves to study by students and faculty and it should be the business of the administration and physical plant to preserve and celebrate these unique qualities. We sometimes “talk the talk” about being ethically responsible to our students. If we ask this of them, we must in turn ask ourselves if we are “walking the walk” on our campuses. Under the leadership of a number of devoted faculty Santa Clara made genuine efforts to “Go green” over the past dozen years. Energy efficient buildings, recycled paper and gray water, and no-flush toilets were the order of the day. Sadly, we also demolished two historic buildings, and “relocated” a colony of burrowing owls (an endangered species). Similarly, a native plant garden was planted and a series of wayside exhibits (shown in the book) were developed, initially against the wishes of the Board of Regents, who wondered why we would want such “ugly trees” on campus and were similarly concerned that we were transforming the campus into a historic site. The projects went ahead (to the enjoyment of many), and in fact some prehistoric Native Americans were reburied in the shade of the newly reconstituted native plant garden. Unfortunately, there are now plans to expand the neighboring building, which will destroy the garden and result in the disinterment of the reburied individuals. Long-term planning would have forestalled what will now be a potentially contentious issue in the future.

Q: For those institutions that have an interest in heritage resource management, but for which it is impractical or impossible to conduct an on-campus archaeological dig, what other initiatives or projects might also be beneficial? Do you know of any resources for faculty, staff, or students interested in exploring these ideas?

Lewis: Any project that is working towards the stewardship of a University’s heritage resources is beneficial. Using online space through digital humanities-type projects, or creating exhibits across a campus discussing the heritage of a certain building or location could help to preserve the resources of that space. By making communities more aware of what their space means to them, you in turn encourage them to take better care of their surroundings. This in itself is part of the process of resource management. I recommend contacting the MSU Campus Archaeology Program for suggestions as to how to carry out such a program on your campus.

Skowronek: I would urge them to buy and read our book and would suggest they work with the National Park Service and other agencies that look holistically at the cultural and natural landscape. I point them towards two individuals: Dr. Major McCollough of the Tennessee Valley Authority, who put together the Heritage Resource Management conference in 1999 -- which planted the seed for this book -- and Dr. Richard Waldbauer of the National Park Service, who has worked assiduously with colleges to educate them in the ways of heritage resource management.

I suggest faculty and their students start small. Review the historic literature on the campus and its environs. Do an inventory of historic structures and of plant and animal species. Create a composite map of the campus showing how it changed through time. If they have access to ground-penetrating radar, map the grounds and all of the buried infrastructure. There are a lot of things we can do that are not intrusive and are very low-cost, and will reveal much about our very special place.


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