Michigan State finds an observatory from 142 years ago buried on campus

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Michigan State finds an observatory from 142 years ago buried on campus
An undated photo provided by Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections shows individuals posing outside of MSU’s first observatory, circa 1888. Not much is known about how long it was standing, why it was removed, and what observations it may have yielded, besides its being built by a former professor and students. (Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections via The New York Times)

by Rebecca Carballo



NEW YORK, NY.- About two dozen men and one woman — all unknown — were photographed in front of an old astronomy building circa 1888. The round structure with a tiled roof had been the first observatory on the campus of Michigan State University, though no one knew exactly where it had once stood.

In June, construction workers on the university’s campus in East Lansing, Michigan, unexpectedly came across the foundation of the building, constructed in 1881. But not much is known about how long the structure was standing, why it was removed, and what observations it may have yielded, beyond that it was built by a former professor and his students.

The site will be turned next summer into an undergraduate field school where Stacey Camp, a professor of anthropology, and her students will continue to excavate in search of answers. The students will receive credit while learning about the practice of archaeology.

“One of the things we’re curious about is, if we can find any artifacts that are associated with the students who were studying in there,” Camp said. “Things like pencils, glass bottles or ceramics that students might have left behind, that would help us date the time period in which they were there.”

Camp, the director of the university’s archaeology program, which aims to protect archaeological and historical sites on campus, received a call in June from workers who said that they had hit something hard while installing hammock poles. She didn’t think much of it at first.

“There’s lots of things that are hard under the ground that are not significant at all,” she said.

But after the report, researchers with the campus archaeology program began to look at maps and campus archives and discovered that the old observatory had stood in that area. Michigan State has a window to the stars in a more modern observatory, which features a 24-inch reflecting telescope and was mostly completed in 1969.

Although the maps made it look as if the old observatory had stood in that area, there was no guarantee, Camp said. The foundation could have been destroyed during the many construction projects on campus over the course of more than a century.

The campus archaeologists did shovel-testing, which consisted of digging small holes in the ground — about 50 by 50 centimeters — to see if they would hit anything. They ended up striking rock, and decided to open up a meter-square hole. They unearthed more hard surface and concluded they had hit some sort of foundation.




Then they opened up another hole and found that the foundation curved, as the observatory did in the historical pictures that the researchers had found.

Ben Akey, a graduate student working on the project who was tasked with researching the building’s history, was confident that it was the observatory after the second hole was opened.

“Once we were able to kind of see the curvature and make that calculation, I was fairly convinced,” they said. “Particularly because round building foundations are not something you come across super often.”

The 16-foot-wide circular building was built by Rolla Carpenter, who taught civil engineering and astronomy, among other subjects, and did campus planning, they said.

Carpenter enlisted the help of his students to build the structure, as was common at Michigan State University at the time. The costs of constructing the building itself was $125, or about $4,000 in today’s dollars. Including the cost of the telescope, the observatory cost $450, or about $14,000 today.

It’s unclear when the building was removed, but it was likely sometime in the 1920s, according to research by Horace A. Smith, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy who looked at maps and campus building inventories, as well as class schedules.

The campus archaeology program didn’t excavate the entire foundation right away because not enough staff members were on campus through the summer months, Camp said. She said she looked forward to the findings that will emerge once the undergraduate field school gets underway.

Morgan Manuszak, a rising senior who is studying art history and anthropology, helped with the excavation this summer and hopes to participate in the field school.

Working on the excavation was her first dig, an opportunity that undergraduate students don’t come by often, she said. Typically students have to travel overseas for fieldwork and those programs are generally looking for graduate students. She worked at a site in Greece last summer, but she mainly photographed and digitalized the collections.

“Just the ability as an undergraduate to be able to get dig experience out in the field is really rare,” Manuszak said. “They want someone who is going toward their master’s or further in grad school. So for us to be able to get this experience is really invaluable, especially right on our own campus.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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