Archaeology Students Dig Through History, Excavate Old Main

Forty-five years after the burning of an iconic campus building, Alma students are unearthing and analyzing artifacts from the ground. 

Under different circumstances, the “Lightbulb Gang” would have been chased off for staking out the turf and digging holes in the Swanson Academic Center lawn on the Alma College campus.

But as part of an archaeology class taught by Mary Theresa Bonhage-Freund and Alex Conell, the group — which was affectionately named for the students’ bright and not-so-bright ideas — was given all the tools they needed to dig into history.

More than 1,000 items were excavated from the site of Old Main. More than 1,000 items were excavated from the site of Old Main.

“When I was younger, I kind of wanted to be an archaeologist, so I thought this would be a cool way to fulfill that,” says Sarah Jack, a chemistry major and one of 11 students who participated in the four-week Spring Term class.

Business major Breu Olling had a different reason for enrolling in the class: “I wanted something interesting where you actually did hands-on stuff,” says Olling.

After learning the basics, the students were able to get their hands dirty in search of artifacts from Old Main. Built in 1886, Old Main was one of Alma’s original buildings. It held offices and classrooms until the wood-framed, brick-faced building burned to the ground in 1969. A few years later, the Swanson Academic Center was built to replace it.

Forty-five years later, in the same place that students pulled files from the flames, Alma students are pulling artifacts from the ground. Jack and Olling said that they found nails, brick, charcoal, glass, a rodent jawbone, a butchered bone, a fossil and a mysterious handle.

“I think it’s the handle of a magnifying glass, because it screws in,” Olling says. “Someone thought maybe a screwdriver, but it’s really decorative, so I wouldn’t think it’s a screwdriver.”

One group found a wood plank, still intact, near where they think may have been the steps of Old Main.

The process of unearthing the artifacts was slow and meticulous. The students visited the library archives to look at photos and documents, including the building’s blueprint. They surveyed the lawn, gridded it out, and used a magnetometer to detect underground debris that could be artifacts. After that, they carefully selected several areas to excavate, including locations where they guessed the front and back steps had once been.

“I used to think that archaeologists just dug holes and, look, they found something!” says Olling. “It’s actually a lot more work that you think, a lot more writing down.”

Bonhage-Freund explained that there is redundancy in everything archaeologists do. They have maps, photos, notebooks and forms filled out for each level and major artifact found.

“Everything has to be over-documented in archaeology because it’s the one science that is destroying the evidence while it collects it,” she says.

One of the most surprising things the students learned about archaeology was the amount of lab work.

“There’s like four days for every one day in the field,” says Jack.

The students spent rainy days cleaning the artifacts with old toothbrushes and water. They cataloged, labeled, stored and researched what the objects were. The artifacts — more than 1,000 items — have been placed in Ziploc bags and stored in the lab so that future students can do analyses. When the project is completed, a site report will be produced and made available to the public.

The students also visited various archaeological sites to experience a range of archaeological approaches, from the prehistoric, to colonial, to the underwater, says Bonhage-Freund.

They visited the Sanilac Petroglyphs, Michigan’s only known Native American rock carvings. They also visited Fort Michilimackinac, where they got a behind-the-scenes tour from the director there, thanks to the connections of visiting professor Alex Connell. The students also visited the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena to learn about shipwrecks.

In addition, the students hosted a public archaeology day, in which they invited the public to view their findings in the lab and to dig alongside them.

“One of the families, the grandmother and the mother, kept saying over and over, ‘We wanted to bring our kids out because we wanted them to be a part of history,’” says Bonhage-Freund. “It really is meaningful to the community.”


Story published on May 29, 2014