Capturing Campus Cuisine

Early Foodways at Michigan State University

Horticultural Labor, Summer 1886. Image Courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

Horticultural Labor, Summer 1886. Image Courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

This project uses food remains excavated from a historic privy at Michigan State University (MSU) to explore and recreate the food environment of the campus during its Early Period (1855-1870). Archaeological analysis and archival research were used together to investigate historic food production, acquisition, processing/preparation, and consumption, culminating in the recreation of a meal that may have been served on campus in the 1860s.


The Campus Archaeology Program (CAP) aims to document the history of Michigan State University, both through archaeological excavation and archival and documentary research. Since 2005, CAP has conducted surveys and excavations across the MSU campus to mitigate potential damage to archaeological sites caused by construction, and they have also engaged in targeted excavations to answer specific academic questions concerning MSU’s history.

Bottom of Level 1, West Circle Privy. Image Courtesy of Campus Archaeology Program

In 2015, a brick-lined privy was discovered near the MSU Museum; the bottom of Level 1 of the excavated privy shown to the right (Image courtesy of CAP). CAP excavated the privy that summer, finding that it contained a variety of interesting items, from dolls to broken dishes and various bottles. Privies, or outhouses, were perfect places to discretely dispose of trash, including unsightly food refuse. The privy, which dates to the 1860s, also contained preserved food remains such as fish bones and raspberry seeds.

Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright came up with the idea to recreate a historic MSU meal based off of these food remains. CAP graduate fellows Autumn Painter and Susan Kooiman thought this was a great idea and decided to make it the center of their year-long CAP research projects. Not only did they want to recreate a historically accurate 1860s meal, but they wanted to understand all aspects of food behavior on the early campus, from production to consumption. This website is the culmination of their work, created by Autumn Painter through MSU's Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship.

Historic Foodways at MSU

Anthropologists (including archaeologists) have become increasingly interested in food over the past few decades. They have realized that food plays a central role in both our biological and social lives, making it an ideal, dynamic, and engaging topic of research. Our daily schedules are constructed around meals, and food is often the centerpiece of holidays and celebratory events. The consumption of food brings people together, like families at mealtimes or friends meeting up for dinner. Shared food preferences can help bridge gaps and form bonds between strangers, while regional or ethnic differences in food traditions can be used to differentiate and divide. All of these dimensions are encompassed in the term “foodways.” Scholars who study foodways investigate how food-related behaviors relate to cultural traditions, social structure and interactions, politics, and religion.

Autumn Painter, a trained zooarchaeologist, is conducting an in-depth analysis of the animal bones from the collection, and has already identified several specific species of animals, providing us insight into the meat being consumed on campus during this time. However, the amount of food remains from the privy is limited, requiring much more research to discover the true nature of the diet and food habits of past MSU students, faculty, and staff. Documentary resources, such as those housed at the MSU Archives and the MSU Library Special Collections in addition to archaeological remains can provide a full picture of historic foodways.

Animal bones from Campus Archaeology excavations. Image Courtesy of Campus Archaeology

Animal bones from Campus Archaeology excavations. Image courtesy of Campus Archaeology.

Understanding the foods prepared, served, and consumed by nineteenth-century students and faculty at MSU will help us recreate what life was like during the earliest years of MSU. Archaeology is all about connecting the present to the past, and what better way to make these connections than through our stomachs?