Food Remains Analysis


While we can refer to archival documents to determine what foods were purchased, we can use direct evidence from floral (plant) and faunal (animal) remains, including seeds and bones.

Floral Remains

Seed from the privy under magnification. Image Courtesy of Amy Michael.

During Campus Archaeology excavations we have uncovered floral (plant) remains. Some of these remains were recovered from the Saint’s Rest Privy, the toilet associated with the first dormitory on campus. These remains were identified by Dr. Katie Egan-Bruhy as raspberry seeds, shown to the right under magnification (Image courtesy of Amy Michael).

An undergraduate intern, Becca Albert, undertook a project that included testing to see whether seeds found in the privy during the summer 2015 would germinate. The seeds used for this experiment were first separated from 10 grams of night soil by hand and then weighed. In total, Becca placed approximately 50 seeds in a growth chamber for a specified day/night cycle, humidity, and temperature. The seeds themselves were placed in a predetermined soil mixture and kept in damp soil. The seeds were checked periodically to see if germination occurred, and to keep the soil damp. Unfortunately, none of the seeds ended up germinating, but it was a great study and she presented her research at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) in April 2017.

Faunal Remains

Butchered Animal Remains. Image Courtesy of Campus Archaeology Program

In addition to floral remains, campus excavations have also recovered vast quantities of faunal (animal) bone remains. The image to the right shows several butchered animal remains (Image courtesy of Campus Archaeology Program). It is possible by examining these remains through careful analysis and comparison (to learn more about zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains read Autumn Beyer’s blog post) to identify not only the bone element it represents (femur, humerus, tibia, etc.), but the species it came from.

To date, the focus on the faunal material by CAP Fellow Autumn Beyer has been on the bones recovered from the Saint’s Rest privy. When the privy was excavated, an immense amount of bone was recovered from the southwest corner. The bones were very densely packed, and excavators were under time constraints so the area was block lifted and screened back at the lab!

Identification of Walleye Dentary. Image Courtesy of Autumn Beyer

Using comparative collection skeletons from the MSU Museum and loan skeletons from the Field Museum, it was possible to identify the fish bones as walleye! The image to the left shows the identification of a walleye dentary (Image courtesy of Autumn Beyer). Through this analysis, Autumn was able to determine that at least seventeen different walleye were thrown away in the privy. Walleye are the largest member of the perch family and can be caught in shallow bays and inland lakes. As there are plenty of inland lakes surrounding East Lansing, it is possible that these fish were caught locally and served on campus.

Faunal analysis on materials uncovered through campus excavations will continue, and as results are tabulated, we will be updating this page!