Students Unearth Forgotten 142-Year-Old Observatory Buried on Michigan State’s Campus

Archaeology students have been working at the site since workers happened upon it in May

MSU's first observatory
A group poses in front of Michigan State University's first observatory, circa 1888. Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

It all started with a hammock.

Earlier this summer, construction workers at Michigan State University were installing posts for hammocks near a residence hall when they hit a hard surface. Thinking it might be a former building foundation, they called on Michigan State’s Campus Archaeology Program, which set to work determining what lay under the dirt.

Using old maps, the archaeologists concluded that they had found the site of the campus’ first observatory, built nearly 150 years ago.

Cobblestone foundation
The cobblestone foundation of the observatory, which was originally built in 1881 Nick Schrader, MSU University Communications

“That could have been easily dismissed if we hadn't had some historic maps and knowledge of that area,” Stacey Camp, director of the Campus Archaeology Program, tells NPR’s Juliana Kim.

The find is a window into the past, says campus archaeologist Ben Akey in a statement from the university. “It gives us a sense of what early campus looked like in the late 19th century,” they add. “The original campus observatory was built and used at a time when Michigan Agricultural College—what would become [Michigan State]—was a radically different institution with only a handful of professors and a relatively small student body.”

The observatory was built in 1881 by Rolla Carpenter, who taught several subjects—including math, astronomy, French and civil engineering—at Michigan State. It housed a telescope and hosted early astronomy classes before being razed in the 1920s, Akey tells the Washington Post’s Daniel Wu.

The telescope inside the original observatory in 1909 Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

Before the observatory, “Carpenter would take students to the roof of College Hall and have them observe from there, but he didn’t find it a sufficient solution for getting students experience in astronomical observation,” says Akey in the statement. When the school acquired a telescope, Carpenter persuaded the administration to fund the observatory to mount it. 

“It shows us how humble our beginnings were,” Camp tells Wali Khan of WKAR, a local NPR station. “It shows us where we’ve gone and how far we’ve come as researchers, as scientists.”

Dig artifacts
Some of the artifacts recovered so far include two partial iron square-cut nails, an iron bolt screw, six shards of flat glass (likely from a window pane) and fragments of red brick (likely from the observatory's walls). Nick Schrader, MSU University Communications

Akey, alongside a team of students, conducted a preliminary survey of the site in June. So far, the group has uncovered shards of flat glass, likely from a window pane, and some fragments of red brick, likely from the observatory's walls, in addition to other artifacts. This month, results from a ground-penetrating survey showed that most of the observatory’s foundation is intact—which is a “miracle,” as the campus has changed so much over time, Camp tells NPR.

Next summer, the observatory will be a dig site that undergraduates can work at for credit, per the university’s statement. Depending on what survives at the site, their discoveries could offer insight into what studying astronomy was like in the program’s early days.

“Maybe there’s pencils or pens or other things that students have left behind,” Camp tells the Washington Post. “Maybe there’s parts of a telescope that were left behind. We don’t know until we dig.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.