Students dig up 142-year-old observatory on Michigan campus

The newly uncovered observatory will be a window into the kind of life led at the campus over 140 years ago.
Sejal Sharma
Observatory foundation
Observatory foundation


Archaeologists and researchers often have to travel to dig sites in states and countries far off from their campuses. But lucky for researchers studying in the Archaeology Program at Michigan State University (MSU), their next archaeological site was right in their backyard.

Students installing hammock posts came across an impenetrable, hard surface when they tried to dig deeper into the earth. By a stroke of luck, they discovered the foundation of what was the first observatory ever to have been constructed on MSU’s campus, as per a press release from the campus.

Fragments of a 19th-century observatory

The cement foundation, after much analysis, turned out to be the foundation of the observatory, dating back to 1881. The discovery will be a window into the kind of life led at the campus over 140 years ago.

Students dig up 142-year-old observatory on Michigan campus
Fragments found in the dig site


“It gives us a sense of what early campus looked like in the late 19th century,” said Ben Akey, an archaeology and anthropology doctoral student at the MSU campus.

Back in the 1880s, the campus was called the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC), which would later become MSU. It was a different institution with a handful of professors and a small student body compared to today’s undergraduate enrollment of under 40,000.

“I did a lot of reading to learn more about the first observatory: its history, how it was used and what the building itself might have looked like,” added Akey.

Built by a fellow MSU-ite

The observatory is believed to have been built by Professor Rolla Carpenter, an 1873 graduate of MAC. Carpenter later joined the university as a professor and taught mathematics, astronomy, French and civil engineering.

“In the early days of MSU’s astronomy program, 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,” Akey said. “When MSU acquired a telescope, Carpenter successfully argued for funding for a place to mount it: the first campus observatory.”

Then MSU got its modern observatory in 1969, with a 24-inch telescope and some smaller telescopes used by astronomy students and enthusiasts alike. The observatory also hosts free public observation nights.

“It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come from a little 16-foot circular building to a large building with a high-quality telescope and an electric dome,” said Levi Webb, a fourth-year astrophysics and anthropology major.

“Seeing the difference between how observing used to be versus how it is now is very interesting to me and makes me appreciative of the observatory we have now,” he added.

Working on a dig site such as this is a great help for current students to prepare for careers in archaeology. The site will next year become a dig site for the local residents and undergraduates enrolled in the university’s program to brush up on their archaeological techniques.

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