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Michigan State University workers stumble across buried, 142-year-old campus observatory

Michigan State University
The exterior of MSU's first campus observatory, circa 1900.

Michigan State University had its eyes set on setting up hammock poles near a dorm, dreaming of leisure-filled days beneath the sun this summer. Yet, as fate would have it, a twist of destiny has unveiled an unexpected treasure trove for a group of students, dishing out a perk they could have never foreseen. The tale spun by The Washington Post reveals a construction crew’s serendipitous encounter with a resilient surface that refused to yield as they aimed to anchor those hammock poles. This turn of events nudged the university to journey back through the annals of time, unearthing dusty records that whispered of an observatory for astronomy that graced the grounds back in 1881. A structure that once played host to starlit classes had met its demise some four decades later. However, destiny had other plans, and the stage was being set anew, this time for the aspiring archaeologists among the student body.

In a narrative that reads like a grand orchestration of cosmic irony, enter Ben Akey, a PhD student and the campus’s very own archaeologist. With June’s sun as their spotlight and a team of intrepid students as the cast, they embarked on an exploratory expedition of the site. Weeks slid by, barren of discoveries, until the eleventh hour, when the soil finally surrendered its secrets. Cobblestone and mortar greeted their inquisitive eyes on the very day that marked the expedition’s end. Their prize was undeniable: a fragment of the observatory’s foundation, a tangible relic of a bygone era. Anticipation has been sown, and next summer shall see MSU undergrads poised at the precipice of history, poised to delve into a dig that promises to reshape their academic journey.

PhD student Ben Akey, the torchbearer of this archaeological odyssey, waxes poetic on the momentous shift in the academic landscape. The horizon, he explains, has shifted for undergrads eager to dive into the world of archaeology. Overseas escapades of archaeological proportions can be a daunting feat both in terms of challenge and coin. Yet, the excavation site that has emerged on campus breathes life into their aspirations, offering them an immersive experience that holds profound value in a realm where opportunities often bow to firsthand exposure.

A symphony of ground-penetrating radar scans paints a portrait of the foundation, primarily intact and brimming with untold stories. NPR, a reliable narrator in its own right, unveils the mastermind behind this architectural marvel, Professor Rolla Carpenter. He was the driving force, the architect of dreams, instrumental in the observatory’s birth after the university’s acquisition of its inaugural telescope. Prior to its emergence, the cosmos was observed from the rooftop perches of campus buildings, a humble prelude to the grand observatory’s ascent. In an enchanting twist, The Guardian adds its voice to the cosmic chorus, revealing that a subsequent observatory, born in 1969, still serves as a beacon of learning for the university’s stargazers.

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