Nailed It!

In the world of metal artifacts, nails make up a very prominent and important niche of archaeological field work. In our work at the Old Main excavation site on the Alma College campus, this is just as true. The following is a brief review of where Team Metal is currently at with regards to these most humble of artifacts and how they help unravel the history of Old Main.

There are a total 164 nail pieces known so far from the 2015 excavations with a majority being modern machine cut. Why so many nails? Our team has discovered through documents in the Alma College Archives that the construction of Old Main relied heavily on wood framing held together by machine cut nails, the prominent nail design of the time.

Although wire nail technology was introduced 6 years before Old Main’s construction, fewer wire nails have been discovered. This may indicate that there was a lag in introduction of new nail technology in rural Michigan or that machine cut nails were given greater preference. Wire nails found in a site fairly far from Old Main’s original location may be a result of outside influence such as the construction of the Swanson Academic Center (SAC) or may be from repairs or renovations done on Old Main itself. Their presence at a location outside of the original confines of the building suggest a spreading of artifacts as a result of the partial collapse of Old Main after the fire or from the cleanup following the fire when the area was bulldozed in order to provide flat ground for the construction of SAC in 1972.

48% of all of the nails from the site could be identified as machine cut. Historically, machine cut nails were used primarily in the 19th century for large and small projects alike. The nails found at Old Main could be from construction, however we cannot rule out the possibility of them coming from furniture or other such articles from within Old Main classrooms and offices. Since the use of wire nails was more prevalent following the fire in 1969, machine cut nails would not be present post-fire. These nails were also found with a great deal of corrosion and build-up mostly within the lower strata. Machine cut nails found near the surface may suggest outside disturbance as well as the potential existence of a dump site used in cleanup.

Another type of nail found was the duplex nail, typically used in scaffolding or temporary projects. While these could have been used in the scaffold work for Old Main’s construction or repair, more likely they may have been left over from scaffolding used in construction of the nearby Swanson Academic Center.

The analysis of nails found at the Old Main site is essential to understanding building technologies and the history of Old Main construction. It can tell us information regarding the 1886 construction, repairs done on the building, the existence of other sites and even the post-fire cleanup process. The research done thus far is at an early stage, however, and further excavation, interpretation and analysis is required in order to definitively make conclusions about the site’s history.


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