Anthropology students team up with MOCAD to uncover history in the heart of Detroit

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Wayne State’s Department of Anthropology recently partnered with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), giving students the unique opportunity to conduct an archeological dig in the heart of Detroit.  

Student and alumna with Professor Krysta Ryzewski
Student and alumna with Professor Krysta Ryzewski.

Students unearthed artifacts on a plot of land that was once the home to the historic Parke Mansion and later a women's prison. The land is now home to MOCAD’s Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead, located at Canfield and Woodward Ave.   

The students involved in this project were Wayne State graduate students and recent alumni from the masters of anthropology program. The goal was to allow the students to gain hands-on experience with a phase III archaeological exhibition, a physical dig.  

Second-year master’s student Julia DiLaura participated in the dig. Her goal was to identify the location of the outhouse of the women’s prison. DiLaura explained that the outhouse would be a great window into what happened on this land years ago. At that time, people viewed an outhouse as a place to throw trash or other items that they wanted to keep secret. 

“We are trying to pinpoint the privy or outhouse because a lot of people would dump things down there and treat it like a garbage can, especially when they were trying to hide stuff,” said DiLaura. “They would dump things like medications, illegal drugs, and alcohol during prohibition, so this is where you would find some of the most interesting information.”   

The dig was led by Wayne State Anthropology Professor Krysta Ryzewski and Crystal Palmer, MOCAD’s Youth Program Coordinator.  

Ryzewski added that this land was once home to the Carter Family around the 1870s and 1880s. David Carter was the owner and manager of a navigation company of steamships that went between Detroit and Cleveland. He was successful in his career and then built the mansion that once stood on this land. He and his family lived there until the 1890s when Harvey Parke of the Parke Davis Pharmaceutical Company moved in. 

“These mansions were on the outskirts of Detroit, and this was the elite area to live.  This whole area would have been all open grassland, and part of it was converted to a race track for horses and people as part of the Detroit Athletic Club,” said Ryzewski. 

Ryzewski added that records of old newspapers from the 1800s described the Parke Mansion as one of the more beautiful homes in Detroit. The documents described the mansion as having a large front lawn with lots of trees and gardens. 

Ryzewski also said that sometime around the late 1880s, the city built a small police station behind the mansion, but it wasn’t successful. It soon shut down, and the city turned it into a women’s prison sometime between 1905 and 1906. By 1907, the current MOCAD building was constructed and used as an automotive showroom for Packard Motor Cars, leading to modern-day Woodward. 

“This whole block was transformed because of the boom of the auto industry, so the property was turned into a wholesale tire merchant, and everything on the land was torn down,” said Ryzewski. “This one lot has the story of Detroit.”   

Today, the lot is the home to the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead — a permanent MOCAD exhibit space created by the late artist Mike Kelley. Now, the homestead holds Jan Tichy’s exhibit All Monsters, made out of copper pipes from a previous project. The pipes have voices fed through them, and this was done by working with young artists who wrote poems to be played through the pipes.  

The homestead sits above a 40-foot deep, cavernous basement that is not open to the public. Only a few people have been given access, and the basement contents remain a mystery to the general public. This is why MOCAD and Tichy partnered with WSU anthropology students to conduct a dig that would unearth the homestead's history. As a community, we don’t have access to the basement, so we can tie this archeological dig to it conceptually by finding out what is around the basement and house.  

“There is so much happening below that we have no idea what it is and its purpose, so Jan thought this was a great opportunity to reach out to Wayne State University and set up this archeological dig,” said Palmer 

Palmer was passionate about this project because it shows people that they have a close tie to archaeology at a local level. Ryzewski and her team of students found history buried beneath the ground from the last 150 years. While Palmer isn’t sure what the next steps will be with this project and its findings, she mentioned the possibility of MOCAD turning the dig’s artifacts into an art project. The unknown of the land and what’s below it is what makes this project so unique.  

By Hannah Naimo, public relations associate

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