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Illinois State University
Illinois State University
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To date, the archaeology of Old Main consists of a one salvage excavation conducted in 1982 and in the reanalysis undertaken by Jessica Griffin in 2012.


Keith Barr, in partnership with the Midwestern Archaeological Research Center and Dr. Ed Jelks, began excavations of the Old Main site. After campus construction projects uncovered evidence of the remains of Old Main’s foundation they excavated several units and uncovered glass, ceramic and metal artifacts from the Old Main water collection cisterns.  The artifacts uncovered during that excavation are now part of the collection at Illinois State Museum in Springfield. Keith Barr completed a Master's thesis on the excavations and artifacts in 1983.

The University was digging trenches for electrical lines and encountered brick wall remains. Ed Jelks, Emeritus Illinois State University archaeologist was asked to investigate and he and his team did a quick excavation ahead of the backhoes. What did they find?

Parts of the foundation of Old Main exist just two feet below the surface (University Archives P119B).

Three of four corners of the foundation were located and the parts of the basement floor of the building was found (University Archives P119).

The south and west cisterns were located during the excavation. After the cisterns were no longer used for water storage they were filled with trash that included dozens of whole bottles and hundreds of bottle fragments.

A stairway leading to the basement entrance was uncovered (University Archives P121G).

A sample of the bottles recovered from a cistern (University Archives P119G).



Jessica Griffin completed an artifact re-analysis of glass bottles collected during the 1982 excavation. Artifacts include glass packaging from foods, beverages, and medicines excavated from a cistern located beneath the south entry of the Old Main building. The process involved the inventory, organization, cataloging, identification and description of glass sherds and bottles in the Illinois State Museum Old Main collection. Jessica investigated each glass item based on distinctive characteristics and compared these to the 1906 and 1920 Illinois Glass Company catalogs. When possible, she found images of the complete bottles, and incorporated them into her comprehensive inventory, which was used for the final interpretation.

In her thesis, Jessica answered research questions about the diet and medicinal practices of the students, faculty and staff who attended ISU from 1860 to 1932. To see the results of her research, read Jessica’s Master’s Thesis. To see a blog showcasing artifacts from her thesis analysis, click here:

Harden’s Fire Extinguisher Grenade

Among the artifacts found during Keith Leroy Barr’s excavation of the cistern of Old Main in 1983, few stand out more than the outdated “Harden’s Fire Extinguisher Grenade.” During the excavation, Barr and his team found two of these grenades. One of the grenades was complete and the other was broken (Barr 1983). As it turns out, these objects were actually quite common from 1884 to the early 1900’s. The Harden Fire Extinguisher Company manufactured the grenades (known as “star” grenades, because of the star on the bottle), which were used in the late 1800’s. John J. Harden patented his invention in Chicago on April 15th 1884 (Meiser 2011). Macintosh HD:Users:rossmillet:Downloads:grenade1.jpg

Macintosh HD:Users:rossmillet:Downloads:FireGrenades-COMP.jpg

To make use of the grenade, one would throw the glass ball at an area that was on fire; the glass would break and expel the fire extinguishing contents. Grenades were made from colored glass because they looked nicer and were used as decoration as well as a fire extinguisher. They could be found in classrooms, factories, offices, and even homes (Greer 2013). The grenades were phased out in the first decade of 20th century (Ray 2013). The grenades stopped being used after it was discovered that the fire extinguishing compound, Carbon Tetrachloride (CTC), was extremely hazardous to people.  CTC can severely damage the human nervous system, and when exposed to high heat, which of course is the idea,  CTC can turn into phosgene, which is a gas used in WWI chemical warfare (WDHS 2013). It is not surprising that Old Main had these devices in the late 19th century as they would have been found in most public buildings at that time. The whole, unbroken grenade found by the archaeologists likely was tossed into the cistern after these fire extinguishing devices were banned and replaced by new forms of fire extinguishers. 

-Ross Millet


Barr, K.R. (1983). The Old Main Site (11-M1-107), Archeological Explorations Of The Illinois State Normal University Building. M.Sc. Thesis. Illinois State University: US.

Kathy, Greer. "Shop Owner and Dealer Alert… Glass Fire Extinguishers Can Be Hazardous To Your Health!."

Meiser, Gene. "The Harden "Star" Hand-Grenade Fire Extinguisher Co.." Last modified October 23, 2011.

Ray, (2013) "Light By fire Extinguisher & the Anti-Incendiary Grenades of Yore." Last modified June 10, 2013.

WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SERVICES, "Carbon Tetrachloride." Last modified August 7, 2013.

Picture Sources:

"Harden Company logo". 2013. Photograph. 4 Dec 2013.

“Various Colored Grenades”. 2013. Photograph. 4 Dec 2013.


Old Main Project
Normal, Il 61790-4660
Phone: (309) 438-8668

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