Ask Adonijah: What is the oldest item in the University Archives? Why do people avoid the Zodiac?

The 12 zodiac signs can be found on The Zodiac, Iowa State’s iconic bronze floor piece in the entrance to Gold Star Hall in the Memorial Union. Today, some students find interest in daily horoscopes, while others think they are trivial.  

Editor’s note: “Ask Adonijah” is a contributed piece from the Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. The piece is named after Adonijah Welch, who was Iowa State’s first president, and seeks to answer community members’ questions about the history of Iowa State. Have a question? Let us know by emailing [email protected].

It seems that our readers did not fail us. We received two questions about Iowa State University history that I will answer today. An excellent start to this column!

What is the oldest Iowa State item in the University Archives?

The first question comes from Sara, who asks, “What is the oldest item related to ISU in the university archives?”

For the answer to that question, I put pen to paper and contacted Brad Kuennen, the university archivist, who keeps track of such things. The following is his response:

The earliest university record we have in the library is “The First Annual Report of the Secretary of the Iowa State Agricultural College,” submitted to the Iowa General Assembly in 1859. This report documents the early efforts of locating the farm, acquiring lands and planning for the college and farm buildings. A copy of this report is available to read in the Special Collections and University Archives reading room.

However, there may be something even older. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to verify the claim attributed to it. The archives has a collection of artifacts and one item in the collection is an old surveying compass. There is a note that identifies this compass as the one used to do the original survey of the college grounds in 1859. If so, this would be as old, or older, than the secretary’s report identified above.

So there you have it. Those materials even predate my connection with the school by a decade. I’m sure that if anyone wants to see these items the friendly folks in 403 Parks Library would be happy to help.

Why do people avoid the Zodiac?

Ben asks, “Why do people avoid walking on the Zodiac?”

That is a good question, Ben. Everyone who has entered or exited the Memorial Union from the north entrance has noticed the raised symbols and letters on the floor just inside the doors. For some reason, most people avoid walking across them.

According to tradition, it is bad luck to walk across the Zodiac and that a student who does will fail their next examination. One can lift the curse by tossing a penny into the fountain just north of the Union.

I think this is nonsense. The designer intended for students to walk across the symbols and thus both polish them and wear them down to the level of the surrounding floor. It is high time that the Iowa State student body realize this poor man’s vision.

For a student body dedicated to understanding the world through scientific inquiry, this superstition seems entirely out of place. Has anyone done research to determine if this “curse” has any validity? I imagine the results of such a study would entirely disprove the notion that the Zodiac transmits bad luck. We just need to find some volunteers to participate in the study. Would you, brave reader, be willing to walk across the Zodiac in the name of science?