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Paperless Shovel Test Pit Survey at the Overseer’s House

The Montpelier Archaeology Department is back in the field, and this summer, things are looking a little different. Not only are we operating under new circumstances – without a field school or public programs this summer like we usually are conducting – but we are recording our data a little differently. We have begun our transition to paperless recording using tablets and ESRI’s ArcGIS software. Since we are not running programs, we’re also conducting Shovel Test Pit Survey at the Home Farm. And we want you to follow along from home!

What is Shovel Test Pit Survey?

One of the first processes in archaeological xcavation is identifying archaeology sites. There are a number of different methods for finding sites, and we employ a number of them at Montpelier. Shovel Test Pits, or STPs, are one of the most popular methods in archaeology. The basic premise is this: on a specified interval, you dig a hole straight down to subsoil. You screen your artifacts, record stratigraphy, and check to see if there are features in your hole. If you have artifacts, you often put in additional STPs to investigate that area further. You then make maps of our artifacts and see where you have concentrations of objects. Where you have concentrations, you likely have a site to explore further.

At Montpelier, since we already do metal detector survey to help us locate historic period sites, we use STPs a little differently. In this case, the process is more focused on finding the boundaries of the site, getting a broader variety of artifacts from a survey, and trying to identify where there are features for us to excavate. Because of this, we dig our STPs on much tighter intervals, but only cover areas where we had high concentrations of metal detector hits. A little different, but the methodology is otherwise the same.

We are also using this methodology to collect soil chemistry samples from the base of each STP. This will help us get excellent coverage of these samples across the site for understanding the soil chemistry of the yardspace at the Overseer’s House. Typically we have relied on excavation units to get this information, but gathering them from STPs will ensure we have even coverage.

Why Paperless? 

We’ve been testing paperless in various forms for years, but this year, thanks to generous private funding and our growing commitment to using GIS for recording, we are moving entirely to paperless. This will help us be more efficient with our data collection, moving all of our data directly into a geospatial database, help us conduct analysis in almost real-time, and produce visually compelling reports and online exhibits so people can learn about our work. I gave a small presentation for one of our Lunch and Learns that you can watch here if you are interested in learning more:

YouTube video

We chose ESRI’s ArcGIS as our mode of data collection for a number of reasons. Most notable, however, is the ability to make data visible to public audiences in real time. Right now, you can follow along with the STP survey as it is happening by using the dashboard below! You can also click here to visit the Dashboard outside of this website.

As you can see, this dashboard shows you everything you need to explore the results of an STP survey. You can click through a series of maps (click the arrows at the bottom of the map) to see the status of the STPs, which STPs have features in them, and even see heat maps based on the concentration of artifacts. If you click on an STP, you can see the data for each of them, including photos of the actual hole and of the artifacts that were recovered. And, if you refresh every 20 or 30 minutes, new STPs will show up because the crew is out actively digging the STPs.

From an analytical perspective, this is game changing: in real time, I can make decisions about our next steps. I can see where artifacts are starting to appear, and start planning for where we want to put excavation units in real time. I don’t have to wait for this information to get data entered.

Even better, we can share this with you as it is happening! This is a great opportunity for you all to see the analytical process in real time. As more data comes in, we’ll start holding some Facebook Lives where we can actually look at the information, and talk about our next steps, so you can experience the decision making process.