Rainy Day Work: Integrating GIS and the Artifact Catalog

The large amount of rain East Lansing has experienced over the past three weeks has deeply affected the construction and archaeology on campus.  This delay in work has allowed us at the Campus Archaeology Program to turn our attention to the other side of archaeology: finds and analysis.  Back here at our homebase in MSU’s Consortium for Archaeological Research, we’re working on analysis and interpretation of our artifacts and integrating this with our maps.

Artifacts cleaned and ready for cataloging

Artifacts cleaned and ready for cataloging

Artifacts found on this campus vary from types of ceramics and metal fixtures found within homes to industrial pipes and building materials.  After the dig, the collected finds are returned to the lab and processed.  This means that all of the finds are washed and dried.  Following this process, members of our team work to identify the artifacts and input them into a database.  Our team notes the type of artifact and the presence of identifying characteristics such as decorative styles, any wording or maker’s mark (trademark stamps), and/or if the piece is a specific part of a vessel such as rim, handle, or base.  This allows us to look at just what types of things were being used in the early days at Michigan State College.

In the meantime, another type of analysis is occurring upstairs in the archaeology computer lab.  It is here where a slightly more technologically literate group (with skills I personally envy) works on the digital side of Campus Archaeology.  Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) members input the location of our digs on to real satellite images of the area.  This creates a multilayered map with extensive information on the site.  At current, these maps show the location of all our shovel tests (ST) (a surveying technique where a small pit is dug to sample the area).  Each shovel test is associated with the archaeological project site it is within, who dug it, and a positive or negative indication of whether finds were collected.  This process helps us located the areas of early activity on Michigan State’s campus.

So far these two important processes have been separated.  While the rain has kept us off site and stuck indoors, we have been inspired to initiate an integration of the two forms of analysis into one helpful mapping system.  Our goal is to create a more robust and useful purpose for the Campus Archaeology Program’s GIS maps.  The result of this will be the creation of a way to integrate the catalogue of artifacts into the map.

In order to represent the artifacts in the GIS system our team needed to come up with a list of artifact types that not only fully incorporates the variety and cultural relevance, but also is not overwhelming to the system.  This took a rather tedious meeting and lots of debate in order to develop the shortest and most complete list.  We debated whether we should focus on broad types such as pottery or metal, or more specific types like whiteware, stoneware or pearlware. A second debate was whether we should assess them by presence or absence, a technique that works well if something is broken within the pit, or by the frequency of finds, which works well with lots of little artifacts. We also debated how to classify artifacts, like whether we should separate items by function or material used, which becomes problematic with items like buttons that are all different materials but same function. We came up with a semi-finalized list of around 25 artifact types will be inputted in to the GIS system.   From here, each ST will be associated with either a presence/absence or item amount for each of the 25 types.

Once this is done we will be able to use the GIS maps to show where artifacts were collected, and further look at the location and concentrations of artifacts by statistical analyses. This process, which is one of the most intensive off site projects, will with all hopes be fruitful to the knowledge of your Campus Archaeology Team.

Working With GIS and Campus Archaeology

Dig PicsDec08_36

Taking notes and measurements in the field

As anyone even remotely connected to the field of archaeology can tell you, we record EVERYTHING. Note-taking and record-keeping is just as much a part of archaeology as the iconic trowel, perhaps even more so! Archaeologists must keep track of and record as much as possible at the dig site, everything from location, maps and diagrams, weather, time, spatial distribution, artifacts found, soil types, color, and stratigraphy (and even this list is nowhere near exhaustive). All of this seemingly excessive record-keeping is an effort by archaeologists to preserve what we are excavating as best as possible. Archaeology is a destructive discipline, and by that I mean, as we excavate, we destroy the very archaeological record we are seeking to understand, and because of that, it is absolutely crucial that we record as much as possible to be able to recreate and study the dig site after excavation. Good note keeping is also very helpful to anyone looking at and potentially working with a project in the future.

I spent much of the last semester learning the basics of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) as a volunteer with the Campus Archaeology Program. It was my job to go through field notebooks from past projects and field schools and enter all of the data into the GIS. Where the project took place, what was done (shovel test pits or excavation units), who was on the team, when the project happened, and whether or not artifacts were found all goes into the GIS, and my work rested entirely on the notes of past Campus Archaeologists, Field School assistants and attendees, and volunteers. Trying to match hand drawn maps to a physical location on a satellite image of campus takes some practice, and it can be even further complicated when two different maps from two separate people working on the same project contradict each other. Differences in the field journals of individuals all working on the same project made gathering a complete picture of the project and what went on very difficult at times. Often times though, I had to deal with the lack of recorded data, missing dates, STPs on the maps that had no data associated with them, and not knowing who was excavating. That resulted in a scramble through many additional notebooks from Field School students in hopes of finding the missing data. Piecing together past archaeological projects for present-day digitization is a lot like detective work and again, relies on the record-keeping of those involved in the project.

This summer, as part of the CAP survey team, I am again in charge of entering all of our projects into the GIS, and I can tell you first-hand that doing it immediately after a project you just participated in is a whole different story. Not only do you have memory of what went on and where, but being present also gives you some control over the record-keeping for the project, especially knowing that later it has to be entered into the computer. My task became so much easier working from projects that I had worked on within the few weeks prior. After seeing just how troublesome even a couple of small discrepancies in field notebooks can be, I definitely understand how important note taking is in the field, and that was just from doing GIS work, I can hardly imagine trying to study a past archaeological project that was the victim of poor record-keeping!

So for those aspiring to be archaeologists, I have one piece of advice for you: develop good and consistent note taking skills!

Day of DH!

Day of DH Logo, via MATRIX

The Day of DH is a national celebration of the range and variety of people, projects, and groups involved in digital humanities (DH). This year the event is hosted by MSU’s own DH center: MATRIX: The Center for the Digital Humanities & Social Sciences. It is a community sourced online publication and project to bring together scholars interested in DH. This year, Day of DH is taking place today, April 8th. Participants answer questions about what digital humanists do, how they work together, and provides them a chance to document their activity on this one day.

You can follow along today by visiting dayofdh2013.matrix.msu.edu or through Twitter with the hashtag #dayofdh.

Campus Archaeology is going to be participating through the blog, facebook, and twitter, so make sure to follow us on our day of DH! We use a number of digital resources to aid in our research and surveys, but also to communicate with the broader public.

Today, in celebration of the Day of DH, we are going to be working on two projects that will aid with preserving the archaeological heritage of MSU. Our intern Josh is working on adding all our archaeological surveys and excavations to a geographic information system, and I will be working on updating our OMEKA museum website. Stay tuned for updates and photos on Twitter and Facebook throughout the day!

Update from our #DayofDH

8:00am EST: Good morning!

8:15am EST: Working with Katie to get one of the undergrad posters done for the upcoming UURAF, a symposium for undergrads to show off their research. Their poster is on classifying the Saints’ Rest material we excavated in the Fall. It is interesting to see all the artifacts and what they’ve learned from them. When we make posters, we actually use powerpoint to design them, and then save them as large PDFs. It is an easy way to make posters because it is drag and drop, and can be set to the specific large size of the poster.

 

8:56am EST: Finished with draft #1 of the poster.

Screen shot 2013-04-08 at 8.55.18 AM

 

9:45am EST: Last year, we designed an OMEKA museum site for Campus Archaeology. We haven’t fully used this program- partially because there is so much to do and partially because I still have problems sometimes making it work properly.

Screenshot of the OMEKA item with geolocation

Today my goal is to finally add spatial data to the artifacts. This means assigning a geolocator (longitude and latitude) to every artifact we have online. Shouldn’t be too hard since many are located in the same area! Check out the progress here at campusunearthed.matrix.msu.edu/.

11:00am EST: I was able to update a dozen or so of the items on the OMEKA with their geolocation, and it seems to be working pretty well! In addition to this, Katie has been able to get the next draft of her poster done and added in some sweet photos of the Saints Rest collection from the 2012 excavation. However, if you want to see that work you’ll have to head over to the undergrad symposium this friday at the MAC Union!

Thinking about DH and CAP: Here at Campus Archaeology, digital tools are integrated into every stage of our workflow- it is inescapable, but in a good way. At every stage of the work we do there is a strong digital and analog component. Any dig we begin starts with research online and in the archives. We investigate GIS maps, both our own and the one created by the university’s Physical Plant so that we can prepare an excavation or survey plan. As we learn more about the work we are going to be doing, we share this information through social media and our blog. Once we are out in the field, we tweet and photograph everything that we are doing. When the dig in complete, we catalog every artifacts into a database, add the new excavation data to our GIS, and write up everything for our blog. It is incredible that even as a discipline so concerned with the past, our methods and techniques are constantly being updated with new technology. But what does this have to do with the digital humanities? If you followed along with others on their Day of DH, you know that it is an inclusive and highly varied field that is loosely based on the intersection between digital technology and humanities related disciplines. DH is exciting, not because it is finding new ways to display data or share information, but because it is based on values of innovation, engagement, and community interaction. We at Campus Archaeology are committed to these- we are always searching for ways to improve our research and better share our findings through new digital tools like OMEKA, we strive to engage with people on a number of both digital and analog levels through social media and engagement events, and we are dedicated to interacting with the MSU, East Lansing, and broader community interested in learning about and preserving history.

New School Year on a Historic Campus

CAP field school student excavate 

It’s the beginning of a new school year here at Michigan State University. Even though Campus Archaeology has been hard at work all summer, we are excited for the upcoming fall semester. We have a new batch of graduate researchers and undergraduate interns starting up a number of projects to research and interpret prior archaeological work done on campus, and also help find new ways of connecting our work to the community.

Those of you who are new to the university, MSU has a rich archaeological heritage beneath the current campus. MSU was founded in 1855, and the remains of the original campus buildings are still being found. Campus Archaeology not only protects and excavates the historic campus, but we also have a large body of resources for you to learn more about them.

Read our reports about the archaeological work done on campus: Campus Archaeology Research

Learn about the first dormitory on campus: Saints’ Rest: A Story of Student Life at MSU

Check in at historic campus buildings using FourSquare: MSU Campus Archaeology

Take a historic tour of campus through Gowalla, a mobile phone application: Michigan Agricultural College Tour

Check out photos from the summer fieldwork: MSU Campus Archaeologist on Flickr

Watch our videos on our excavations and surveys on YouTube: MSU Campus Archaeologist Channel

Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date on what’s going on: @capmsu

Like us on Facebook: @capmsu

We’re looking forward to a new year, and hope that you will become involved with MSU’s history and archaeology.