Contextualizing CAP’s GIS: Introduction to Intern Jasmine Smiths Project

Hi, I’m Jasmine Smith, and I’m a CAP undergrad intern this semester. I’ve been working with CAP since I participated in the Summer 2015 field school.  I also did an internship during Fall 2015 where I examined the laboratory glass found at the Gunson site.  I was also able to work as part of the CAP field crew this summer. My project for CAP this semester involves working with a geographic information system to create a map showing where CAP has found artifacts from different time periods. The four historical periods CAP focuses on are separated into phases: phase 1 (1855-1870), phase 2 (1870-1900) and phase 3 (1900-1925) and phase 4 (1925-1955). Using GIS will allow us to visualize the distribution of artifacts we have found from each of these phases.

This past Tuesday I was able to go into the lab and look at artifacts from past excavations to get an idea of what time periods the artifacts come from. We can usually give an estimate of how old an assemblage of artifacts is depending on what we know about the site from archival research and what types of artifacts were found. Now that I have an idea of what artifacts are from each phase, I can figure out how I want to display this in the GIS.

An aerial photograph of MSU’s Campus. Every dot represents a excavation unit or test pit CAP has dug during archaeological surveys. This image does not show all of the excavations completed.

An aerial photograph of MSU’s Campus. Every dot represents a excavation unit or test pit CAP has dug during archaeological surveys. This image does not show all of the excavations completed.

CAP has used ArcMap for several years to do a number of projects. One of the things I use the most is a map that show’s every single place CAP has dug on campus. This map is basically an aerial photograph of MSU’s campus with different layers for each of the sites we’ve excavated. Each layer includes either point data that represents individual shovel test pits or polygons that represent trenches/pits. Each layer also consists of a detailed description of the site and what was found there. We also have a layer that shows historical buildings that are no longer standing. This is very helpful for giving us an idea of where we should dig on campus.

During the semester I will be adding new layers to this map for the sites we excavated the past two summers, as well as entering metadata missing for sites excavated in previous years. Other ideas that might be interesting to explore using GIS would be creating a map of the most interesting artifacts CAP has found. This would include artifacts we mention often such as the doll head from the historic privy, the men’s shoes from station terrace, etc. Another thing that might be interesting to do in the future would be to create a map showing the distribution of different artifact types around campus.

Working with GIS is something that is very new to me. I never thought much about it until this past spring semester when I took GEO 221, Intro to Geographic Information. After talking to people in the Anthropology department, I learned that GIS is a very sought after skill in Archaeology. This summer Lisa Bright, the campus archaeologist, suggested I do an internship working with CAP’s GIS. I thought this would be an awesome opportunity and so far I’ve learned a lot. I am definitely seeing how GIS can benefit archaeology.


Maintaining GIS Continuity on an Ever-Changing Campus

For the Midwest Archaeology Conference (November 5-7, 2015) this year, I’m going to be co-authoring an oral presentation on how we maintain continuity in the MSU Campus Archaeology Program when we have a consistently shifting group of graduate and undergraduates working for it. This is my sixth (that’s right, sixth) year working with CAP as a graduate student, so I have a unique perspective on how the program has maintained its goals, expanded its reach and developed over the last half decade. The presentation will discuss the roll that students, particularly the Campus Archaeologist, plays in running the program effectively, and the ways in which we promote continuity through selecting students with a strong commitment to CAP, ensuring overlap between campus archaeologists, and maintaining a strong record of prior work through field notes and digital media.We maintain continuous institutional memory, and promote a strong sense of collaboration and teamwork among both the current students and alumnus of the program.

When I arrived here back in 2010 as a first year graduate student, my first project was using a geographic information system (GIS) analysis to determine the most likely locations for prehistoric sites on campus. At this point, we had not found good evidence for prehistoric occupation of the campus, it wasn’t until summer 2011 that we found our first site and solid evidence. The model used a number of variables to determine where prehistoric sites may be found- settlements and human activity were most likely to occur within 300 meters of water, within a slope less than 5% steepness, near edible vegetation, and we were more likely to find material in areas that weren’t disturbed by prior construction. Overall, the project was not very successful, but it did get me started working on the CAP GIS database, and since then I’ve developed a more robust GIS database for the program, taught an undergrad to do GIS analysis and data input for CAP, and have helped to maintain the database as we add new layers and shapefiles when new excavations and surveys occur.

The CAP GIS database is one of the important tools in creating continuity and maintaining the program despite changes in students involved. Our CAP GIS database was first created by Chris Stawski, and since then Josh Schnell and myself have been active in maintaining it. Having an up to date and accurate spatial database is critical for archaeological work. It demonstrates where we have and have not excavated, what areas need further attention, areas that might be good for future field schools, and allows us to analyze the materials we uncover broadly in space. As each new Campus Archaeologist begins their work- the GIS database provides an important source of information for learning about the archaeological landscape of MSU. Further, this spatial information is important when communicating with broader MSU departments like Infrastructure, Planning and Facilities, and Landscaping. By showing them areas of high sensitivity, we ensure that they help to protect our heritage.

This year is my last year as a graduate student, which means it is my last year in the Campus Archaeology program. Part of my goal this year, is to make sure that my six years of work with the CAP GIS gets recorded accurately so that the next person in charge of the GIS database will know how it is organized, the coding for our files, where new files get placed in the database, how they all relate to one another, and so on. Part of ensuring that CAP has continuity means planning for when you are no longer part of the program and making sure that the next person will be able to access, use and expand your work without issue. This morning, I took time to audit our GIS database, make sure all the files were in their correct places, find bugs and issues, and I am now in the process of writing down everything that went into creating this. My goal is not to create a final product- my goal is to leave behind a spatial database that will be used and expanded in the future.

Summer Fieldwork Catch-up

I’ll admit it, this post is a little late in the making. I’ve been trying to play catch-up from the last couple of days of summer survey that left us with a ton of artifacts, and even more questions. I, and the CAP crew, spent a good portion of the summer organizing and planning, in order to not fall behind…and it all went down the drain on the LAST day of survey.

I believe we last left you with an update on our results from the People’s Park survey. While the survey did not result in many artifacts, we were able to confirm-based on GIS- that the Chittenden Memorial Cabin once stood on what is now the back steps of Wells Hall. And even though we didn’t find any artifacts directly relating to the cabin, we are now absolutely sure as to where it was

Decorated salt-glazed stoneware found in the trash pit.

Decorated salt-glazed stoneware found in the trash pit.

not. As they say, negative science is still science.

With a few days left in the summer field season, we decided to survey areas of high probability along the north side of the River Trail. MSU construction has a long-term plan of regrading and repaving both sides of the River Trail, so we figured we’d get ahead of the game and narrow down areas of potential cultural heritage. During the first couple of days of survey we found a fairly steady stream of historic artifacts (bottle glass, whiteware, and a cow tooth!) between the western edge of Beal Gardens and the Wells Hall bridge. All very exciting, but also very expected.

Then, as every archaeologist knows, we found a fascinating feature on one of our final shovel test pits, on the final day of our summer season. Directly behind Hannah Administration Building, on the beautiful lawn next to the Red Cedar River, we dug

directly into a huge trash pit. We found the entire range of CAP’s artifact typology, and more. We were pulling up bottle glass of all colors, notebook size pieces of stoneware, glass from lab beakers, lab test tubes, bullet casings, and the list goes on.

Me(Kate) showing the depth of the pit.

Me(Kate) showing the depth of the pit.

We expanded the shovel test pit into a 1×1 meter unit that went 160cm deep, and we still never found the edges or the bottom. This indicates that the large pit was purposefully dug and infilled with trash, though we don’t know when, or exactly why. It was not uncommon for the University to use trash to shore-up the river bank against erosion, or to fill in low spots…but we’ve never found a trash pit with the plethora of material equal to this. We shovel tested around the pit and found that the artifacts continue, but in a much more dispersed pattern.

Currently, we are working on the lab side of the analysis, i.e. washing, cataloging, and researching the artifacts and the area around Hannah. Dozens of the ceramics have makers marks, so it shouldn’t be difficult to narrow down a date, but it is quite time consuming. So, that is where we stand with CAP work, once again playing catch-up from a busy summer field season.


Searching for the Chittenden Memorial Cabin

Well over half of CAP’s last two weeks of summer work involved an extensive survey of People’s Park. People’s Park, for those who have never heard the term, is the open area between Wells Hall, the Red Cedar River, Erickson Hall, and the International Center. Its name comes from a series of protests that happened there in the spring of 1970. Our primary goal for the survey was to locate the Chittenden Memorial Cabin, a cabin built in the area by Forestry students to commemorate A. K. Chittenden, a beloved Forestry professor. A historical marker was recently put up outside Wells Hall about the cabin.

People's Park Shovel Test Survey

People’s Park Shovel Test Survey

We ended up surveying much of People’s Park via a shovel test pit grid at 5 meter intervals. The areas we surveyed can be seen to the left in light green. Aside from unusually compact gravelly soil, the area held few surprises. The first day of digging, we did find a large, triangular piece of concrete, presumably from an old sidewalk and continued to find large pieces of concrete throughout the week. There were only two STPs of significant interest in our survey. The first was found on the first day and, after expanding, consisted of several large (almost foundation sized) stones, and bricks, concrete, and large fragments of what we think are drainage pipes. This was located at the light blue dot on the below map. The other surprise came later in the week, and was cut short by a short rain storm. The STP marked by a light green dot on the below map had a much higher artifact concentration (including some decorated whiteware) than the rest of People’s Park as well as what appeared to be a burned layer in the stratigraphy, where a good portion of the artifacts were found. Based on the location of the short course dormitories (seen in yellow below), there is a chance it may have been a small trash pit for them, although the density of artifacts was lower and the stratigraphy was different than other trash pits found on campus.

People's Park- 1952 Buildings

People’s Park- 1952 Buildings

The above map was the result of some GIS research I did to further understand the area we were surveying. I used a 1952 map of campus and georeferenced it with our existing CAP GIS database to reveal the approximate locations of the buildings we were searching for. The yellow buildings are the ones found on the 1952 map while the brown ones are modern buildings. It turns out that the memorial cabin is currently mostly located underneath the sidewalk patio outside of the C-Wing of Wells Hall. This georeference in GIS helped us tailor our survey to hit potential “hot-spots” or areas where we were most likely to come across artifacts.

Studying the Heart of MSU through GIS

This semester I have continued to work on the GIS for Campus Archaeology and will be presenting a poster at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) this coming spring. In deciding on a research topic and a question I wanted to answer, it occurred to me to look at the most important areas on campus. I decided to focus on a historically significant area of campus, the heart, or the space located within West Circle Drive. Historically the first dorm hall, Saints Rest, and the second dorm hall, Williams Hall (the original Williams Hall) stood here; along with College Hall, MSU’s first laboratory, classroom, and administrative building. This area today supports our oldest buildings, the MSU Museum, Beaumont Tower (which is built over College Hall), Cowels House, and the now oldest building on campus, Linton Hall. This area also is important because of the picturesque area known as the “Sacred Space”, or the green space north of the museum. MSU has forbidden any structures to be built in the Sacred Space. Because this area has the greatest antiquity on campus it is of great importance to Campus Archaeology and in turn, the artifacts we find there can shed the most light MSU’s history; therefore, I decided to use the data we have for this area and create a GIS project.

Various GIS analysis tools that help to visualize, interpret, and understand data, can reveal relationships and patterns that would otherwise be unknown. I want to look at the spatial and temporal patterns of deposits in the archaeological record within the Sacred Space.  I’ll use two types of GIS analysis, hotspot analysis and exploratory data analysis. These tools can be used to reveal two very different relationships. A hotspot analysis will reveal spatially clustered areas of high or low artifact values, allowing us to see geographic locations with high densities of artifacts, versus those with low, or no artifacts. With those areas pinpointed using hotspot analysis, I can then overlay those findings with a historic map of campus, revealing spatial relations between known locations of historic buildings and the artifact hotspots. Using the exploratory analysis tools, I can statistically analyze artifact data to further illustrate the relationships between today’s finds and the historical layout of campus. Ideally, all of this would illustrate changes in the heart of MSU through time in a consolidated image.

This is not only going to be my first presentation at UURAF, but also my first academic presentation outside of class! I’m definitely very excited and hope that this project 1) turns out okay and my analysis reveals something useful and 2) is interesting for those to come see it! I’ll also be continuing to maintain the GIS for CAP in general throughout this semester. Right now we’re working to get all the initial projects CAP did into the GIS, which is proving to be more taxing than originally thought. Transferring and translating field notebooks into a GIS database that requires pinpoint locations can be tricky!

But anyways, keep an eye out for my next blog that will discuss my findings and I look forward to seeing some of you at UURAF.

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 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

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.

Archaeology 101: GIS

This year my Campus Archaeology Program project is going to be incorporating information from recent Field School’s into the pre-existing GIS map made of the Campus. This will include mapping Shovel Test Pit and excavation location and detail information. The ultimate goal of this project is to integrate all the previously gathered data obtained during CAP excavations and Field Schools to determine the predictability of finding artifacts at specific locations on campus.

GIS stands for Geographic Information System and works as a means of storing, analyzing, and displaying digitized data in a spatially meaningful way. This means that a wide variety of data can be mapped spatially including cartographic information and statistical information. This allows maps to be developed not only in a two dimensional way with street and building information, but also three dimensionally with elevation and topographic information. Statistics can also be incorporated into this as well, for example, allowing mapping of different demographics.

Raster and Vector Model

Data is put into digital form through two main types of data storage, raster and vectors. A raster is a pixel. The data is stored is rows and columns of cells. Each cell, or pixel, is assigned a value that could be anything from elevation, temperature, land use, etc. All these pixels come together to form a larger image. The value of storing data in raster cells is that is allows data to be displayed continuously, for example, elevation models are best displayed as a raster model because it allows for discreet continuous changes in elevation to be shown.

Vectors are a way of displaying data in three different types. Points, which allow for representation objects that require only a single point reference. Another data illustration that vectors allow for are lines, which allow for information such as roads, rivers, and topographic lines to be displayed one-dimensionally. The final type of data display is polygons, which allow for two-dimensional image depiction. Vector is usually seen in more in illustrating roads, lakes, sites, and other information in polygons.

When we use GIS at Campus Archaeology, we use both raster and vector layers. For aerial photos or elevation models we use vector data because it creates pictures. For information about the campus itself and our sites we create vector data. By combining the two we can create a model of campus that we can analyze.