Shovel Testing (by Josie Cowles)

Shovel Testing (by Josie Cowles)

Hello, my name is Josie Cowles and I am a junior here at MSU currently working with the MSU Campus Archaeology Program (CAP) to excavate the old MSU observatory. The foundation was found by the CAP crew in May of 2023, and has been the focus of this year’s field school. In the lead up to this field season the CAP crew began researching the old observatory in an effort to find out more about what might have been inside the observatory, as well as what happened to it. In this research they managed to find an old map which shows the observatory, along with a privy (outhouse) nearby. The prospect of finding a privy is very exciting for an archaeologist as people used to throw their trash and unwanted items into them, and as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. 

When I began this field school I only knew a little bit about archaeology by way of the intro to archaeology class I took freshman year. I had no hands-on experience and honestly did not know what to expect. The first few days we spent learning about the site and practicing pedestrian surveys. We then got to the good stuff, shovel testing. Before we could open up the excavation units around the observatory foundation Dr. Camp wanted to conduct shovel tests in the area where the privy was thought to have been in hopes of finding some evidence that would justify opening up a whole excavation unit in the suspected area. It also gave us a chance to practice with our trowels and learn to dig in 10 cm intervals which we call stratas.

A shovel test is an approximately 40 cm in diameter hole that is dug into the ground along a grid spaced evenly apart from other holes, the goal being to hopefully dig down to around one meter. I was assigned to STP M-4. The first couple hours were tedious and slow going as none of us had any experience doing this before. We found nothing the first few centimeters, then we began to find some old nails, and even some pieces of glass! When we combined our findings with those of the other test pits around us our TA Gabrielle Moran decided to let us dig a radial off of STP M-4. A radial is a shovel test pit that is dug halfway between two other test pits. We named this one STP RM-4. When we began digging it felt like we hit the jackpot. We ended up uncovering a substantial amount of glass, lots of old nails, and a formica washer which we later found out is used for electrical insulation.

I really enjoyed shovel testing as we had absolutely no expectation of finding anything, so everytime we uncovered a new piece of glass or a nail it was like finding buried treasure. Overall this has been a very fun and exciting experience that has taught me new skills that will be very helpful to me in the future. 

Above are artifacts from stratum two and below are artifacts from strata three and four.

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