Working With GIS and Campus Archaeology

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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!


Author: Josh Schnell

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