Week 6: STP Paradise

Week 6 saw us back in the field excavating at two new structures (Trumpet Tree Mound in the settlement, and Str. 10 in the monumental core). However, our focus for the blog this week is shovel test pits. The following is written by PhD student, Matt Longstaffe.

When thinking about archaeology, images of adventure and discovery often come to mind. Think, for example, the excavation of ancient palaces, temples, and tombs – lost for thousands of years, found deep in the jungle. While this certainly has been, and in some cases still is, one part of archaeology – there are, however, other pathways to discovery…

Take, for example, the humble shovel test pit.

What is a “shovel test pit” you ask? (well… maybe you are not …). It is exactly as it sounds: a small test pit, most often (but not always) excavated using a shovel, usually (but, again, not always) dug in a systematic manner (for example, on a regularly spaced grid). One of the most commonly used archaeological data collection methods, the shovel test pit allows archaeologists to gather a variety of different types of data. For example, stratigraphy, artifacts, eco-facts (e.g., botanicals, charcoal), and soils and sediments can all be collected using a “STP”. As an excavation tool, it is valuable in the sense that it allows for collection of data in a systematic and minimally invasive manner across a large area in a relatively short amount of time. They are useful for identifying spatial patterns related to past human activities, for example, through the analysis of artifacts, ecofacts, and the concentration of chemicals and trace element residues in the soil. Different activities – for example, manufacturing goods, cooking food, and disposing of refuse – leave different and unique archaeological signatures. Through the triangulation of multiple lines of evidence, archaeologists can use data from STPS make arguments for the types of activities that took place in ancient spaces, and in some cases, identify the actual locations where activities occurred.

This summer, my fieldwork at Alabama has focused on the shovel test pit. I am investigating the off-mound space associated with one of Alabama’s largest outlying settlement groups (the same group at which Meaghan, and earlier this summer Dave, have been conducting test excavations). My goal for this field season is to systematically test the spaces between and behind the settlement group’s three mounds.

To do this, I am excavating 50 cm by 50 cm test pits, on a regularly spaced 5-meter grid. Some of my goals include: to collect artifacts, ecofacts, and soils and sediments from across the settlement group, identify features, locate any buried architecture, identify activity areas and refuse deposits, and gather stratigraphic information related to both cultural (e.g., plaza construction) and natural (e.g., accumulation of soil and sediments) contexts. This of course, is just part of broader multi-year research plan to collect and analyze data from a variety of archaeological contexts, using different excavation and laboratory methods, to help us better understand the livelihoods of the people who resided at not only this settlement group, but also the Alabama settlement as a whole.

So far, we have excavated over 150 test pits. We are working not in the jungle, but rather in an orange grove. On sunny days it can be oppressively hot – the work is hard and hydration is critical.

Because we are constantly moving around the orchard. we don’t have the luxury of shelter. That means when it’s sunny there is no shade, and when it rains you get wet.

Nonetheless, these excavations have been rewarding, and have already taught us a lot about this settlement group and the ancient Maya who lived here.

Some general highlights:

  • There is a formal raised plaza associated with the group, constructed using boulder and river cobble fill.
  • Almost all of the test pits contain cultural materials, whether ceramic, daub, lithics, or in some cases, remnants of groundstone tools. I was not sure how much cultural material we would find at this settlement group and have been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of artifacts we’ve recovered.
  • Several of the test pits have recovered diagnostic ceramics and charcoal, which will hopefully allow us to build a chronology for the construction of the plaza.
  • Test pits behind one of the buildings look like they may have located a midden (garbage!).
  • Soils and sediments have been collected from each test pit. Through laboratory analysis I hope to characterize the soils to identify chemical signatures related to past activities.