Student Blog — Mapping: Is it worth it?

Here’s Danny’s post tying together some of the things he learned during the field school and potential avenues to pursue in the future. — Kate

When asked why I pursued archaeology drawing maps is not the first thing I would normally think to answer, but after about a month of experience in the 2018 Nassau Mills field school I have truly begun to appreciate the practice of map making.

It is important to understand that the excavation of a site, in turn, destroys a site. More significantly excavation can destroy context. Every artifact possesses context. Context refers to where an artifact was found in relation to the layout of the site and in relation to other artifacts. Let’s say archaeologists find 1960’s material in a layer made up of rubble and 1850’s material in a layer of sandy soil. Without context this information, despite being accurate and true, is not very useful. The relationship between the two separate layers tells you much more than the layers themselves. But at the end of the day all the artifacts are sitting in the lab because of course the first layer had to be removed to gain access to the second so how can we preserve these relationships? Mapping of course!

A sketch map of the local area at BcGn-23. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.
A sketch map of the local area at BcGn-23. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.

Every time a context is determined it is recorded and mapped before being excavated. There are many methods of doing this including using a total station, triangulation, baseline measuring, etc. At first this felt tedious but after Brooke and I completed an aerial map of context 19 and I went to submit it, Prof. Connolly showed me dozens and dozens of maps and contexts forms that had been previously completed for operation area 1. It was then that I understood the importance of mapping. In one folder he possessed a plethora of information such as construction methods, occupation, chronological order of construction, material densities, cultural depth, etc. the list truly goes on and on. It was clear to me that while artifacts tell you much about who were there, understanding their contexts tells about what they did.

Mapping becomes even more necessary when conducting landscape archaeology. When trying to understand a bigger picture about a site such as land use, trade routes, movement, etc. maps allow us to see patterns that would otherwise be impossible to see.

The team using the totalstation to map out the cairns. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.
The team using the total station to map out the cairns. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.

I gained an appreciation for landscape archaeology on Big Island when the team mapped out 40 Cairns and we were able to see their positions on a Google map of the island. I realized how much one could learn from spatial patterns such as why and how they were they made. We can learn so much without ever getting our trowels dirty.

I’m excited for the future of archaeology because of the advancements in mapping technology. Technologies like photogrammetry or VR site recreations will help us gain more information about sites as well as preserve that knowledge and make it easily accessible.

The 2018 field school has allowed me to get my hands dirty but I think the most important thing I have learned is what makes an archaeologist an archaeologist. That is the ability to make sense of it all and to preserve that information. The best part is these skills are highly transferable to many occupations. It is something I appreciate now and something I can see myself doing. Now when I’m asked why I pursue archaeology I tell them because I’m piecing together the story of humanity and then I ask them if they want to see my maps!

— Daniel Kavanagh


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