The Fiske Center Blog

Weblog for the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Turner House in Pembroke…and what is a shovel test pit survey?


The Fiske Center for Archaeological Research is about to start a project at the Turner House in Pembroke, MA. We’ll be doing a shovel test pit (STP) survey, which is often the first phase of excavation at a site.  This post will explain what an STP survey is and talk about some of the questions we’d like to answer. As the project goes on, we’ll be doing short Facebook (at the Fiske Center) and Instagram (at UMBArchaeology) updates for those who’d like to follow along!

The Turner house in Pembroke, summer 2019

But first, a little about the Turner House –

The Turner House and the land around it are owned by the Town of Pembroke.  The Turner family purchased the land in the 1600s, and John Turner was an important local figure in the political activity leading up to the American Revolution.  The standing house dates to the early 19th century and was probably built when John Turner’s son or grand-nephew owned the land.  Members of the Pembroke Historical Commission wanted to learn more about the property around the house, so contacted the Fiske Center to conduct some research.  We’d like to find out if there any places where there are archaeological deposits that could tell us more about the people who lived here, either in this house, in older houses on the property, or before the colonial period.  There haven’t been many archaeological digs in Pembroke focused on historic sites, so we’re excited to see what we learn.


UMass grad students Rick and Megan with an STP at the Turner House

One of the questions that people always ask archaeologists is how we decide where to dig.  A shovel test pit survey is one of the ways to answer that question.  During an STP survey, we dig small excavation units at regular intervals across the landscape, every 15 feet for example.  We use these to look for artifact concentrations, or places where older soil layers are present, buried under the modern surface.  Lots of shovel test pits might have nothing in them, but a concentration of test pits with bricks and nails might help us narrow down where an old building stood.  Broken bits of dishes and other household artifacts could tell us where people threw out their trash at different periods in the past.  Since we know the date ranges of many kinds of artifacts, trash from different time periods can tell us when people used different parts of the landscape, from the ancient Native past to much more recent times.

We are planning a shovel test pit survey at the Turner House, small 50 x 50 cm (1.5 x 1.5 ft) excavations spaced out over part of the property.  We have some specific questions that we hope to answer this fall using this method.

First, what have been the effects of more recent activities on archaeological deposits?  Anything from plowing a field to installing a utility pipe can affect things that are buried.  How well preserved are the areas around the Turner House?

Second, if the existing house dates to the early 19th century, where were the Turners living for the century before that?  There was an older house on the property — can we find evidence of it?  Or was it under the standing house?

Finally, what about the Native past?  Are there places where the evidence of how Native people used this land are still preserved after centuries of plowing and building?  It might surprise you how often this kind of evidence survives, even in much more heavily developed areas.

We’ll be trying to answer these questions and more this fall.  Feel free to ask questions here or on Facebook.  We’d especially love to hear from you if you know about historic maps, photos, or drawings of the Turner House!


  1. Test pits 1.5 ft deep may not do the trick. In 2010 the whole site was bulldozed around the house.

  2. Hi Libby, Yes, we’ve heard that but haven’t been able to find out details of exactly how far around the house. So one of our major questions is what the extent of the disturbance is. If you know the specifics, I’d love to hear more. (Also, our test pits go deeper than 1.5 feet — that’s just the horizontal dimension.)

  3. Can I bring kids by and what would be the best time come?

  4. You can, though the site is quite overgrown and has some debris around, so I recommend long pants and good shoes. We are there Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from about 8 to 3 when the weather is decent.

  5. Hello guys
    I know this information that you need is certainly what your looking for. I do hope that it’s not to late for the team to reopen the Turner house site on Washington St. In Pembroke MA.
    Not only did I grow up around the area I lived in the Turner house when Michael’s the tree arborist had occupied the Turner property.amd might add that there were several other people that can verify that what I tell you is the truth.we not only know how much backfilling went on at the Turner house but we can tell you who knew that the backfilling was going on (for years).

    The Pembroke Town Hall was fully aware of the activities going on at the above-mentioned address.The town of Pembroke was having their dpw trucks and workers dumping fall and spring brush while the owner chipped or just bulldozed the debris all around the property.this worked well for the properties axhasent to it.they made a nice sponge those woodchips when they were doing perk tests and built a couple million in house’s.and let’s not forget about the future of the Turner property, Pembroke has big plans for there new fire station.
    My brother also is the owner of the old mill and box company next door and there’s much to be said for that property as well. I hope to hear from you guys.y Barry 857-417-5363

  6. Hi Barry, Thanks for your comment on the Turner House. We knew that there was widespread disturbance, so one of the testing goals was how widespread and how deep. Although the level of disturbance due to landscaping was very high, we did find a few areas where the ground surface associated with the early period of the house was preserved. Even though these areas are small, it’s really important to know about these for planning future use for the property.
    –Christa Beranek

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