The Fiske Center Blog

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

October 4, 2019
by Christa Beranek

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!

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