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Mapping Nunalleq

August 14, 2015

IMG_4946With so many spectacular artifacts coming from the excavation of Nunalleq every day, it easy to gloss over the duller topics of excavation: what it is and why it has to be done a certain way. I love archaeological excavation and so it pains me to say this, but excavation is a destructive process. When we trowel down through the different contexts we are removing the site and it will no longer be in the ground for others to learn from. This is why excavation has to be done in a well-documented way. We need to convert the site from a physical deposit in the ground into records like photographs, maps, and standardized notes. Archaeologists have a responsibility to ensure these records are accurate and informative so others can use the records in the future to continue to learn from the site, even after it has been excavated.

As it is destructive, sometimes the decision is made to not excavate a site and leave it in the ground. This may be because it is important to the local community that the site be left undisturbed or maybe there isn’t sufficient time or funds to do a proper job of the excavation.

One factor considered by the community and the archaeologists when making the decision to excavate Nunalleq has been the coastal erosion. If you’ve explored the blog, you’ve likely read about the increasingly warmer winters in Quinhagak, the loss of permafrost, the resulting soil instability, and the risk of losing the site to the sea with one big storm. This risk is real and so the team is in a bit of a race against nature and time to learn as much about the site as possible before the seemingly inevitable happens.

One tool in efficiently and accurately documenting the excavation at Nunalleq is the total station. It is used to record all sorts of location information, both horizontal and vertical (for example, where artifacts are found within the site, where samples of hair and soil are collected, and the depths of different levels).

There are different ways of recording this information. When I attended my first archaeology field school we were taught to use a theodolite and used measuring tapes, strings, line levels and plumb-bobs to map artifact locations. This was labor-intensive and time consuming. The total station we use at Nunalleq only needs two people; one person holds the prism and the other aims the total station at the prism and then records the artifact’s location in its internal memory.


When an artifact is found through troweling, its location is marked with a small flag for mapping with the total station. As the excavation progresses into the undisturbed house floors, more artifacts are found and very quickly the site turns into a sea of fluttering flags. For this reason, there is usually a designated “total station team” on site.

In the morning, the team sets the total station up on its tripod and levels it over a datum. They program the total station so it “knows” where it is and what direction it’s facing, and then it is ready for a busy day of shooting in points. Once set up, an artifact’s location can be recorded in seconds and at the end of the day it takes only a few minutes to bring all the information into a computer program to make maps of the site.

In our race against nature and time, the total station is a valuable member of the crew. Not only does it free up people and time for excavation, but its high-powered lens can also be used to confirm that bushes moving on the horizon are not bears, watch ships at sea, or check the cleanliness of the archaeologists’ ears from across the site (not recommended).


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