shovel1Documents like historic maps give us some idea of the developmental history of an urban lot like that at 810 Royal. Likewise, when we have previous archaeological investigations like those at Madame John’s or at St. Anthony’s Garden, we have a better idea of what to expect beneath the ground. However, even though there are a number of sophisticated remote sensing tools available these days, there’ s still only one way to figure out what has been preserved beneath the ground: going out and testing it, typically through a technique called shovel testing. Digging a shovel test involves excavating a small test pit, usually no more than 30 to 50 cm in diameter, and systematically collecting the artifacts found in each layer within it. These tests are then used to inform decisions about the research potential of a site, by providing data on what time periods and occupations are best-represented. We knew, for instance, that the 810 Royal lot had been continuously occupied for almost 300 years; however, only through testing could we determine, for example, that materials from the 1730s were better preserved than ones from the 1750s. Once we extend these tests across the site, we can get a sense of how the strata –layers of soil and debris—are arranged, and we can then target the areas with the best-preserved or most unique historic remains.

Testing was limited at 810 Royal by the presence of cement structural slabs occupying much of the lot. However, a space between these slabs offered the opportunity to examine stratigraphy across its main axis, from Royal Street to its rear. The presence of this open area initially did not seem promising, as it seemed like it might be due to the presence of a modern utility. However, shovel tests along its extent found a well-defined context representing debris from the 1788 fire, indicating that the levels deeper in the ground should be preserved.

shovel3The rear portions of urban lots are always areas of great archaeological potential, as they are often the locations of artifact-rich pit features like privy shafts and wells. Before the era of regular municipal trash collection, such holes in the ground became convenient receptacles for waste when they were no longer useful for their original function. While some of our tests involved the back part of the 810 Royal lot, it is obvious just from seeing the ground surface that such deposits are present here. One of our shovel tests actually sampled the interior corner of what appeared to be an early antebellum privy shaft, but it appears to have been at least partially cleaned out previously. Still, a number of unusual ceramic wares, ranging from Native American pottery to Spanish majolica, suggest additional potential in the area.