Archaeology In A Digital Age

Virtual ColchesterWhen people think about archaeology, they usually think of digging and processing artifacts. That’s part of it, but the Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) is more than field and lab. CART is a part of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch, and it’s CART that is investigating Old Colchester Park and Preserve, a marvelous piece of history on Mason Neck in southern Fairfax County.

Marion Constante is at the forefront of that investigation, and her tool is a geographic information system (GIS), a technology that combines hardware, software and data to make sense out of geographic information. GIS helps make maps and charts and reports and helps understand the relationships of the things in those maps and charts. The county’s Virtual Fairfax map is an example.

Since joining the CART team, Marion has taken our GIS from a tool used to record and analyze to a whole new level. We now have the ability to see the historic town of Colchester from a perspective that has not existed for over 200 years. The project is entirely data-based and without conjecture. Marion integrated historic and archaeological data to create “Virtual Colchester,” for which she won the “Best Cartographic Product” award from the Fairfax County GIS and Mapping Services Branch in November 2013.

Perhaps of equal importance was her application of a programming language to create 3D projections.  Marion wrote a script – a tool to automate processes and tasks – to more efficiently model 3D structures found at Colchester. Spatial data with information about the size and shape of the buildings was linked with the necessary tools to create a model.

We can apply this script to archaeological and historical data from other parks, and the things we learn will make the Park Authority better at teaching visitors about the changes in Fairfax County’s landscape across time. The next step will be equally, if not more, challenging: to create environments for all periods of human occupation at Old Colchester back to the Early Archaic Period, approximately 10,000 years ago.

Marion has taken the information from a database about where artifacts were found at Old Colchester and written scripts that can be used with other scripts to create maps that show where things were found. These artifact distribution maps (similar to the one shown below) help us see where concentrations of artifacts were found, and that gives us a visual aid in understanding what people were doing at the site. The brighter colors on the map are areas of higher artifacts concentrations. Marion can create these “heat maps” to show the distribution of any artifact type or time period, and that helps us target areas that are of the greatest research value and ability to teach us about Fairfax County’s rich cultural heritage.

The Friends of Fairfax Archaeology and Cultural Resources are hosting a free open house at Old Colchester Park on Saturday, May 3, 2014, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Visitors will be able to tour the park and see Native American and Colonial artifacts from the site. Tours of the Town of Old Colchester are scheduled for 10 a.m. and 12 noon. A one-hour hiking tour of the park begins at 1 p.m. Old Colchester Park is at 10605 Furnace Road in Lorton, VA. There will be a shuttle bus from the parking lot at Mason Neck West Park, 10418 Old Colchester Road in Lorton. Information at 703-534-3881.

Author Megan Veness is the Field Director of the Colchester Archaeological Research Team, and co-author Marion Constante is a GIS Specialist.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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