During test-excavation at the northern end of the ridgeline at Belgenny Farm, near Camden, it was observed that topsoil only survived within the sites of previous buildings. Roy & Lisa Lawrie, soil scientists, provided an explanation – horses can easily trample the vegetation and topsoil, breaking up the turf. Rain or wind can then easily cause soil erosion, leaving only a thin layer of grass.
Knowing this, the team set out to locate where topsoil survived to pinpoint the potential location of former buildings. On a previously established survey grid, the team dug a spade hole every 2 metres, measured the depth and characteristics of the soil profile. So far, a total of four potential buildings have been found, doubling the number known from previous investigation and historical sources. As a result, the site of the “small miserable hut” is now recognised as a potential focus of early farming activity on the Camden Park Estate, developed by John & Elizabeth Macarthur from 1805 onwards – see recent excavation results.
While this technique – “shovel survey” - is commonly used overseas, particularly in the US, to locate concentrations of artifacts and then sites of habitations, it has not been used frequently in Australia. To use this technique effectively, the archaeologist must be aware of local soil conditions and have specific research goals. It is particularly applicable where sites are covered with shallow topsoil.
This form of topsoil survey is an effective and economic means of surveying large areas for potential sites.
Thanks to my colleagues, Dr. Laila Haglund and Jeanne Harris for their knowledge of the use of this technique overseas.