Archaeology Relies on GIS

Archaeology Relies on GIS

If Indiana Jones had GIS technology in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana might not have come so close to losing his life several times. Fortunately for today’s “real” archaeologists, GIS technology is supporting significant digs and helping preserve history.

In the upcoming webinar, Applied GIS—Archaeology and Cultural Resource Management, Archeologist and GIS Professional Bill Dickinson explores the importance of GIS in archaeology.

“The presentation is about the practical use of GIS in archaeology or cultural resource management,” says Dickinson, who is also the Principal GIS engineer for Exceptional Software. “Cultural resource management is simply the professional act of performing archaeology.”

Practical Use in Texas

While most people view archaeology as beard-growing, khaki-shirt-wearing professors in the desert holding dusty maps, many archaeologists work for state and federal organizations to make sure historical sites are not damaged.

For example, the Texas Department of Transportation worked with a CRM (Cultural Resource Management) firm to create a GIS-based historic archaeological resource that helps avoid sensitive archaeological and cultural sites.

TxDOT’s Environmental Affairs Division teamed with PBS&J to create a GIS-based historic archaeological resource, according to software provider Esri. Launched in 2007, The Texas Historic Overlay provides important information needed for planning transportation improvements and maintenance projects using historic maps and modern geospatial tools with Esri’s industry-leading GIS software. Built on ArcGIS, the project georeferenced the historic maps using vector registration overlays representing historic coordinate systems or features with GeoTIFF and MrSID image formats. Dickinson says it’s easier for agencies to use GIS to create digital maps than the paper maps.

“GIS allows archaeologists to electronically record where artifacts are recovered and to connect their data together in a modern database,” Dickinson says. “It’s all about gathering the data in a geo-referenced way that you can then put into a database and find out more things about the data that you’ve been collecting.”

Preserving History

In many cases, GIS data is the best means of preserving information about the past, especially for sites that have been or are in the process of being permanently destroyed.

The City of Alexandra, Virginia used GIS to help preserve historic Native American camps, tenant farmsteads, Civil War encampments, plantations, cemeteries and businesses. Other significant Archaeology GIS projects include The California Historical Resources Information System, Getty Conservation Institute, Newtown Historic Association, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Archaeological Database (NADA) Maps, National Park Service Cultural Resources Mapping and GIS, and the Organization of World Heritage Cities.

Historians and archaeologists have used Google Earth, MapQuest and Esri to map the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and Shakespeare taverns. The application is nearly limitless, Dickinson says, and makes the archaeologist’s job easier.

“If archaeologists want to know how many arrowheads they have found in a specific area, they can find out easily with a simple query to the GIS database,” Dickinson says. “You’d certainly have all that data years ago if you just dug up the arrowhead and wrote it down on a piece of paper, but to organize that as efficiently as GIS was hard. Once you have all the data in the GIS and in the mapping software, it becomes very simple and it just takes a second or two to make that query.”

With more emphasis on GIS for the preservation and accurate management of critical historical data, more job opportunities are arising for those with a GIS degree. Interested in a GIS career in archaeology? Check out these resources: