GIS in Archaeology

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) is a necessary tool for all researchers in the field of archaeology regardless of area of expertise. Archaeology above all things is a science of material culture and a critical facet of understanding material culture is interpreting the relationship between material culture across the landscape and also how material culture is related to different components of the landscape. Archaeology is like a great detective story, it is an attempt to understand pieces of an unknown puzzle.

A key principle in the geographical sciences is that the closer things are to each other the more related they will be.

Archaeologists use this principle to understand past human behavior by mapping in the location of sites, their features and artifacts. By examining the spatial distribution of artifacts and sites – archaeologists can then interpret past spatial behaviors at a site, and the different types of activities that took place across a region and within their territories.

There are 4 key benefits of using GIS in archaeology:

1). Examining spatial patterns across a site or region for interpreting past behavior. Included within GIS packages are powerful spatial statistics.
2). Correlating the relationship between sites, or individual artifacts within sites to the landscape. The landscape in GIS can be modeled with such things as elevation, distribution of water, location of lithic resources, most prominent landmarks, etc.
3). Making pretty maps. A lot of archaeologists stop at this level of expertise, and this is an important aspect. Archaeology is a visual science and making great maps are important for displaying the location of artifacts and sites on the landscape.
4). Managing data. The story of archaeology is told across space and time. GIS offers a great database function to manage information that is tied to a place on earth. Artifacts collected in the field occur from a particular place with an x,y,z coordinate, however, intangible information can also be tied to space, such as an oral history told by an elder about a particular site or place.


ArcGIS: is the most popular commercial software coded by ESRI out of Redlands, California. It is very expensive, but most universities do have an academic license for this software. The main benefit of ArcGIS is that it is easy to use, and this is the main type of software taught at universities.

Grass GIS and QGIS: Grass GIS was developed by the U.S. Army with the help of several universities and other federal agencies. This software is free! It has been around a long time and is now a lot more user friendly to start up and use. There is more of a learning curve in getting started, but for coders I feels this software offers many more benefits to developing add-on specific applications than for ArcGIS.

Caveat: I am not a coder, but have learned to work through the specific commands of the software.

I have been using Grass GIS for several years now and prefer it over ArcGIS for some functions, but I use both in combination. I was attracted to Grass GIS early on due it’s availability on Macs – ArcGIS only works on PCs. Another big difference between ArcGIS and Grass GIS is how it handles files. In ArcGIS different types of files can be scattered all across the hard drive of a computer. I have spent countless hours for an important source of data that I have put in a subfolder and can not relocate. If you are working on a map with a data source and move that file in an organization attempt to clean up your hard drive, then ArcGIS will not be able to display the information on the map. Although in recent versions of ArcGIS, ArcGIS will automatically load other data sources within the same map if you can locate one of the files and if the data sets are within the same folder. In contrast, Grass GIS stores your datasets within its specific folder structure system associated with a particular map and projection. Therefore, you are less likely to lose data on the computer, but it is a more rigid system and requires that all of the data is in the correct projection and set geographic boundary. I spent a lot of time figuring this out about Grass GIS.

QGIS (Quantum GIS) is a more user friendly shell for GIS and works with Grass. It is also open sourced it works on most platforms including a mobile Android version. If you are interested in Grass GIS then you will also use QGIS.


Teaching Anthropology

I taught an introductory course in anthropology for several years while finishing up my Phd at the University of Oklahoma. I have taught other classes in archaeology including Great Discoveries, North American Archaeology, and World Heritage sites. I feel that I have had the greatest impact on students in my Intro to Anthropology classes. Most of these students were only taking the course to satisfy a humanities credit. However, for most of them this course was and will be their only exposure to the concepts of culture, cultural diversity, identity, the concept of race, human evolution, past cultures, and modern cultures. These are all extremely important topics that I believe all Americans should be exposed to as part of their general education.

I was listening to NPR early in the morning while driving to a dig site to meet the crew at 6:45 a.m. The radio had my full attention for over an hour. One of the news segments discussed the controversy of Mexican-American classes being taught in Arizona. I think ethnic study classes are great for providing students with a sense of history and identity.

However, rather than teach specific ethnic classes why not give anthropology a try? Teaching the four subfield approach of anthropology in either Middle School or High School curriculum would provide all students with a holistic view on culture. In biological anthropology students would learn about the origins of our species, and how race is not a valid biological concept. The archaeological section of the class would demonstrate the long history of the creation and change in cultures throughout the world. From linguistics, students could learn how language shapes culture and is a marker of identity. Cultural anthropology would enlighten students to the diversity in modern cultures and how this diversity is a hallmark of our species, and how culture continuously changes and impacts our daily lives.

The lack of cultural awareness, and knowledge of our history as a species for graduating seniors is sad. U.S History taught in high schools typically focuses only on the recent Euroamerican time period with very little mention of past Native American groups and the over 12,000 years of Native American history. At my high school in Oklahoma we had only a half of a semester devoted to Oklahoma history taught by a coach, and the other half was Drivers Ed. We also spent a lot of that semester outside playing softball.

Teaching evolution in schools would be a sensitive subject in many states, but students need this education regardless if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Studying evolution would demonstrate to students that even though we have many different beliefs today, we all come from the same place. Evolution is often poorly misunderstood and students with different religious belief systems could become better educated about evolution rather than assuming incorrectly that evolution equates to “survival of the fittest” or that “humans evolved from monkeys”.

Conflicts over education normally boils down to conflicts over identity. The development of ethnic classes is important to show the importance and value of cultures that do not dominate culture today. I argue that anthropology can enlighten students to cultural awareness from a broader perspective than more specific ethnic courses, and that this is a necessary part of the education system for all students.

Total station for elevation control

Using an EDM (Total Station) for elevations only.

I discovered this trick when several of our transits and levels were damaged and stopped working.

Set Up:

No need to set up over a grid point. Simply set up the total station anywhere at the site. Make sure that it is level. Then shoot to a known elevation point. Add or subtract this difference in elevation to the total station’s instrument height. Sometimes it can make it easier to zero out the HI for the total station to know how much to add or subtract to the total station HI. Then reshoot to the known elevation point to confirm that the resulting elevation is the correct elevation of that known point. You can also shoot to other elevation points to confirm the elevation accuracy. This method is easy to use, and there are no calculations necessary to subtract the elevation from the HI of a transit or level from the stadia rod. The total station does all of this for you. This method also works great when there are dramatic elevation differences at the site.

Special Note: The total station also works great around camp for star gazing at night.

Post-PC or Original Hipster?

I am converting to using an ipad as my main research tool over a laptop or desktop computer.
After all my iPad and iPhone for that matter has a lot more power and ability than my first iMac or iBook computer that had only a 3G hard drive.

Caveat: I still use my MacBook Pro or Windows desktop for statistics, GIS, formatting manuscripts, and backing up data.

Why convert to a Post-PC device?

First off it is really cool being able to work from anywhere, and not to worry about battery power for most of the day. The other critical factor for me is that I think the iPad is the single greatest computer device ever invented. My mother uses an ipad and knows nothing about computers. I like how intimate it is to work on an ipad, it is more like working with a pen and paper at your favorite desk or table. I am also convinced I will read and write more since there are fewer distractions – as long as not too many games are downloaded anyway.

My Favorite Apps

Endnote: excellent reference and PDF manager, this app really makes it possible for me to leave the desktop behind.

Pages: only significant word processor on the market, I do enjoy using this app and having it sync with my desktop version, but I am waiting for the ipad version of Scrievner.

Numbers: only significant spreadsheet app on the market.

Keynote: only significant presentation app on the market; I prefer Keynote over PowerPoint on my desktop, I do not like the changes in format presentations go through converting from the desktop to ipad version.

Goodreader: best pdf reader app; I like the ability to export highlighted sections and notes that I then copy and paste into my notes section within Endnote. I typically open my PDF attached in Endnote into Goodreader due to Endnote’s limited PDF annotation capabilities.

Bento: great and easy to use database. I think it is quicker to enter data on my ipad than on a desktop spreadsheet or database.