What the Tech…?!

A recent SHA Academic and Professional Training Student Sub-committee survey asked student members what technologies are necessary in archaeology and as professionals. In continuing support of the identification, discussion, and application of relevant technologies, student member, Tim Goddard, agreed to (re)introduce the concept behind the Technology Room – a great space for students and professionals to engage in one-on-one conversations about current technologies in historical archaeology.

Thank you for the opportunity to blog about the Technology room from/for a student’s perspective. I gladly serve on the SHA’s Technology committee. I am also a Graduate student finalizing my PhD. Several years ago, when I first joined the committee, one of my first conversations with fellow members explored the challenges of presenting the use of technology to SHA members who were not already a part of the “technology crowd”. For many previous years, the same group of colleagues presented the latest technologies they were playing with and composed the small number of technology sessions at annual meetings. Despite the fun of this, rarely did we see new faces – especially people wanting to learn about technology.

The Technology Committee was created to serve the SHA’s needs as they relate to technology. This can include almost anything, which has been the case thus far. Only the Website has remained outside the purview of the technology committee. We serve to advise the SHA board and any interested members on almost any technology-related application, either for the Society, or for use in the field of archaeology. As you can imagine, this is an extensive scope. The diverse technical needs of archaeologists require that the committee have a number of members from a wide variety of technological backgrounds. We cover topics including: social media, geophysics, remote sensing, data collection, data management, GIS, LIDAR, 3D, virtual worlds, network management, etc.

pXRF Technology Leicester 2013. PxRF technology allows us to identify the chemical composition of soils and/or artifacts. The committee regularly offers workshops at the SHA to learn how to use this technology. The following link is an example of one use by one of our committee members David Morgan (http://ncptt.nps.gov/blog/pxrf-presentation-at-lasmaa/).

With some of my own work in WebGIS, I was frustrated that it was not possible to demonstrate my research in a virtual poster session allowing people to view and interact with my presentation via a computer terminal. To do so would have meant me renting a table space, electricity and Wi-Fi, in the exhibition room. Something that is not really feasible for most students! I also know firsthand from teaching that there are a large number of archaeologists that have technology phobias. This fear can be found in young students as well as established emeritus colleagues around the world. So I wanted to know how we could better serve those members at the conferences. We developed the idea of the Technology Room.

Our first experiment with a dedicated technology demonstration space was at the 2011 meeting in Austin, Texas. We decided to focus on three to four key technologies that we felt every archaeologist should know about. We found a handful of our colleagues working with these technologies and invited them to bring the actual technology to our room and to sit down for a block of time to answer questions and provide demonstrations, and hands on experience were possible, for interested colleagues. We strove to recruit archaeologists using technologies in their research projects rather than sales representatives. The idea was great and we got positive feedback, but our execution that first year needed some help.

LIDAR technology Leicester 2013. LIDAR typically comes in aerial or terrestrial applications. This is a terrestrial style scanner being demonstrated in the Technology Room. A good link to see LIDAR uses in heritage is http://archive.cyark.org/?gclid=CPX7m8a13boCFQLl7AodR0oAXw.

In the following years we continued to showcase various technologies by having practicing archaeologists demonstrate the technology in the exhibition room, which was always problematic and also made communicating difficult with all the noise. Last year, in Leicester, was the first year that we had our own dedicated room, making communicating much easier. We saw a drop in traffic indicating that we still need to get the word out there about the Technology Room. An undergraduate student who I supported at Leicester found the Room worth noting in a blog he posted about his first conference experience. There is something for everyone in the Technology Room.

UAV Technology Leicester 2013. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are popping up everywhere in archaeology. From a simpler Quadcopter to multiple thousand dollar units with multiple sensor platforms are finding many uses every year in archaeology.

What are the purposes of the Technology Room?

  1. Present the latest and greatest technologies being used in archaeology.
  2. Have a practicing archaeologist familiar with the technology to educate others about what did and didn’t work.
  3. Learn what pitfalls to avoid.
  4. The real costs involved.
  5. Share technology driven research that can’t always be demonstrated in a traditional symposium.
  6. Network with various technology minded colleagues

What is the benefit to Students? Students:

  1. learn about technologies that you might not know about through your own institution;
  2. are often our best presenters as they grew up in a technology age and can help others with technology phobias in a professional context;
  3. can learn and see technology in a low pressure environment;
  4. and can network to find projects using a technology they might be interested in working with.

So I challenge you:

What Technology are you interested in? What role do you feel technology should play in archaeology? What are the problems we face with technology? How can we (SHA) or your institution better train you for technology-related applications?

Comment below as well as stop by the Technology Room this January.

Tim Goddard

Examining Space of a Resting Place: GIS of a New York Cemetery

This post is part of Tech Week, which highlights a group of posts about specific applications of technology to archaeological investigations. This week, the focus is on Technology and Mortuary Archaeology. See the other posts in this series here.

“Will you be buried or will you be cremated? I think I’d like to be buried so I have a headstone like Elvis. Though I think that when you have a headstone and you’re in a place it puts great pressure on your family, your surviving family, to visit you.”

-Rob Brydon, The Trip

Place is important. As Brydon says in the movie “The Trip”, place allows you to create a mark and leave something tangible behind in your memory, but it also puts a responsibility upon the mourning community. Place gives us a sense of belonging, a heritage and ancestry, and a deeper connection to our surroundings. Burials are the final statement of place that humans get to make- for themselves through wills, for their loved ones, or even for their enemies in battle. Both the manner of the burial, memorial and the place are important.

The memorials of the deceased reflect the historical present in which they were buried. Grave markers, location of burial and epitaphs all follow trends that help us better interpret what was of social importance during these periods. Due to the high emotion of death, the trends associated with burial are usually slow to change and have high social significance. Examining the patterns of grave markers and epitaphs aids in creating more nuanced interpretations of how individuals wanted to memorialize and remember their relatives, and also how these patterns changed through time.  As Cannon (2002:191) argues: “the growth and transformation of these expressions over time can therefore be read as a historical narrative of individual choices made in response to spatial representations of the immediate past and perceptions of current and anticipated social and political circumstances”.

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer based program that allows us create spatial maps in order to visualize, analyze, and interpret data to reveal patterns. Spatial data (data with longitude and latitude, or other geographic coordinates) is given attribute data (any information about the spatial points such as type of grave marker, date of death, name of individual buried within), and is input into GIS. The program has a number of statistical and spatial tools that allow us to analyze the spatial patterns of the associated attributes. An example would be examining whether individuals near to one another were died in similar years. By using GIS, we can better analyze historic cemeteries to understand the importance of place in both the deceased and mourning communities.

The Mount Pleasant Cemetery is approximately an acre in size, and located off Interstate 390 and Route 20A in Livingston County, New York (Figure 1). It is one of ten cemeteries registered to the town of Geneseo, a small farming community established in 1790. The Mount Pleasant Cemetery was established in the early 1800’s by the Kelly Family, and was the first cemetery for Presbyterians in the area. The original date of origin is unknown, though newspaper clippings from the 1850’s note that it was already well established by then. From an outsider perspective, the cemetery appears to have a random organization, lacking distinct rows and coordinated orientations to cardinal directions. In order to better interpret one of the early cemeteries of this small New York community, GIS was employed.

Each grave marker was spatially located using GPS, and attribute data was taken. Stones were first given a ranking of primary through quaternary. It was immediately apparent upon collecting the data that stones fell into a number of categories based on ancestry. Most of the plots within the cemetery were small and consisted of one large grave marker with the family name, and then a number of secondary, tertiary and quaternary stones in increasing distance from the primary marker. The primary stone included the main family stone only, usually found at the center of the plot with the patriarch’s name and death date highlighted, and other family members listed below. Secondary markers were smaller and usually lacked personal names, instead noting only familial relationship to the patriarch. Tertiary and quaternary markers were often different in style, material, and contained more information such as name and death date. Style of grave marker was also noted, and included obelisk, column, mausoleum, pulpit, tablet and flush. Family name, epitaph and death date were also recorded. In total, 34 family plots and 265 grave markers were mapped and assigned attribute data on ranking, style, and dates (Figure 2).

The presence of these large family memorials and lack of personal names reveals the high importance of family. Due to this, the analysis using GIS was employed to determine whether distance to the family marker correlated to dates or relationship, and whether space within each plot had specific organization. Both nearest neighbor and Moran’s I was employed. Neither revealed any strong correlation between the rank of the stone, relationship of the person and distance to the primary family marker. Instead, the stone appear to have more random distribution within the family plot. This, however, does seem to be a common characteristic of this era and style of cemetery. As Mytum (2004:126) writes, “such memorials usually have no individual epitaphs or descriptors of any kind, and it would seem that after death all that mattered was familial association”. Other GIS studies such as Hoogendoorn 2007 found similar results, with stone organization being due to family relationship.

However, an analysis purely of style revealed that there were areas in the cemetery where specific styles of family markers were more popular than others. Further examination revealed this was related to date and shows the growth of the cemetery and change in the fashion trend. However, this correlation works for only the earliest date. The cemetery continues to be used, and families have maintained their connections with their 19th century ancestors. These newer stones, usually quaternary, have the names of the individual and their death date written on them rather than simply being noted on the family marker like the secondary or tertiary markers.

Place is important throughout our lives, and our final burial location is indicative of this importance. GIS is a powerful tool to allow us to find patterns and from these make interpretations of why communities chose to bury their loved ones in specific arrangements. It is interesting to watch this landscape change as we become more mobile, and people are less tied to their ancestral lands. It seems now that the place we find important, and one that may be our lasting memorial is more digital, such as Facebook pages for the deceased… but this is a conversation for another post.

Read the Second Post in Tech Week: “Application of Advanced Technologies in Excavation, Analysis, Consultation, and Reburial: The Alameda-Stone Cemetery in Tucson Arizona” by Michael Heilen

Works Cited

Cannon, Aubrey
2002 “Spatial Narratives of Death, Memory and Transcendence” in Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 11(1) Jan. 2002: 191-199.

Hoogendoorn, Arie, Jeffrey C. Brunskill, PhD and Sandra Kehoe-Forutan
2007 “A Study of Spatial and Temporal Anomolies Associated with the Placement of Gravestones at McHenry Cemetery in Orangeville, Pennsylvania”. Poster presented at Middle States Division of the Association of American Geographers, Pennsylvania, November 2007.

Mytum, Harold
2004 Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.

Application of Advanced Technologies in Excavation, Analysis, Consultation, and Reburial: The Alameda-Stone Cemetery in Tucson, Arizona

This post is part of Tech Week, which highlights a group of posts about specific applications of technology to archaeological investigations. This week, the focus is on Technology and Mortuary Archaeology. See the other posts in this series here.

In recent years, the technologies that have affected most how archaeologists do their work are digital and computing technologies. These technologies can greatly improve the accuracy, precision, and efficiency of archaeology as well as enhance our ability to analyze, share, and curate the data we generate. Of these tools, some of the most useful have been relational databases, geographic information systems, visualization tools, and digital mapping instruments, such as global positioning systems, total stations, and lidar.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a large, highly complex, and community-sensitive excavation project in downtown Tucson, Arizona. The project was very important to Pima County—the project sponsor—the city of Tucson, and to multiple descendant communities. The project site was the location of the long-abandoned Alameda-Stone cemetery, a cemetery used by residents of the Village of Tucson beginning in the late 1850s or early 1860s. Divided into several sections, the civilian sections were closed to further burial in 1875, while the military section was closed in 1881. The 1,800 to 2,100 people buried in the cemetery were of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, including individuals of Hispanic Catholic, Euroamerican Protestant, Jewish, Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache backgrounds, as well as military personnel.

After the cemetery was closed, a few hundred burials were moved to new cemeteries, but most were left in the ground. As Tucson urbanized and grew, buildings, streets, and utilities were built throughout the cemetery and all visible reminders of the cemetery were erased. Despite these disturbances, many of the burials remained intact when the cemetery was professionally excavated by Statistical Research, Inc. in 2006-2008.

To comply with legal requirements, including burial agreements for the cemetery excavation, all human remains and burial-associated objects within the 4.3 acre project area had to be recovered. The discovery of burials had to be reported daily and the location and status of all recovered items and materials had to be tracked throughout the duration of the project. Due to the large number of descendant groups who could claim remains from the cemetery, the cultural affinity of human remains and burial associated objects had to be established as firmly as possible using multiple lines of archival, contextual, and osteological evidence. Moreover, the project needed to be completed from beginning to end within a period of just four years. Most projects of this size are performed over a substantially longer time frame.

Figure 1. Use of a TEREX Powerscreen Mark II to recover artifacts and osteological materials from the project area overburden (image courtesy of SRI Press and Left Coast Press).

A variety of new technologies were used to accomplish these goals. Since all human remains had to be recovered, screening of the massive volume of cultural deposits, including overburden,  was necessary (Figure 1). Burial features were excavated by hand, but fragmentary remains were also present in secondary contexts in areas of the cemetery where burials had been disturbed. The recovery of these materials was accomplished using construction equipment and an automated screening machine. These tools required an operator to run and maintain, but their use greatly sped up the search effort and enabled all cultural deposits to be thoroughly screened.

To glean as much information as possible from exposed burials, burials were intensively documented in situ using photogrammetry and three-dimensional laser scanning, in addition to more traditional mapping techniques (Figure 2). Maps of burial features were then created in a geospatial laboratory using point-provenienced spatial data, orthorectified digital photos, 3-D scanning data, and analysis data. Recovered artifacts were stored and analyzed onsite and bagged using printed, bar-coded labels that allowed all recovered materials to be accurately provenienced and tracked throughout the project.

Figure 2. Illustration of the mapping process for Grave 13614, Burial 21829, an adult Euroamerican male (courtesy of SRI Press and Left Coast Press)

Excavation resulted in the intensive investigation of more than 1000 burial features and the recovery of the remains of more than 1300 individuals, making this one of the largest excavations of a historical-period cemetery conducted in the United States. Excavation also documented several prehistoric features predating the cemetery and more than 700 post-cemetery features, including building foundations, privy pits, utility trenches, and landscaping features. Use of the above technologies decreased field time considerably, making better use of field labor and allowing greater attention to be focused on analysis, reporting, and consultation efforts.

All the resulting data collected in the field and laboratory were stored in a sophisticated relational database system. The system allowed analysts to query and manipulate massive volumes of data in a flexible and consistent manner in support of diverse analyses and to differentiate remains according to cultural affinity, as required by the project burial agreement. In addition, the system provided a platform for tracking all the project materials from the moment they were discovered in the field until they were reburied or repatriated. As the project came to a close, the remains of more than 1300 individuals were repatriated or reburied. Advanced technologies continued to play a role in facilitating this stage of the project by ensuring that remains were repatriated and reburied correctly according to the wishes of descendant groups.

Of course, use of advanced technologies is not an alternative to solid, traditional research or careful project management. Much consideration and effort is needed to ensure that technologies are used appropriately and effectively. Many of the technologies implemented during the project require monetary investment to purchase or lease and, to implement them successfully, training or hiring of staff with specialized skills. Substantial computing resources are needed—including servers, networks, and software—and these have to be built, operated, and managed by skilled professionals. Archaeologists and other staff working on the project had to learn collectively how to make these technologies work together to answer research questions and fulfill project requirements. The project database and geographic information system had to be coordinated and continuously tested to make sure these systems were operating properly and analysts were working with the correct and most up-to-date data.

It was also important to ensure that the use of a technology did not take on a life of its own. Technologies are only useful insofar as they fulfill a need. Project leaders had to continually question how and whether a technology was successful in meeting a need of the project and to consider what could be done to improve performance. For a project of this size, which had as many as 70 people in the field at any one time and employed upwards of 150 people of diverse backgrounds and positions, project leaders had to manage positions as much as they managed people. People came and went over the course of the project, but the position they occupied always needed to be filled. Similarly, many computers, servers, and instruments were used over the course of the project. Some components failed or needed periodic maintenance, but the technology always had to be managed, monitored, and properly maintained.

Finally, many of the technologies used in archaeology today were not designed specifically to address archaeological problems. Substantial effort and planning can be needed to adapt technologies to archaeological needs and to develop systems and protocols for their use in an archaeological context. The unique requirements of the excavation project provided the rationale and funding for a large investment in advanced technologies, particularly those involved in mapping and database systems. Other projects could likely benefit from similar technologies but may not have the staffing or funding to invest in or manage them. What can the discipline do to foster the wider application of technology to archaeological problems and to promote broader access? Further, what are the most effective ways for archaeologists to share information on where technologies succeed, where they fail, and how they can be improved?

Read the final Tech Week piece “Mortuary Analytics on US Army Garrison, Fort Drum, NY” by Michael Sprowles

Further Reading:

Heilen, Michael P. (editor)
2012 Uncovering Identity in Mortuary Analysis: Community-Sensitive Methods for Identifying Group Affiliation in Historical-Period Cemeteries. SRI Press, Tucson, Arizona and Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.