Mortuary Analytics on US Army Garrison, Fort Drum, NY

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.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of cemeteries can be found on numerous military bases across the county. Many date back to early towns and villages and hold the graves of early settlers and later, military personnel. The 13 historic cemeteries (2,100 markers) of US Army Garrison Fort Drum, New York are no different. (Fort Drum is located just east of Lake Ontario, and is the 107,000+ acre home of the US Army’s most deployed Division, the 10th Mountain Light Infantry.) Through the Directorate of Public Works (DPW), the Army works to maintain these cemeteries and to minimize military impact to these sites. Although on Fort Drum these responsibilities are carried out by the Cultural Resources Program (CRP) of DPW – Environmental Division, the process of stewardship can and does differ widely from one post to another.

Figure 1: Sheepfold cemetery, looking southwest.

Most recently, Fort Drum has acquired an intern (the author), through Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), to inventory and “digitize” these historic cemeteries, while applying non-invasive geophysical investigative techniques. The premise for project was conceived by E.W. Duane Quates PhD, as a means for identifying sets of attributes associated with known African-American burials, which could also be applied to suspected unmarked burials, as a means of identification.

The primary goal of this endeavor was to create a geo-referenced database. Aside from a means of ethnic identification, this database would allow for more effective resource management, and grant the public ease of access to cemetery information. This information is currently available on The Fort Drum website as searchable SharePoint listings, and being developed into a fully interactive platform by Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Management on Military Lands (CEMML).  A result of this dual-purposed database was also a large, easily manipulated, data pool which can be made available to outside researchers. The secondary goal of this endeavor was to use geophysics to investigate the possibility of unmarked burials inside of the cemeteries and outside of their boundaries. To illustrate the results of this project, results from Fort Drum’s Sheepfold Cemetery can be seen below.

Sheepfold cemetery (Figure 1) was part of the 200 acres owned by French aristocrat, James LeRay in the early 19th century. Originally this area is where he kept his sheep, his sheepfold. The cemetery contains 292 known burials (391 markers); the earliest known burial was in 1821, and the most recent burial was in 1996. As part of the (ORISE) project, the markers in Sheepfold cemetery were geo-referenced and recorded into a database. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) was also used to explore a large unmarked section of the cemetery which had been flanked by marked interments, including a known slave-turned-servant (Rachel) of the LeRay family. The results of this survey was compared against a control survey from a nearby area, which contained some of the oldest and most contemporary markers to those surrounding the open and unmarked survey area. As Figure 2 illustrates, the large, open, and unmarked area contains several anomalies which resemble the control of the smaller area in length, width, and depth, and are similarly oriented to the known interments of the cemetery (southwest to northeast).

Figure 2: Sheepfold Cemetery GPR survey results. Note: 6.56 feet below the surface, 3.28 feet thick slices.
(Image courtesy of the author)

The database offers tremendous opportunities for analysis, but required preparation. To maximize database versatility, many different attributes were selected, defined, and assigned their own field. Relying partially on the University of Pennsylvania’s Historic Cemetery Plot and Marker Survey Form, over 90 different, quantifiable attributes (such as: birth year, death month, gender, age, last name, associated individuals, orientation of individual, marker type, marker height, other associated markers, grade slope, marker exposure, marker material, evident repairs, biogrowth condition, staining, cracking, foundation exposure, erosion level) were selected, with some attributes (i.e., name, death date) employed into both tables.  Surveyors used multi-directional lighting and shading to decipher the wording carved on the older, and more difficult to read, markers. At least two high-resolution photos (with optimum lighting) were taken of each marker to exhibit as many design features as possible (figures 3 and 4). Each marker was also geo-referenced using high resolution aerial photography, and aided by ground measurements. The data from the field was then added to the database in two separate (but linked) tables, one for public outreach and one for resource management.

Figure 3: An example of the detail revealed by using optimum environmental lighting conditions to cast shadows into the previously invisible decorative motifs.

Figure 4: An example of difficult-to-decipher personal information revealed on a weathered marker, using optimum environmental lighting conditions.

Once populated, the database allows for each attribute to be referenced and cross-referenced in a nearly infinite number of ways. Figure 5 offers an example of cross-referencing individuals’ information to examine demographics. Here, average age of death is cross referenced with decade of death and with gender, displaying the average life span of each gender for each decade, as seen in Sheepfold cemetery.  The database can also be used to analyze the markers themselves, via the resource management table.  For instance, cross examining the different marker materials on the basis of their total condition to see which materials weather the best.  In Sheepfold cemetery, ordered from best preservation to worst preservation is:  zinc, granite, ferrous, marble, concrete, and limestone.

Figure 5: Sheepfold Cemetery average age of death by decade and gender. Note: does not include infants (presumed, unnamed), does include vets, each entry is represented by roughly three individuals.
(Image courtesy of the author)

When tied to the geophysical information systems, each marker or individually-related attribute in the database can also be examined in terms of its spatial meaning.  For instance, each marker can now be viewed in terms of when it was placed (earliest death year), and how the individual choosing the plot viewed the other markers and the surrounding landscape. Figure 6 illustrates the result of such an analysis, in Sheepfold cemetery. The burials started in the eastern portion of the cemetery and spread out closer to the road.  It also appears that after the interment of Rachel, a slave-turned- servant of the French aristocratic LeRay family (the northeastern most burial), the interments started to move away from her location more intensively and towards the southwest (until roughly a generation later).

Figure 6: Sheepfold Cemetery Interment Year Distribution (Image courtesy of Mrs. Jaime Marhevsky, Fort Drum DPW-ENV)

In conclusion, Fort Drum has utilized a variety of tools to enhance the management of and public interaction with the 13 historic cemeteries within its borders. The GPR survey offered insights into a previously speculative area, displaying similar anomaly attributes to the known burials. By properly identifying and defining marker attributes, an incredibly powerful tool has been developed for public information, resource management, and subsequent outside research. By geo-referencing the entries, the versatility of this database increases exponentially, allowing for spatial attribute comparisons and easy element location. It is important to remember that these principles may also be applied to other resources, allowing for more efficient management, public information, and data dissemination. Fort Drum’s Cultural Resource Management Program has made huge strides in its cemetery relations and management, continuing to innovate and share this sort of information through its public outreach program, which includes Facebook and Twitter accounts.

What are some applications and benefits of creating geo-referenced databases for other types of sites? (any specific examples?) At what point in the process does the dissemination of information (to the general public and possible researchers) come into play when designing and performing cultural resource management archaeology? (and why so?) What are the benefits and drawbacks of digitizing cultural resources as a means of compliance with the various historic preservation laws?

Read the other contributions for Tech Week, starting with “Understanding Cemeteries through Technical Applications: An example from Fort Drum, NY” by Duane Quates

Tech Week: Underwater and Public Archaeology

Hello SHA blog readers and welcome to a third installment of Tech Week ! This week the SHA Technology Committee is thrilled to focus on underwater archaeology. But not just any underwater archaeology – this week’s bloggers are all concentrating on ways to engage the public through technology. Using technology to interact with the public is a particular concern for underwater archaeologists because the sites we study are generally inaccessible to all but the roughly 1% of Americans who SCUBA dive (the percentage is even lower in many other nations); however, we think this is a topic that should be of interest to all historical archaeologists. The public funds archaeology, the public loves archaeology, but the public does not always understand archaeology. New technologies are making it easier to better explain what we do and why it matters, and this week’s bloggers offer some excellent ideas on how to make the promise of technology a reality.

The week begins with a piece by T. Kurt Knoerl on using the internet to make connections to the ‘global shipwreck.’ As the founder and Chairman of the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, the premier online exhibit space for underwater archaeological projects, Kurt knows what he’s talking about. He argues that the internet should be used to actively engage the public and other archaeologists in collaborative projects.

The second post is by Kimberly Faulk (Geoscience Earth and Marine Services) and Daniel Warren (C & C Technologies), two leaders in the field of deep-water archaeology. Their blog discusses the recent Okeanos Explorer cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. While the technology involved in exploring shipwrecks thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface is amazing, their contribution focuses on something more important: making archaeology real to anyone with an internet connection. Their post not only discusses how technology can create a world of citizen scientists but also how technology can enrich the archaeologist.

Tech Week’s third blogger, Peter Fix, is an archaeological conservator with the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation  and is heading-up the conservation of the 17th century ship La Belle. Peter’s contribution breaks from the internet driven approach of the first two pieces and discusses the technology behind conserving an entire shipwreck so that it can be viewed up-close and personal in a museum.

Finally, rounding out our week and continuing the theme of active public involvement through technology Annalies Corbin and Sheli O. Smith of the PAST Foundation echo the call for active public participation in archaeology. The PAST Foundation uses anthropology to teach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), putting Annalies and Sheli on the frontline of public engagement. Their contribution, which looks to the future, is a fitting way to end this Tech Week.

Sharing the Global Shipwreck

At least two or three times a year I get an email or a phone call from television production companies that are thinking about putting TV shows together that feature underwater archaeology.  My first reaction is usually positive because in an age where there are numerous shows about digging for gold or finding treasure in abandoned storage rooms or attics it would be good to have ethical archaeology alternatives out there for the public to view.  Inevitably though the majority of folks that contact me ask questions like, “Can you guarantee we’ll find a very historically significant unknown shipwreck within the next three weeks?” or  “what do you think about a show where each week we throw out one of the graduate student underwater archaeologists, you know get some real tension going? ”  (Actually, some of my old professors might have liked that one.)  I usually reply with something like, “um…it doesn’t really work that way.”  Most times I don’t hear from them again for another year but it does remind me that for the mass TV audience these are the folks that drive many of the shows we see out there.  There have been some very good programs produced in the last few years but sadly they are few and far between.   One major reason is the cost of producing programs for television broadcast.  Most of us have turned to the Internet instead to assist us with the all important task of public outreach.

It’s really only been less than ten years that underwater archaeology as a field has made wide use of the Internet.  Within that time period, however, numerous sites have popped up through university department homepages, museums, and nonprofit organizations.   There are online project journals, personal research blogs, exhibits, digital posters, videos, live broadcasts and ubiquitous Facebook pages.  One might wonder if we have reached the limits of what we can do on the web.  An Internet industry trend website estimated that as of August 2011 there were over one billion websites on the web.  It’s reasonable to wonder if throwing up yet another website is like adding a bucket of water to the cyber ocean. To which I would reply… maybe.  What is a digitally minded underwater archaeologist to do?   I say “maybe” because it depends on how we go about putting our materials online.   Going forward I believe we need to look to the past.

In November 2011 I had the good fortune to present a paper at the first ever Asia-Pacific  Underwater Cultural Heritage Conference in Manila, the Philippines.  Even as a Great Lakes colonial maritime historian and underwater archaeologist I felt I shared research interests with this incredible collection of cultural heritage mangagers from throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  Their homelands had developed the cultures that contributed to a landscape of maritime trade that reached all the way into the eighteenth century Great Lakes with shipments of porcelains, vermillion, teas and opiates. In my talk I noted that the wrecked ships that once participated in that world wide trade network travel again virtually over a digital network.  They still link cultures that live beyond the water’s edge at each end of the voyage.  The Chinese porcelain artisan who shipped his goods to the coast was connected to the British officer at Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario in North America even though they would never meet or travel to each other’s home.  Today students in Western Australia read about ships that wrecked off St. Augustine, Florida and Japanese museum staff email graduate students in eastern North Carolina to exchange information.  Because the vessels continue to draw people together albeit for educational rather than commercial reasons, every shipwreck becomes a global shipwreck.

By continuing to look at past trade networks we can find ways to overcome the isolation our websites might experience out in the cyber ocean. For instance, at times historic vessels participated in cooperative agreements and collaborative projects with other members of the merchant community. Some ship owners pooled their risk through marine insurance companies.  Underwater archaeologists working on different sites could consider leveraging the connections that exist between their projects online to increase visibility.  While collaborative agreements might sound like an obvious way to offset the high costs of online presentations, it is not an option that necessarily comes to mind for some archaeologists.  Indeed a small survey conducted by the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (MUA) showed that when asked what the best use of the Internet might be for the field, only thirteen percent of underwater archaeologists cited “collaboration” as opposed to the general public who mentioned it forty percent of the time. While many archaeologists are open to sharing their databases online, and that is a good first step, much more can be done to move from passive to active collaborative projects.  One example might be to create joint pages between multiple independent organizations that are topically linked.  For instance the MUA is working on a project wherein information on and images of birchbark canoes stored in numerous museums around the Great Lakes will be featured in an online exhibit.  It will draw attention to all of the participating institutions and show how they are all connected and possibly encourage the public to visit and support the actual sites themselves.

In the future the most cost effective way to increase visibility online and thus assist with public outreach efforts in underwater archaeology might not involve any “new” technology at all but rather explore new ways to use what already exists.  The key is to share as much information with the public and each other as possible using tools that are available today.  One of the earliest pioneers in digital humanities was the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  Founded in 1994 the Rosenzweig Center has not only gathered collections of archival material for researchers to view online but has also created tools for data presentation that are freely available.  The Asia-Pacific Underwater Cultural Heritage Conference, in partnership with the MUA, used the Omeka web presentation tool developed by the Rosenzweig Center to make every paper presented at the conference freely available online.  This was an important goal for the conference organizers as many of the attendees came from countries with limited resources.  If we want to differentiate what we do from treasure hunters in the public’s eye then, when we have the means, we need to develop presentation and outreach models that clearly set us apart as a field, make the most of limited resources, and reach the widest possible audience.

We are living in the midst of a data exchange revolution.  I take it as a good sign that the TV producers I mentioned earlier can find underwater archaeologists to talk to far easier than they probably could have in the past.  So many good projects are now available online, which is a great trend, but as we add our webpages to the cyber ocean we must not let them get lost at sea.   Technologies old and new can help us build collaborative connections that can teach everyone about the global shipwreck.

See all the posts for Tech Week, focusing on public archaeology and Underwater Archaeology!