GIS for history

(written by Intro to GIS student, B. Y.)

As a history major I was interested in finding practical applications of geographic information systems (GIS) in any field of history. Although we discuss possible applications of DEMs (digital elevation models) for Art History in class–it was about the Parthenon–I actually found a lot of interesting information and possibilities in archeology. In digging a bit further, it’s interesting that this topic is being widely debated and discussed. I even found a few monographs on the subject.

Within archaeology, the topic is known as GeoArcheology (which is actually more geological study of Archeology, but it involves spatial data management). ESRI actually has a page in its industry section for archeology. ESRI indicates five different possible applications for GIS in archeology: modeling, museums and public education, data management, research, and surveying and excavation. What is interesting about GIS’s application in many industries, but especially for me, is how interdisciplinary it can be. However, in a well established, and in many ways a very old field people may be resistant to the use of technology (think of my parents and computers and the Internet). When researching archeology and GIS you see that many people have acknowledged the boundless possibilities of this kind of union.

I’ve found out what some archeologists have had to say on the topic. According to Wikipedia (not always the best source), many archeologists were early adopters of GIS, many as early as ten years ago [earlier than that–Sieber]. Professor Mark Aldenderfer agrees that the field of archeology has been using GIS and even remote sensing for some time now, but these days the prospects are becoming more exciting due to innovations in the technology. What is most interesting in the article, which was a Q&A with Prof. Aldenderfer (the director of the office of information technology for the department of anthropology at the University of California- Santa Barbara) was the difficulties encountered by archaeologists with GIS. There are two basic kinds of problems: (1) data quality and accuracy, and (2) lack of training, support and infrastructure. Although GIS is becoming more popular in the field, Prof. Aldenderfer points out that there are still very few archaeologists who are GIS experts.

There are however, still many incredible things being done in association with archeology. A few examples illustrate this. One of the most interesting was about the mapping of mausoleums in China from the Tang Dynasty. These mausoleums cover up to 15 kilometers2, but there is not much left of them today except some unrecognizable mounds and a few very large statutes over an area of 5000 km2. Another interesting example is a way GIS supplemented data that was collected by W.E.B. Dubois in the 1890s. He went door to door collecting data for a book he wrote called The Philadelphia Negro. Nearly 100 years later it was reprinted, and the topic was reopened. A GIS analysis of the data was included and unveiled new questions and a potentially deeper analysis of a neighborhood that basically no longer exists (or at least as it was in 1896). These two examples are only a modicum of the information and the actual work going on in the field with GIS and archeology.

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