GPS, GIS and Archaeology:
The Beginning of a Beautiful, and Sometimes Complicated, Relationship
In the Mapping of the Nevada City Cemetery in Madison County Montana
By John W. Olson
I remember using MapQuest in Seattle with a friend to locate her new apartment. We entered the address on my desktop computer, arranged the view so that the printed destination area was enlarged thus enabling us to navigate the new terrain with relative ease. At least that was the theory. In reality, since widespread public access to GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation was fairly new, there were a few glitches that needed to be ironed out. In our case the map said there was a road that was supposed to go from close to the I-5 exit leading directly past the apartment. Unfortunately, or fortunately rather, there was no road going up the incline which I imagine was around 40-50% slope. We ended up ignoring the map and traveled a little ways around the hill to reach the other side, which had actual roads at decent slopes leading to our destination.
A few years later I was moving back to Montana from Fort Lauderdale, Florida (and yes, it was a long trip from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale and Fort Lauderdale to Cut Bank, Montana) and I had a PDA (Personal Data Assistant for those in the current generation that have never known a time without smartphones) that had a small plug-in GPS unit. This was 2005 and I was totally clueless as to why the unit didn’t work very well and why I kept losing the signal. Since those two incidents, technology has changed dramatically as has the knowledge (including mine) behind the technology.
GPS, as many people are aware, basically allows users to determine where they are located on planet Earth as well as provide the geophysical location of 3D objects such as houses, golf courses, and even the precise, and secret, location of your huckleberry patches way up in the boonies. Of course, knowing where something is and having a constantly updating GPS map in order to arrive at your destination is an amazing convenience. However, even at the dawn of the field, people began realizing there was considerable potential in knowing the geophysical location of objects and gathering pertinent data in relation to those locations. GIS had been born.
GIS is an acronym for Geographic Information System, or as my GIS instructor espouses, Geographic Information Science. I agree with my instructor in that “science” more aptly defines the enormous amount of technologies, concepts, and advances that have been utilized by almost every discipline. The targeting of the physical locations of university students and city residents who are sports fans can be used in determining the future location of a sports bar. GPS and GIS can also be utilized in creating avalanche predictions in the Bridger Bowl ski area based on average snowfalls, slopes, and the types of snow. On campus, for many years the semester project for GPS students has included gathering data in new subdivisions. This data includes locating the positions of fire hydrants, doors to apartment or condo locations and their numbers, sidewalks and other important geophysical information. This data is then incorporated in the city and county Emergency Services database to aid in response times for the police and firefighters.
In archaeology, GPS and GIS can be used to graphically display where artifacts, ecofacts, midden positions, building, etc. are located is space and through time via relative and absolute dating of materials. This process can sometimes result in discovering new patterns or help to visually enrich current knowledge. This enrichment is very evident when we consider using GPS and GIS with mapping cemeteries.
In the next few weeks, this Thursday blog will explore the immense usability and versatility of GPS and GIS in regards to the Nevada City Cemetery Project that The Extreme History Project is heading up. I want to share with everyone how we are working on telling the story of the people buried in the Nevada City Cemetery. As an added bonus, I will also be telling you the story of the people who are telling the story of the people in the Nevada City Cemetery and how GPS and GIS has altered our methodology and expanded what archaeology can offer to everyone.
Until next week…Rock on! (Archaeology pun)
John W. Olson