Penn State's GIS lab helps uncover mysteries from the ancient world

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Ken Hirth, a Penn State anthropology professor, is sitting in the University’s anthropology geographic information system (GIS) lab. He clicks a button on his mouse and an aerial map of Mexico City fills the screen of the computer -- yellow dots cover the landscape in a near-perfect grid. The dots represent survey points from the 1970s, when a team of researchers plotted a grid and recorded any archaeological material they discovered -- such as pottery shards, tools and building evidence -- and its density at each point.

“It was such an incredible way to gather information. They recorded data for 250,000 points on the grid,” Hirth says. “But it was just too much information to study; it wasn’t feasible at the time. Now we can upload it using GIS technology and finally put it to good use.”

Essentially, GIS technology lets anthropologists and archaeologists make sophisticated and highly detailed maps, although a term as seemingly antiquated as "map" doesn’t quite do the software justice. Researchers can compile data regarding known artifact sites and landmarks, overlay new maps with old ones to compare, and zoom in or out to change the scope of what they’re studying.

Carrie Hritz, an assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State, is particularly invested in the lab. Hritz teaches several courses, including two dedicated entirely to geospatial technologies, and she also helped upgrade and reconfigure the lab when she came to the University in 2008.

When Hritz began her research on settlement patterns in ancient Mesopotamia (focusing mainly on modern-day Iraq) in 1998, political unrest in the country made a visit abroad impossible. Instead, she turned to online data sets and GIS to do her research until she was finally able to visit the country in 2010.

“Anthropologists have been using GIS for a while, but the way we use it is constantly evolving,” Hritz says. “It allows us to look at research sites from a different perspective and to increase the scope of our research. For example, before GIS, it was difficult to look at the entire topography of Iraq. But now we can.”

Originally, researchers used GIS for very simple tasks: recording site locations and coordinates much like they would on a normal map. But Reed Goodman, a Penn State anthropology graduate student working alongside Hritz, says they’ve evolved to using it for more statistical and analytical methods.

“Now it’s geared more toward asking specific questions,” Goodman says. “For example, how certain sites relate to drainage areas, or how societies experienced transportation -- wherever the researcher’s interest lies.”

Back in the lab, Hirth clicks his mouse again, and a jagged blue outline pops up on the map.

“This is where a lake used to be,” he explains, tracing the outline with his finger. “We can place the outline over a map of known dig sites and get a better understanding of our findings there. Or, we can lay the map of sites over an aerial view of the city today to look at where construction workers may run into artifacts.”

Hirth’s team on the Basin of Mexico project is ultimately using GIS to organize and process information -- so much information, in fact, that for years researchers couldn’t properly sort through it all. But GIS can.

With GIS and other geospatial technologies making it easier than ever to study exotic and faraway lands, some may think visiting a site in person is outdated. Not so, says Hritz.

“There’s always going to be a need to travel to the sites you’re studying. Absolutely,” she says. “Going to Iraq for the first time, after many years of studying the data and using GIS, took everything to the next level.”

Hritz points out that while new technologies can make it easier to gather and organize data, it’s important not to rely on them 100 percent.

Take the “discovery” of Cuidad Blanca, also known as the "White City," an ancient settlement rumored to be filled with gold. Shrouded in myth and lore, explorers have been searching for the settlement since the 1500s, and in 2012 an archaeologist claimed to have found its ruins by using a laser to measure the topography beneath the tree cover.

While many experts consider the find promising, nothing can be confirmed without physically visiting the densely overgrown site.

Goodman chimes in, saying that while he values what he’s learned via geospatial technologies, his trip to Iraq in the summer of 2013 was unlike anything he’d ever experienced.

“It was incredible,” he says. “Iraq has a problem with high levels of salt in the soil, and when it rains, the salt rises and makes it hard to grow crops. We visited after torrential rains, and seeing the effect was entirely different from just understanding it on a mental level. The salt forms a crust on the soil — it looked like frosting.”

So while GIS is proving to be an invaluable resource in propelling research both old and new, there will always be a need for scientists to travel into the field, meticulously uncovering shards of history from societies past.

Many faculty members and students are contributing to the Basin of Mexico project, including Hirth, Greg Luna, and Larry Gorenflo.

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Last Updated March 31, 2014