An archaeologist’s take on Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

By Meghan McGrath

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Rebecca Nathan is a fifth-year doctoral student in Archaeology, whose research combines technology with ethnography in fascinating ways. She hopes to use her knowledge of spatial data technology to support the management of public sites. “I want to work on the plains and do predictive modeling,” she says. “My dream job is to be an archaeologist with the National Park Service. I’m really passionate about managing the resources we have, and predictive modeling is such a powerful tool for people who are administering at heritage places.”

Nathan's interest in the plains began through her work with her advisor, Dr. Laura Scheiber, at the Exploring Historical and Social Landscapes of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem archaeological field school run through the IU Anthropology Department. For her dissertation, Nathan will create a predictive model for the Crow Nation in Montana. Working with the tribal historic preservation officer and tribal archaeologist, Nathan hopes to collect data about sites that were important to the once-migratory community. A journal entry, for example, might describe a childhood campground with recognizable topographic features, which then could be mapped using GIS technology. Eventually, an overall picture of the group’s movement across the plains would emerge.

“There’s a ton of literature about the Crow in the 19th and 20th centuries—the places they were, and the things that were important to them about the landscape,” says Nathan. “It’s a very dramatic, powerful landscape. I feel that when I’m there, and if you look at the ethnographic literature, the Crow feel it too. They have a very strong connection to this place. I’m hoping to extract pieces of that and apply it to an archaeological predictive model.”

By mapping evidence of former Crow villages, archaeologists and land managers can better predict which tracts of land will contain archaeological elements that should be protected. This practice also lowers the risk of disturbing sites that aren’t as likely to hold cultural significance. “Archaeology can be a very destructive practice,” Nathan explains. “When you’re excavating, you’re basically destroying the original context of the site you’re working on. It’s also very expensive. I like the idea of predictive modelling, because you can use a computer model to tell you where to spend your time and your money, in a way that allows you to not damage archaeological resources as intensively as traditional archaeological excavation methods.”

While its potential impact for heritage site management is substantial, Nathan believes this technology can be accessible to anyone interested in learning it. “The thing about GIS is that it’s secretly really easy—you just have to know how to use the software and where to get the data. What I love most is sharing that knowledge with people,” she says. “It’s part of the IU culture. We have so many resources here that it’s almost overwhelming. As soon as I learn something, I want to let people know so they don’t have to go around, like I did, not knowing it.”

Ultimately, she hopes her work will further understanding about the archaeology and history of the plains. “It seems like there’s so little people understand about prehistoric cultures in North America, so the more you can share that information and make it public, the better,” she says. “I love that the Crow are so interested in their history and archaeology. It’s a very unique opportunity to work so closely with a Native American group that is enthusiastic about the work I’m doing and encouraging me to pursue it.”

Learn more about the research done by Rebecca and her colleagues at the American Indian Studies Research Institute website.