Here in our laboratory, several of us use GIS in our work. In honor of GIS Day, here’s an introduction to some of the things we do.
In my work on historic plantation landscapes, GIS has been instrumental to mapping and visualizing the past. Digitizing and georeferencing historic maps and orthorectifying historic photographs has allowed us to identify the locations of buildings and structures which now exist only as archaeological sites. This process is instrumental to locating new sites of archaeological importance and understanding the relationships between these sites. At Wye House, we were able to superimpose a historic map and an oblique aerial photograph to suggest where to find a pair of slave quarters, which we have spent the past two field seasons excavating and plan on finishing next summer. GIS is one of the most important tools we have to help us understand how space and place were created and used in the past.
GIS is an important tool for understanding historic landscapes and the way that people experienced their environment in the past. In my research at Montpelier, President James Madison’s home in Orange County, Virginia, GIS is used for many tasks including analysis of artifact distributions, mapping of the changing landscape, and the ability of enslaved African Americans to move through a dynamic cultural landscape. GIS is also an important tool for management of the archaeological resources on the property through its ability to seamlessly link together research that has been conducted across a large area over a period of decades.
Over the past few months, I have been working with GIS to find the birthplace of Frederick Douglass. Douglass describes growing up in Talbot County in his grandmother’s cabin on a plantation in the 19th century. By tracing the elements on William H. Dilworth’s 1858 map of Talbot County, I recorded all of the features present on the historic document and could then georeference the map. This gave the historic map a correct scale and orientation. Georeferencing allowed for further analysis using contour, infrared, and LiDAR elevation data sets, which map out details of the present landscape. By combining clues found in Douglass’s autobiographies and other relevant texts with topographical data revealed in GIS, I could find the locations of structures present on the property during that time. This research will lead to a better understand historic plantations and slave life on the Eastern Shore during the 19th century.
Through his Masters in Applied Anthropology internship, one of our former students, Timothy Goddard created Preservation Search, a GIS web database, which shows the city of Annapolis and its historic past. This tool makes it easy to tie together several sources of historic spatial data including historic maps of the city, archaeological investigations, current structures, and more. It was designed for residents, archaeologists, historic preservation practitioners, historians, and anybody else interested in the city’s past.